Saturday, 16 April 2011

Democracy Through Social Media Dialogue

This is something I am really passionate about, so I would appreciate any comments or feedback you could give!

The new world of blogs, Facebook, and Twitter has opened new opportunities for democracy which have not been available since the rise of the nation state.

As far back as ancient Athens, Aristotle remarked that giving power to the people was a way of giving power to those who could persuade the people. The rise of gigantic policy-making mass media is a threat to democracy because they restrict channels of expression and thereby also the power to influence to fewer and fewer individuals.

Where in Athens public deliberation took place in a forum where almost everyone could speak, the mass media of television created a one-way line of communication. The only reaction or choice the viewers had was to turn off the television or switch the channel, but short of signing a petition or buying airtime there was no way an average person could gain access to the channels of expression to voice their opinion. Instead of participating in a dialogue we become spectators to the public debate. No wonder there has been a lacking enthusiasm to vote; we're so used to being told what to believe and what to do without answering back that we don't see why they should bother asking us when election time comes!

The genius of social media, is that it has reinstated the dialogue as the dominant form of mass communication! Instead of one-way communication where we only listen to what other people say, we can participate and have a say in what is important and what is right or wrong in society.

Take the example of Twitter. I just got a Twitter account three days ago (@davidisaksen). Unlike Facebook, Twitter creates a forum where a million conversations can go on at the same time. Through the use of hash-tags I can follow the current discourse on current topics like #Libya or #taxes. Or, if I want to, I can search through people that I think are interesting. Currently I am following some of the people that are helping now to change the world for the better. People like Aung San Suu Kyi (Nobel laureate working for a democratic Burma), Wael Ghonim (one of the architects of the Egyptian revolution), and Greg Mortenson (a man who has built hundreds of  schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan). Just as at a party, sometimes you find people who are interesting and well-connected, and you can follow the conversations they are having and managing among the people they know. You have the chance to become such a hub yourself, and you can voice your opinion and be heard both in a local discourse, and (if you know how) in the greater discourse.

For example, I have been able to follow live updates from the war zones in Libya, and see images and videos which may not be considered important or substantiated enough for the mainstream media, but which nevertheless are an important part of the story of our world! Here is one example from Misrata.

In Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" a Jew is mistaken for dictator Hynckel and given the microphone in front of the entire army of the dictatorship. Someone whose voice had been supressed is by mistake given access to the channels of expression. In the movie, this mistake ends the threat of a World War because an ordinary man is allowed to speak his mind and be heard.

At the dawn of the Internet Age it was hoped that the Internet, with its free flow of information, would open up the doors to a more democratic society, and bring people together in a way like never before. Many were disappointed as the Internet seemed initially to be abused as a haven of perversion and hatred which normal decent society would never allow. Yet now with the spread of social media, those aspirations are beginning to seem like less of a dream and more of the future reality.
And we haven't even scratched the surface!!!