We started to begin seeing the potential of the Internet in democratic elections with the candidacy of Howard Dean for the Democratic presidential nominations in 2004. In the 2008 election, candidate Barack Obama brought it to a new level as he clearly mobilized a new generation voters on his way to the presidency.
During the so-called Arab spring, much was made about social media such as Twitter and Facebook, and how it was used as an effective means to change the existing order in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Historians will certainly mull over the impact of social media on the events in those countries, but the contemporary view is that social media played a determining role.
Closer to home, opinion polling firms have transformed gradually from conventional means to the use of the Internet to assess voter preferences on issues and candidates. In recent months in the corporate world, we have observed how Bank of America had to pull back on a debit card increase following a massive Internet campaign opposing it. Similar events are surfacing in other sectors. Social media is surely changing how our institutions function, how our corporations work, and ultimately, how our democracy will be directed.
Currently, student unrest in the Canadian province of Québec has shown the important role social media has played in mobilizing students, maintaining pressure on the government and organizing resistance to government policies. Some observers see this as the awakening and the expression of a new generation; others are not as positive and see it as reducing the importance and effectiveness of democratic institutions and giving greater voice to the so-called street. The reality is possibly a mixture of both.
Is democracy based on representative institutions, the rule of law and voluntary adherence to constitutional precepts about to be transformed by social media? To those concerned with the eclipse of traditional democratic institutions, is it the emergence of a more direct democracy over that of duly elected assemblies of representatives? Social media and democracy need not be juxtaposed. Just as the advent of television modified the conduct of our democracies, social media is doing just that and we need not conclude too prematurely that our democratic values are being eroded in the process.
Just a little over a year ago, I belatedly decided to plunge actively into the Facebook and Twitter world to see for myself what was the extent of their impact. I imposed upon myself some basic rules: no social media “fights,” respect for differing views and promotion of a personal perspective on some specific topics of interest to me (American politics, government policy issues in general and promoting the city of Montréal). As followers increased and I enlarged my network, it became evident to me that social media is essentially a democratic tool that is here to stay and will grow. But there is an important caveat to keep in mind: in some cases, it is widely used to promote informed views; in others, it can be a source of discord, inaccuracies, falsehoods, and insults. At the end of the day, we must remind ourselves that social media should remain a means for social interaction, and not an end in itself.
Policy makers in our democracies must make every effort to keep social media as a vibrant instrument to enhance our freedom of expression. In fact, governments all have social media sites. Yet, it must never be seen as a substitute for enlightened policy discussion, the use of our democratic institutions to debate and pass laws, good old-fashioned negotiation and compromise in person, respect for constitutionally guaranteed rights, the importance of the electorate to have the final say on its future through the ballot box, and uncompromising respect for the rule of law. To do otherwise would seriously diminish the quality of our freedoms and the stability of our democracies.
John Parisella is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently an invited professor at University of Montréal’s International Relations Center.