One of the great advantages of democracies is its ability to accommodate a plurality of ideas. From the many ideas, a consensus forms as to which will benefit the community the most. This has seen democracies flourish while those countries that only allow one idea to prevail, as common in dictatorships, flounder and stagnate. Web 2.0 technologies have the potential to move democracies away from a plurality of ideas to small communities that cater for only one.
Web 2.0 technologies such as blogging, MySpace, Twitter, bebo, Facebook, flickr and YouTube enable people to become engaged in the democratic process. One of the strengths of the Obama campaign was his ability to engage Americans. Many of these people rarely voted but did so when they were able to become part of the process. The other candidates who used old-style push websites were left floundering. While Clinton and McCain talked to people, Obama talked with people. He leveraged Web 2.0 technologies to tap into what people wanted, to become engaged in the process.
Towards the end of 2006, when Edward Mandla was preselected for the seat of Sydney, he and I set about constructing what we believed to be the first dedicated election campaign website in Australia. We were also the first to directly advertise on YouTube. That site, now just over three-years-old, is decidedly ancient.
Last year’s Sydney City Council election, we developed a campaign site where we used video as our main medium for getting our message across. We stole this idea from the Obama campaign. We also started to experiment with campaigning via Facebook and blogging (Twitter was only in its infancy then). The Kevin07 campaign also utilised many of these technologies. However, for parties to be successful in future elections, they will truly need to leverage these technologies to engage people.
Perhaps the best example of Web 2.0 technologies being used to influence democracy was the recent Iranian elections. When a dubious election result was announced, the citizens of Iran took to the streets in protest. However, the government quickly used brutal measures against protesters to silence dissent. They also closed all media. This did not stop the protesters getting their message out via Twitter and YouTube. As the Iran government discovered, not even China with its vast censorship agency can stop the flow of information to the net.
Even though the protesters were able to keep the rest of the world informed as to what was happening, they were unable to effect change as the Iranian government is unconcerned for the opinions of other world leaders. As Greg Sheridan of The Australian newspaper noted, what is happening in Iran, just as what happened in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, is that a dictatorship which does not lose its nerve and is willing to beat and kill large numbers of its citizens, is very hard to shift.
Unfortunately, even though Web 2.0 technologies make it difficult for governments to censor, for these countries it seems that democracy can only be established by force. However, the two most recent examples of this happening, Iraq and Afghanistan, the process of establishing democracy has not been entirely successful. It is doubtful that there will be democracy in the long term in these countries.
One of the advantages of Twitter is that it allows individuals to gain an instant understanding of what is happening in our democratic institutions. On Saturday, September 12, 2009, I attended the New South Wales Liberal state council. This is normally an affair behind closed doors but a number of members, including Joe Hockey, tweeted proceedings to the outside world. The public was now able to follow what was happening and the decisions that were being made.
Annabel Crabb of the Sydney Morning Herald tweets a blow by blow account of what is happening in question time. More than ever, citizens have the means to determine what is happening within their government.
One of the problems I see with Web 2.0 technologies and its impact on democracy is the tendency for users to gravitate to those sites that support their particular ideology. As a site grows, they tend to attract more of the same types of people, consequently reinforcing the same view. The end result is that people will tend to only view and engage with sites that reinforce their ideology. It then becomes easy to filter out competing views. Plurality breaks down.
Two examples of early Web 2.0 sites in Australia was Margo Kingston’s Web Diary first published as part of the Sydney Morning Herald and Tim Blair’s blog. Both started well posting important topics of the day with a lively and healthy discussion from readers. However, conservative views soon became strangled in Web Diary as did left views in Tim Blair’s blog.
Web Diary left the Fairfax stable and morphed into the “Not Happy John!” campaign of the 2004 election. Although it is still going, it has all but disappeared: the same people keep talking to the same people. The same happened with Tim Blair’s blog. The blog was merged into the Daily Telegraph online site.