The transformative effects of the world-wide-web and the digital revolution are everywhere. Lives of citizens have been revolutionised as access to the web has completely altered how people connect and communicate with each other. The information technology revolution continues to challenge traditional ways in which human beings trade, communicate, organise, investigate, learn, and how they project themselves. The current political landscape is characterized by at least two interesting developments: political problems such as those surrounding the economy and environment are becoming more transnational, and citizens now have a capability to operate on their own terms rather than as members of traditional hierarchical interest and advocacy organizations.

digital revolution

Against this fast-moving and ever-changing background, in February 2016, the House of Lords agreed to continue the ancient practice of storing all British laws on vellum. Politics and politicians deserve what the digital revolution is doing to them: Western political systems have hardly changed in generations and are ripe for disruption. Cash for questions, expenses scandals, endemic corruption are all expected consequences of power: but enforced austerity by unelected technocrats, international migration crises, and lost opportunities for generations of young people demonstrate that political systems’ behaviours whose roots are nineteenth-century are incapable of identifying, let alone implementing solutions for our age. Narrow self-serving and self perpetuating elites who, in partnership with conventional media, have been peddling their self-interested version of reality now rage against the digital machine.

Some of this is easily explained. Whilst the pace of government is cumbersome and slow, technology is fast-moving and dynamic, making politics seem tired and dull. Political thinking is lame by comparison with the big ideas coming out of the information technology industry. Advances in software have thrown up fresh ways to think about what it means to own something, to share something, to be a citizen, to have a private life, and how to self-identify. These are among the most important questions of modern politics. However, they rarely get expressed by politicians or conventional political parties.

Whilst politicians wrestle with how to “manage” digitization, it continues to produce huge benefits in many parts of the world. In Nigeria phone-based banking for the first time permits money transfers without the physical exchange of cash, massively enhancing wealth-generating possibilities. In China, a billion phone users now pose an existential treat to the monolithic communist power structure. The Arab Spring, Tahir Square, and the Occupy movement: all were driven forward by a new generation of activists exploiting social media. Watch migrants unload in Lampedusa: a few possessions and a phone. Less propitiously, emergent terrorist organisations such as ISIS have understood from their outset that the power and influence of the web – the development of a digital caliphate – is key to dissemination of their violent message and the recruitment of adherents. In some cases, these changes are occurring either despite government opposition or because of bad government; more generally though governments seem not even relevant or incidental to these changes. They are simply encircled by them.

Governments have not though ignored the digital revolution. They have utilised the techniques of e-commerce and big business for their own narrow purposes, spending heavily on algorithm-based data mining to target election campaigning and political advertising with the aim of securing and retaining power. Ironically, of course, as the focus of politicians becomes ever more targeted on the key swing voters, districts, and constituencies, then the greater the distance between politicians and the people becomes, and the more people turn on to digital. Politicians have also been busy, as Snowden revealed, regularizing the mass surveillance of its citizens: listening-in but not listening to. And they have, thirdly, simply blamed and ridiculed digital communities, caricaturing them as short attention span clickbait zealots; populists who don’t understand the complexity of achieving change in a pluralistic system.

Conversely, the digital revolution in politics is another healthy sign that ordinary citizens haven’t given up on politics. In some respects, digital activity has been translated into a proliferation of political activity both within and beyond the traditional outlets. Particularly in countries with more plural systems, the internet has been influential in promoting emergent parties. The German Pirate party and Italy’s Five Star Party make good use of digital technology to manage their message (as ever, the medium is the message).

Nevertheless, it is certainly true that as the membership of mainstream political parties has fallen away and voter turnout has declined across the western world, irregular political campaigning has expanded. Concerned individuals often coalesce around issues that reflect their own interests. The new information technology has been an enormous help in this regard, enabling ad hoc pressure groups to form and allowing like-minded individuals to find each other and share their concerns. But this too creates an imbalance between the political class and the rest. Professional politics is becoming more concentrated – witness the emergence of the modern political dynasties – at the same time citizen politics is becoming more fragmented.

But it needn’t be like this. Democracy functions best when citizens get good information about what their government is doing. Widespread transparency makes citizens better and more active participants and makes politicians more accountable. Democracy, at least in its ideal form, promotes equality of power. Democracy promotes debate. Democracy can bring together individuals with high diverse viewpoints. Debate and deliberation forces people to improve and strengthen their arguments. It is axiomatic to me that many of the major problems facing governments today are complex and multi-faceted, requiring negotiation, compromise, but also clarity about goals. Bringing people together is what the internet does: democracy is the function of harmonising discrepancy, of managing disagreement, and of legitimising leadership and authorising progress. Here are four proposals to unlock the full potential of democracy as a collective decision-making institution in the age of the Internet.

Firstly, the role of technology companies can and should change, but this requires leadership from within. Facebook’s community is larger than many countries, and the magnates running such companies have the power to change them for the better. Do they have the will though? Mark Zuckerberg’s new year message hinted at insight into his personal disconnect from reality. He should take responsibility for the content of what Facebook circulates, and see himself as a leader not a tech geek. Most important, Facebook should not allow such stories to be presented as news, much less spread. If they take advertising revenue for promoting political misinformation, they should face the same regulatory punishments that a broadcaster would face for doing such a public disservice.

Secondly, there is a role every user of digital technology can play. The internet has made us less trusting of our own judgements (and those of experts) and more deferential to the wisdom of crowds. A rebalancing is needed in the way we calibrate our understanding: sure experts get it wrong; but so do mass hysteria crowds. The solipsistic echo chamber that is Twitter and Facebook thrives on selective affinity: “I like you because you agree with me”. Perhaps an individual, helpful response is to be more Socratean, welcoming what we do not know or understand, happy to acknowledge our limitations, but eager to learn.

Thirdly, collectively, we need to recognise that social media is here to stay but that it can also be a huge positive. Social media can shine the light of transparency on the workings of a Trump. Was Hillary Clinton really replaced by an alien in the final weeks of the 2016 campaign? We all need to be able to see who wrote this story, whether it is true, and how it was spread. Rather than seeing social media solely as the means by which Trump ensnared his presidential goal, we should appreciate how they can provide a wealth of valuable data to understand the anger and despair that the polls missed, and to analyse political behaviour in the times ahead. Valuable democratic opportunities are created on social media when people use them to talk to politicians and civil servants, and to each other. Social media radically reduce the cost and difficulty of people organising themselves, forming ‘communities of interest’ united by a shared concern, whether a common complaint about a local NHS service, opposition to a local planning application, or a suggestion for a traffic calming measure.

Finally, and lastly, there is the issue of what government can do. There are emerging expectations for MPs to listen to and engage with people on these channels. Politicians need to use social media to learn more about the needs and views of their constituents, and as a gateway to more sustained contact with their constituents.

Like all successful politics it starts at the local level: social media users are more likely to contact their local politicians – a local councillor or constituency MP – than national politicians. The public debate is on social media and Parliament should catch up. Listening to these gives an opportunity to bridge national institutions with street-level social reality, fashioning new instruments in gathering and understanding social attitudes on politics and policy. Therefore, every parliamentary debate should have a social media element to allow the public to offer their views and opinions for the benefit of the participants. Numerous social media platforms support the streaming of live video, allowing viewers to tune in and comment on debates in real time.

Government can also help prepare the digital users of tomorrow for a world in which facts are contested more than ever. As Peter Hyman wrote recently: “In a world of “alternative facts”, how can we give young people the skills to shine a spotlight on the truth?” We need education to promote questioning, critical thinking and critical analysis of evidence and the news as a defence against the worst excesses of the internet.

In conclusion, a health warning about our fascination with digital: we’ve been here before. The death of democracy was widely predicted with the advent of mass-circulation newspapers and then again with the broadcasting of Parliament. And, of course, not everyone shares that fascination with digital. The explosion of new digital practices has occurred within a social context where many are excluded or unwilling to participate in such practices. Not everyone uses social media – including some of the poorest and most vulnerable in society. Political change is a hard grind, requiring face-to-face contact, and development of political and community relationships over years, not seconds. Technology is not a panacea for the problems democracy faces.

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2 Comments

  1. Fascinating and well argued points. I agree, those who are Chief Execs of social media companies should step up as thought leaders. Government should allow for live comments while parliament is sitting. We could also ask for Trust metings to be more accessible too, with live feedback. Thank you for such a thought rovoking read.

    1. Adrian Mercer says:

      Thanks for the positive response. Written a shorter version as my inaugural blog on: crookedtree21.blogspot.co.uk
      Thanks, Adrian

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