Does digital help boost democracy?

Since the Arab Spring collapsed into a welter of sectarian violence and civil war, it’s become fashionable to eat all those words about the Twitter revolution and the power of YouTube.  And yet, in its horrific and bloody denouement, the Arab Spring is still being fought out through social media channels.  That doesn’t mean that on the ground organisation isn’t critical – it’s what explains the Muslim Brotherhood victory (albeit brief) in Egypt and of course money talks as well (the Saudis bankrolling the Egyptian counter-revolution and Sunni extremists in Syria as two pertinent examples).  However, social media undoubtedly has its place and history shows us that it’s really nothing new.

After all, didn’t the Reformation kick off with Martin Luther nailing his grievances to the church door – where everybody was bound to see them.  Today, he’d have issued a long series of tweets linking to a blog post and an op-ed in the Huffington Post.  Followed perhaps by a flash mob in St Peter’s Square to protest the selling of indulgences and a hackathon of former monks to work out how better to run Christianity.  You get the drift – he just didn’t have the digital tools.  Or there was Thomas Paine cranking out Common Sense on a printing press and sparking off the French and American revolutions.

Indeed, the printing press was the primary tool for disseminating political arguments until the 1990s.  I recall being at youth conferences in the 1980s – National Organisation of Labour Students for example – where rival factions spat out their propaganda using crude printing presses and photocopiers – lots of inky fingers and sweaty brows as the leaflets were cranked out by hand.  Now we have conference apps, dedicated Twitter hashtags and YouTube blogging and reports from political events.

So digital has already arrived as an empowering democratic tool.  Yet our political culture and systems seem to run counter to everything digital represents.  The Westminster (or Georgetown) village is as entrenched, more so in fact, than ever.  Personalities still prevail over ideas – even though most politicians have deeply dull personas.  And the traditional journalist set remain cliquey has hell – even when operating on Twitter – even though the circulation of their newspapers is in dramatic freefall.  Politicians talk about a ‘disconnect’ with the public when the means of bridging it is staring them in the face – but they lack the cultural savvy and political will to make the leap.

Fortunately, digital won’t be held down and a more informed and engaged public – especially among the youth – is emerging regardless.  Traditional structures and organisations are by-passed but at some point, these digital networks and conversations will have to be integrated into our democracy.  Groups like Avaaz are already networking people across borders on campaign issues.  As a recent report from MIT stated, we have a chance with digital to move from an Information Age to a new Age of Reason – digital will become less an end in itself and instead a means of reviving democracy.


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