Menu Close How to create better political engagement

Barack Obama’s web campaign helped him win the presidency. Parties should learn from it. Flickr/Scorpions and Centaurs

The increasing spread of information and communication technology has changed just about every aspect of Australian society – except democracy.

The opportunities to engage citizens in the democratic process are yet to be harnessed by the Australian political system.

Political parties in particular risk being left behind, as citizens increasingly engage with public issues using social media and the internet.

Improving democracy

The wonder of new communication technologies is that they allow an interactive communication experience on a massive scale, with opportunity for individuals to express and debate in response to issues which concern them.

And, of course, for a country to declare itself a democracy is to claim it engages the citizenry in such a public debate.

With the possibility of participatory democracy comes the opportunity of a more critical, responsive and personally rewarding democratic system.

The alienation and disenfranchisement of the current representative system could be replaced by an active, expressive and critical democracy built upon an increasingly well informed and empowered citizenry.

Propaganda is cheap

While the two major parties have made some effort to engage their members in online debate, these forums tend to operate as vehicles for party propaganda.

For instance, the websites of the Labor and Liberal Parties serve primarily as a staging platform for party campaign material.

The sites are used as a cheap and eminently controllable extension of mass media campaigns – a way of presenting a branded, strategic and consistent version of the party vision.

Political parties are also making the most of cheap production and distribution on the internet, using YouTube to stage campaign videos and e-mail to send party missives on the cheap.

Controlled engagement

But parties have failed to make the most of the democratic nature of new communication technology.

Possibilities such as crowd-sourcing, dynamic user-centred content and creative collaboration have yet to be utilised.

For instance, each of the parties has “get involved” sections on their websites, which allow public comments and debates upon policy issues.

These are steps in the right direction, albeit exceedingly small ones.

The discussions remain limited by the party agenda – both sites are clearly dominated by pro-party voices and contain a definite party-political agenda in their design.

For instance, while it is possible to “like” and “support” Liberal policy ideas by pushing a button, users are not given the option to dislike the policy.

The end result is strategically defined communication – people are welcome to express their opinions but the outcome of the communication has been determined before it even begins.

As such these forums replicate the problems of representative democracy – where our expressive engagement with politics is hijacked by a party political system which represents us according to its own interests.

Give people a say

Alternatively, sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr facilitate a far more expressive type of engagement with public issues.

Users are driven to participate on these sites because they derive some sense of their identity from participating.

By posting information about themselves and their friends, users are, in turn, enticed further to learn about others, be exposed to new ideas and movements, and immerse themselves in a multimedia communication experience.

Clearly Facebook serves a social, rather than a democratic end. Nevertheless, there would be a massive cultural and critical dividend if democracy could harness the kind of involvement and scrutiny that Facebook generates.

Better ways to connect

There are already many organisations making the most of participatory culture for public ends. Avaaz, Kiva and Kickstarter, along with Australia’s own GetUp, are all examples of sites which work in conjunction with social media in order to achieve public action.

Each of these sites essentially crowd sources and directly canvasses public support for various ventures.

Their success lies in the way they don’t centralise and impose their own power or brand but rather harness the social networks of their users to bring further publicity to causes and projects that people choose to support.

By associating public action with people’s social profiles they make the most of the benefits of being public; that, is they encourage the endorsement of the best projects, they encourage an easy engagement with others and allow individuals to publicly engage in public issues.

In terms of democratic ideals, the problem with such sites is that they once again limit the kind of engagement people can have.

The engagement required by Kiva and Kickstarter is restricted to the commitment of money and messages of support; Avaaz and GetUp simply aggregate people’s support in regard to policy issues.

While, once again, these efforts are laudable, this is the Chartism of the 21st century – a democratic awakening to be sure, but not a particularly articulate, expressive or inspirational one.

Citizens “like” a real voice

The problem with encouraging participation by merely pushing a button or registering a vote is that this does not really engage the expression or uniqueness of individuals.

Therefore, it does not inspire an active engagement with politics.

As a citizenry, we have grown used to mute tabulation of our political will and we have been taught to express our identity in other, more problematic ways – particularly through consumption.

The promise of developing a vibrant and interactive democratic system is that we could become concerned, critical and empowered citizens, rather than simply critical and empowered consumers.

Some of the most progressive developments in democratic forum moderation have come from unlikely sources.

Ushahidi is a site which collates personal testimonies from disaster zones but it offers some intriguing innovations that allow people to upload their opinions in any number of ways via any number of media.

The technology game

The Australian “fantasy football” community site, TooSerious, is a wonderful model of democratic discussion.

It breaks discussion into relevant threads, allows an expert to make an initial comment and then opens discussion up for all participants.

Through allowing participants’ comments to be liked or disliked the site itself determines which comments are popular, unpopular (and eventually hidden) or flagged as a “hot debate”.

It crowd sources information from participants on anything that affects decision making and celebrates important contributions.

Through such engaging discussion a sense of real community is developed. This has meant a wonderfully informed and focussed community within which individuals are able to make clever decisions regarding the game.

Building a new democracy

Such a community, if focussed on political issues rather than sporting ones, could be seen as a building block for a new Australian democracy.

It is understandable that political parties may be reluctant to update the way democracy functions in accordance with developments in information and communication technologies.

However, as Egypt, Libya and London have recently discovered, people are finding new ways to engage with political issues, and a government which does not accommodate these new democratic forums can quickly find it has become redundant.

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