Recent studies have come out that present a sobering look at celebratory claims that online activities are an effective means of participatory democracy.
1) Pew’s study this month, The Internet and Civic Engagement, finds that predominantly the people that participate in online political activity are largely the same people that participate offline. The Internet is not mobilizing any new people – except for a trend of more young people participating than before. As the study authors state “the internet is not changing the fundamental socio-economic character of civic engagement in America".
2) A July 2009 study, “Building an Architecture of Participation? Political Parties and Web 2.0 in Britain” by Jackson and Lilleker found that most political parties in the UK had constructed online methods of participation but then civic leaders were largely not participating. The authors fear this veneer of participation actually will encourage greater political apathy.
3) An article by Jodie Dean “Communicative Capitism: Circulation and Foreclosure of Politics” (in Digital Media and Democracy, Boler, ed.) is critical of our culture’s technology fetish and that our seeming acts of online participation “enable us to go about the rest of our lives relieved of the guilt that we might not be doing our part and secure in the belief that we are all informed, engaged citizens”. Dean is critical that online participation becomes an act in itself, and does not lead people to do the work that actually provokes change.
This led me to wonder whether the Canadian online political scene is more reciprocally participatory. I checked out the two sources I figured would be most apt to make good use of social media, Mayor of Toronto David Miller and the Green Party of Canada. This is an unscientific study, just quick observations.
I follow Miller on Twitter and Facebook. He posts regularly but I haven’t noticed him reply, debate, or frankly participate. I do like his posts because they clearly come from him and not an aid who is doing the posting to make Miller look hip, get more votes, etc.
I checked out the Green Party's website figuring they would be more open to online political participation. I was hoping for a policy wiki, online polls, something to solicit participation in a strong way. All there is are some blogs. Elizabeth May has a blog, but in a quick review of it, she does not appear to reply to comments.
They are both using new digital media in an old analog way: to broadcast. I believe Miller or May could respond (or more often than rarely, if they do) to show that they are listening at the very least.
Granted, at least they are broadcasting where increasingly more people are, particularly young people (see Pew). I also acknowledge that Facebook and Twitter have different norms and rules (140 characters) that may make "serious" political debate a challenge. An example of this are posts by trolls, possibly political opponents in disguise, that dominate or degenerate conversation.
Why aren’t civic leaders interacting more? Are civic leaders really just too busy to participate? Are they worried, or not allowed, that they’ll stray from the party line?
If Dean is correct that online participation is a distraction from the real work, then what steps are needed to make online participatory democracy vital, effective, inclusive, and democratic?