Political reporter, Brian Wheeler, recently wrote an article for BBC news, passionately entitled: “Why Not Let Social Media Run the Country?”
Why bother having elections and votes in Parliament, when you can find out what the people want in real time, 24 hours a day, on social media?
This is the opening sentence of the article. Somewhat outrageous yet interesting, isn’t it? With the 2012 Presidential Election around the corner and both parties start fueling up with social-media power to win the final race, it’s a good time for us to look into how social media might affect the future of politics.
Imagine a world where social media is a part of the everyday fabric of government – from voting to passing bills; from making public announcements to public debates. The possibilities in which we can incorporate social media to governmental matters are endless. “Technologically it is now possible. We could function as a direct democracy,” Labour MP Kevin Brennan told a Hansard Society event at Westminster, who’s personally an active user on Twitter. “The cost of obtaining people’s views on a range of different subjects is miniscule compared to any other time in history, unless you go back to ancient Greece when you just gathered in the market place and you could have a direct vote on things,” he added.
The creation of social media is a part of the evolution of communication thus the utilization of this creation should inevitably be extended into politics so that we can use it fully. Here, we can sense a tone which Nancy Baym would call “Social Constructivism” – one of the discourses of new media technologies that emphasize on how new technology is a result of social process and hence, progress. As society develops, new technologies come and go to fulfill our different needs at different historical moments. Bridging social media to politics is thus something that is destined to happen, now under the SNS phenomenon.
“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” – Winston Churchill
The voice of the voter is emphasized here. With its crowd-sourcing ability, instantaneous report/feedback, freedom of speech, discussion/debate-inciting nature, accessibility, just to name a few, social media is, indeed, a powerful tool that can be made use by the government. Michael Wesch, a renown anthropologist who specializes in the cultural studies of digital media, as well as the creator of the video “ An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube” would possibly argue that the utilization of social media should been seen as a form of empowerment, created by the mass and for the mass. Social media provide us with a platform – our own soapbox – to voice our political opinions through the barrier of time and space. To some extend, social media is the ultimate answer to the “perfect” democracy, in which anyone from anywhere at anytime can participate.
Yet a lot of people question the validity of the internet being a legitimate public forum. Why? Simply because the internet is largely unregulated (ex. the problem of authenticity, etc.) and therefore we should not use the soundbites of opinionated sentimental tweets for policy-making. As one of the hundreds of users who responded to Wheeler’s article, user Blastygoose commented:
Given that social media is predominantly used to share baby photos, pointless status updates and slightly amusing videos of cats, I really don’t think it is a good idea to let these people decide how the country run[,] do you?
Do we? Maybe we need to rethink what would actually happen when social media get involved in politics and policy-making. First and foremost, we need to acknowledge the existence of the “digital divide”: while a large population has become highly familiar with utilizing the internet and various digital devices, some people still don’t have access to these digital services – an issue addressed by Baym in her book, Personal Connections in the Digital Age. If social media is to become “the next parliament of the people”, how can one’s voice be heard if she doesn’t use Twitter? how would one’s opinion matter if he doesn’t have a computer to access the “Facebook voting platform”? The debates, the opinions, the votes the government is getting from social media are not from citizen, but “netizen“. Doesn’t it defeat the whole purpose of having social media involved in politics in the first place? Isn’t it, quite ironically, digital discrimination?
Secondly, responsive doesn’t mean responsible – users of social media often reacts too quickly without thinking through the value and consequence of their words. Twitter can be seen as the social-media form of the old infamous yellow press – it sparks conversations yet it can be over-dramatized and sentimental. If governed by media is a bad idea, then being governed by mood-swinging social media is even worse.
Short-term outlook and immediate needs are not necessarily what a nation needs. A true democratic government should be, at its best, visionary – taking a long term view and planning decades ahead – not responding to tweets or getting overwhelmed by the “likes” one status got on its Facebook Fan Page.
So what’s the solution?
The answer always lies in the middle.
As the use of social media accelerates, it’s important to remember that social media, like any of its media predecessors, is just another tool that can be used between the communication of the government and its people. It cannot replace the parliament, nor can it represent the entire population. Social media is the “hot babe” of this era that everyone is trying to get. But it doesn’t mean you need to follow the trend and use it for anything and everything.
I say use it, but use it wisely.