Can technology improve democratic participation?

Can technology improve democratic participation?

The below excerpt from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address has long been held as the hallmark of a functioning democracy, not only in its place of origin, the United States, but across the world.

“of the people, for the people, by the people

And while democracy has seen some fascinating, uplifting and terrifying twists and turns in the 152 years since Lincoln uttered those famous lines, until now nothing has had the power to transform it like emerging technologies.

The increasing ubiquity of technology means that it is inherently democratic. Anybody who has a device in their pocket has a platform to express their views.

 Social media is a powerful tool, and not just for politicians and advocacy groups. It has provided a way for people to communicate their views quickly and publicly, and has afforded disparate members of the community a space to rally – in the case of the Arab Spring it was even the vehicle for revolution.

However, it is only now that we are seeing how vital technology is, not only as a means for members to speak to their constituents, but as a way for the people to engage more deeply with the process as well; to make up their own mind about issues and to have those thoughts heard.

The Electoral Race

A good politician is a clear and stimulating communicator. You can’t rouse the masses to your cause if your message is mumbled and incoherent. Back in the day this meant that a politician had to be a good performer, a charismatic orator, and the master of dealing with the slippery question from journalist or opponent.

Dealings with the masses often meant a controlled meet and greet, kissing babies, posing for photos and delivering speeches to a rapt party audience.

A politician must still be a consummate communicator in the traditional ways, but social media has made the process a lot less one-sided. Now, if you are considering running for office, you must be able to harness social media platforms, because the connection you create is intimate, immediate and powerful.

President Obama was one of the first politicians to really understand the sway that these mediums could have, particularly with traditional non-voting groups, young voters and minorities. He hosted an Ask me Anything (AMA) on Reddit in the lead-up to the 2012 election targeted at the above groups. This was significant for many reasons, as the BuzzFeed article, How Obama Won the Internet states:

“This was a day of political-campaign and Internet firsts, the sitting president subjecting himself to a free-for-all question-and-answer session with a hardcore community of pot-smoking freedom junkies who hated drones and loved porn and had a keen interest in politics and the future. It was chaotically democratic, and something of a gamble.”

The gamble paid off. Not only was the AMA one of the most viewed in Reddit’s history, but 30,000 people registered to vote the same day.

The 2012 election was characterised by record numbers of African-American, Hispanic and Younger voters coming out to vote, clinching the presidency for Obama.

Instead of an untouchable patrician figure, he came across as authentic, engaged and accessible; he wasn’t just another politician, he was someone who understood the demands and pressures of the modern age.

A key theme from the above example is engagement. Obama tackled the disenfranchisement that many people feel about the political process, by using a site that many people of diverse backgrounds loved.

Social media as a whole offers many opportunities for interaction directly with officials, and provides feedback whether governments want it or not, but the medium itself can have an enormous impact on voting.

The Vote

In 2010, Facebook put up a simple ‘vote’ message for the Congressional midterms that reached 60 million voters. They also offered Facebookers the chance to create an ‘I voted’ message as well as directing people WHERE? to vote. The results were significant:

“The data suggests that the Facebook social message increased turnout directly by about 60,000 voters and indirectly through social contagion by another 280,000 voters, for a total of 340,000 additional votes.”

What this suggests is that we are much more likely to be influenced by people we know, rather than an organisation. The “stronger the tie”  the more influence this person may have over the prospective voter.

In Australia which has compulsory voting, this isn’t an issue in the same way it is for our American counterparts, but the problems of engagement in the process can be just as difficult and as disenfranchising.

Voting itself for many can be a stressful experience. The various processes of sifting through candidates, keeping abreast of the issues, deciphering the messages from various political groups, and even remembering to vote can result in feelings of resentment and confusion.

An interesting alternative that is being talked about is voting online. As attractive as it is for electors to vote somewhere that has a sausage sizzle or bake sale, the convenience, ease and lack of expense for the public purse of online voting is certainly compelling.

While there are issues with the idea, especially fears about security, there is already an option for online voting in Australia and more countries are looking at ways in which online voting could work.

Another interesting development, is a program called The Voting Information Project (VIP) which involves gathering important information needed for voters and then establishing a connection between electoral agencies and constituents. The theory behind VIP is that if people aren’t overwhelmed by the whole process, and then in turn will become more likely to vote.

The Democratic revolution

As Obama said of his AMA experience:

“This is an example of how technology and the internet can empower the sorts of conversations that strengthen our democracy over the long run.”

This gets to the crux of the relationship between technology and democracy - as digital transformation continues to aid the Australian democratic process, governments have a great opportunity to enhance citizen participation by utilising the new and developing platforms technology has to offer.

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