Five ways to use Social Media to save democracy (kinda)

I stopped writing in my first blog, 7 or 8 years ago, after listening to someone tell me how blogs were going to save democracy. I found the argument so foolish, so self-aggrandizing and so impractical, that it turned me off the whole process. The argument seemed to go like this:

If everyone has the ability to post what they think, and everyone can comment on that, then each individual has a voice that can be heard in our society… making our society democratic.

After spending much of the intervening years working in social spaces i am now willing to confirm that this is utter nonsense. There are a hundred reasons why this doesn’t make sense, but I’ll just drop three on you in a hurry.

  1. Given free time, most people will not blog, it takes alot of time and burns alot of creativity
  2. Given a chance to express themselves, people will normally talk about the things that interest them… this is more likely to be coffee, knitting or sex rather than politics.
  3. People do not generally frequent the ideas of people they don’t agree with, unless they wish to ridicule them

But you said this was about how to use it to help me vote
Yes. blogging, for everyone, is not the answer for improving our democracy. Twitter on the other hand, just might be. And no, i don’t care if its ‘actually’ twitter, but anything that works like twitter. In a twitter like conversation everyone starts on more or less even territory. No one can grab the mic, it’s difficult to interrupt, and there’s no place to hide. If someone isn’t answering your question, you can just ask it again. We’re all in the same basket and if you’re asking a politician a question in the main stream (identified by hashtags) everyone will see and notice the fact that said person will no answer the question. You can passively watch how a canditate (or their rep) interacts, and get a chance to see all the things they think are important, be those links to things like videos or writing they have done themselves, debates they’ve had with other candidates, or what they had for dinner. Each individual in our democracy doesn’t need to write a blog, we just all need access to the same place where we can have a little chat.

I answered our local CBC radio call out for people who would follow our provincial elections only through social media this fall. I’m fairly cynical about the electoral process. I don’t like the fact that debates and townhalls are as controlled as they are, I absolutely HATE hearing people speak from talking points, and the potential conflict of interest between media and politicians (in the sense that both need the other to do their business) combined with the need to condense discussions into sizes that consumers can actually take in, means that i rarely seem to get answers that i want from media interviews. I have, mostly, given up on knowing what is going on… figuring that there is no way to find out.

Enter social media
Politicians, or at least their handlers, have been told that they need some kind of social presence online. With the massive success that Obama had with social media in the 2008 elections combined with the amazing number of dancing cat videos that people watch these days it’s becoming an avenue to connect to voters difficult to ignore. We here in PEI have seen any number of politicians and political activists turn their attention to our twitter streams and start to talk to us. And that’s nice and everything, but so far they are saying the same things they say in the press releases. The trick is… we need to start talking back. We need to get together and start using our social spaces, controlling the discussion in our spaces to make honesty, civility and transparency something of value, rather than talking points, prepped speeches and obfuscation. It might be a little late to get it done for our election here on PEI… but certainly worth a try.

1. Call out everyone who makes claims and does not identify themselves.

This may seem picky… but i’ve seen too much ‘Those guys are liars’ online. If I don’t know who you are… why should i take anything you say seriously? It could be that someone is a voter with an opinion… or even facts about an issue. It could also be a political operative trying to scam you. If people need to maintain anonymity… they can go to the press. Social media is a reputation economy. Tell us who you are.

2. Call out people who are mean, nasty or simply taking potshots at others.

I called out two executive secretaries to party leaders early in the campaign here in PEI for just sniping at each other. I was shocked when they stopped. If we can publicly shame our politicians into being nice to each other that would go a long way towards me taking them more seriously, but i can’t speak for you. I’m not saying they shouldn’t criticize each other, or dig in… just be civil. We can enforce this in our social media spaces. This, of course, needs to apply to other citizens as well… mindless nagging is not going to raise the level of the discourse.

3. Ask politicians questions, and keep asking them until you get an actual answer

This is something i haven’t tried yet. If you look at the twitter stream for our election, anything tagged with one of the three twitter tags tends to be seen by everyone. If you ask a politician a question they are unwilling to answer, ask it again. Ask others in the party to answer. Ask the party’s central account. Ask other parties. In a townhall your question can be skated over or ignored, in social media that’s ALOT harder.

4. Do research and post it.

One of the nice things about having lots and lots of people involved in a discussion is that you can get access to more information. If a question has been asked or a claim has been made… count up the numbers, figure out the figures and post them. The more people do this, the close we get to facts that can help us vote.

5. Reward politicians for being open and honest

If a politician has gone out of their way to answer a question, to make their positions clear or to be available, let people know about it. There needs to be value in being open for our politicians to do it. If they see their cred improved by the fact that they are doing these things, they will do them. We need to set expectations and reward them when they are met.

Politicians, ostensibly, work for us. We need to make it clear what we expect and hold them accountable (and reward them) for the response to our expectations. Discourse in social media can be one of the ways that we can set those expectations. Civility. Honesty. Transparency. Facts. These are not things restricted to one side of the political spectrum… these are the things we need as voters to make decisions about our politicians.

I’ll be honest, I’ve not seen a political government in canada be able to fulfill the promises they make on specific issues… and no wonder. They are suspeptible to world markets, to internal struggles, to challenges unforseen. I see this as normal. What i want to know about the people who represent me is who they are, what they think about the things that are important to me. These are things that social media is really good at letting us know. We could make that happen. Maybe. 🙂

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

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