“Kevin Rudd is my Facebook friend and I get Malcolm Turnbull’s twitters each day”, says the excited political junkie. It makes them feel important and part of the political process.
But it is a sham really. If one accepts that democratic engagement is a desirable thing in our society, then the Internet is not the be all and end all. It has not to date, and will not in the foreseeable future, inject and renewed sense of civic wellbeing. That is not to say it is not a very useful tool for democratising freedom of speech and providing a voice for those who have previously not had one (although this is perhaps a little exaggerated given the lack of Internet capacity in many parts of the developing world), but let’s keep it in perspective.
Politicians like Mr Rudd and Mr Turnbull use the Internet because it is politically advantageous to do so, although in the case of the latter he has had a long fascination with the internet and was a partner in the highly successful Ozemail a decade ago. That a voter is their “friend” on Facebook does not mean anything, other than that technology has corrupted the idea of “friendship” and all that it traditionally entails. And twittering does not mean one is up close and personal with Mr Turnbull, but simply that one is privy to whatever mediated observation he is twittering on about at a given point in time.
And do social networking sites like Facebook and tools such as Twitter increase knowledge and therefore understanding of the issues that our democracy deals with on a day-to-day basis? Probably not. That this is so was confirmed in a paper delivered at this month’s annual American Political Science Association meeting in Canada.
Jessica T. Feezell, Meredith Conroy and Mario Guerrero of the University of California Santa Barbara, in a paper entitled Facebook is ... Fostering Political Engagement: A Study of Online Social Networking Groups and Offline Participation, found that while Facebook and other online networking tools do what traditional forms of political engagement such as physical meetings and protests do; they do not necessarily value add by increasing the knowledge base of the participants and nor do they foster the capacity of an individual to think differently about an issue. And there is less accountability among participants in online political groups, the researchers found.
The paper notes that the Internet “does not bring people into physical contact or require as much commitment from its members, and this has potentially harmful associated effects”. It then observes:
If we apply this logic to group membership online, it suggests that online groups may be unlikely to hold members accountable. Not only do members of online groups not meet face to face, but members of online groups can choose to be anonymous, or have multiple or false identities. This can have negative effects on one’s online community … individuals who are anonymous or have multiple identities online are less likely to maintain their online identities and as a result be unlikely to contribute in a meaningful way to an online community. These findings also suggest that elements of political engagement may be hindered as a result.
Allied to this finding is the troubling observation the authors make about the limited capacity of online social networking tools to educate and increase knowledge in the democratic sphere.
“The fundamentals of democracy assume a knowledgeable public, one that is capable of representing its own self-interest effectively,” the authors write. “A healthy democracy, then, should see tandem movement between political knowledge and political participation. Here we find that while online group membership predicts increased levels of offline political participation, we do not see an equally significant effect on levels of political knowledge,” they note.
And the reason for this? “The content analysis of group wall posts offers a suggestion for why this might be the case. The information content and quality of most wall posts were found to be very poor, generally lacking support for their claims, incoherent, or simply opinionated. In other words, group members are exposed to little new or well-articulated information about the political causes around which these groups form. The information is more likely to be reinforcing and therefore mobilising, but not enlightening and therefore educational.”
This is of course only one piece of research but for anyone who spends time in the online world of political discourse it rings true. And what it tells us is that despite the promise of the Web 2.0 as a transformative one for our democracy so far the results have been either disappointing, or predictable, depending on your point of view.
Democracy is a complex beast. And getting a communication saturated public to engage at something more than a trite level with it, requires something deeper than the promise of a Facebook encounter with a political leader.
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