Democracy Defined by 140 Characters
| 12 December 2016

Long gone are the days of Facebook pages seeking 'likes', it is now the hashtag's turn to control the online communication circuit. The ease of connectivity and the forcefully brief snippets of information in only 140 characters provides a constant and captivating stream of news. Just as celebrities have, politicians are now flocking to this new form of the written word. President Obama (who also has an official Instagram account) has accumulated an impressive following of over 42 million, whilst our very own Prime Minister trails behind with only a fraction of the support at just over 2 million followers. Nevertheless, either figure is not to be sneered at by any wannabe twitter star. The increasing involvement of politicians with this platform of social media has further ignited the debate for and against digital democracy - does our democratic system need to modernise in line with the times?



Political participation in the traditional sense of turning up to polling stations and marking 'x' on our ballot paper has been decreasing in the past decade or so. The fall in turnout rates reached the lowest at 59% in 2001. Consequently, accusations have been made about the population being apathetic with regards to not caring about minimising the democratic deficit that is already in place due to the constitutional monarchy and an unelected upper chamber. Common sense would surely then dictate that people would be willing to make the effort once every five years to make their contribution to the way the country will be governed. Seemingly not.



In order to combat this, an increased use of digital democracy must be considered. In a society where there appears to always be ‘an app for that’, whatever that may be, it is for some surprising that a transition to online or even mobile voting has not been more seriously proposed. It would certainly cut administrative costs of the electoral process and encourage participation with its ease of use, which in turn can allow for more opportunities of direct democracy to be implemented. Continually improving fingerprint and face recognition technology would aid in subduing any concerns over ensuring the authenticity of votes. Already people are able to make an impact through the simplicity of trending topics. A quick search of #HS2 reveals a general feeling of discontent. This has been utilised by the 'No 2 HS2' pressure group to enable them to easily collate those that are like-minded into a group of supporters that can influence change by quickly being organised online to participate in the more conventional forms of democracy such as petitioning. It is not just new social movements making the most of these information outlets - budding politicians are also creating their own parties at a fraction of the cost that it would traditionally cost to do so. For instance the Pirate Party originated online and has continued to gather support from that medium with 13,000 followers for its UK branch.



However, there are inevitably drawbacks to a movement towards a more technology-based society. Firstly it is likely to increase an already significant inequality gap. It may appear as if every Year 7 has a smartphone nowadays in comparison to a time when any 11 year old would be ecstatic to get their hands on a Tamagotchi, but this is not the case nationwide. In addition to online voting favouring the input of the materially better off, it can also create an unwanted generation divide. How many times have you had to explain the process of texting to an older relative? The less technologically able would be at a severe disadvantage in trying to influence any political outcome. The crux of the matter however, in my opinion at least, is the lack of meaning political decisions may receive if they become virtual – despite their impacts still very much affecting our actual reality.



It is almost too easy to just click a button and not consider fully the consequences. Small radical groups that would never make a substantial impact following the traditional route can suddenly make a name for themselves online as the voice of a few can become very loud in cyberspace. Contrary to the name, a worldwide trending topic is not necessarily supported by the world or even by a majority of it. 140 characters is often not enough to convey the entire story, potentially leading to a misguided electorate that could be damaging to our democracy. A chain of retweets for the latest breaking story can miss out the crucial context and fundamental facts. Ultimately the show of support can resemble nothing more than a futile game of Chinese whispers. Alternatively, we may have pop-up adverts (everybody’s favourite online feature) bombarding and shouting at us to become more politically active and to sway our opinions.



With reference to the accusation that the population has become apathetic, perhaps it is a deserved one. Certainly in the Twitterverse a greater concern appears to be the superficial galaxy of the glitz and glam - never mind the practical place of politics. A faint ringing of panicked alarm bells begins on the realisation that 5 times more people want to keep up to date with the actions of Britain’s favourite love-to-hate judge (Simon Cowell: 9.75 million followers) than Britain’s favourite love-to-hate Prime Minister (David Cameron, but hopefully you knew that). For now then, maybe it’s best if we stick with the mundane task of lugging ourselves out to the nearest Polling station every five years. Soon enough a newer, easier, slicker and more interesting platform will take the place of Twitter. It may become nothing more than an Internet relic, doomed to the darkest depths of the World Wide Web with the likes of MySpace.



Everyone will wonder what the big fuss was about.

James Routledge 2016