Social Media and Democracy (and One Really Interesting Example)
Friday, July 22nd, 2011

In a recent article entitled “Are Facebook, Twitter Fostering Civic Engagement?”, Emily Badger provides a useful narrative of the debate on whether social media strengthens or weakens democracy. To narrow her scope, she focuses on the impact in countries that are already considered democratic, like Canada and the U.S.

Those who suggest that social media hinders democracy often point to a phenomena that has been termed “slacktivism” (“slacker” + “activism”). This results in minimal, “feel good” measures of support for an issue/ cause for the purpose of personal satisfaction and social capital.

To be clear, I don’t think that claims of “slacktivism” are entirely unfounded. We all know how easy it is to “like” a person, issue/ cause or organization on Facebook. And statements like, “…so what if Barack Obama’s Twitter Feed  has nearly 9 million followers? How many of them called their representative to lobby for his health care bill?” do reflect the gap between clicking a button and taking real political action. However, I do think that there are some important nuances to be mindful of when thinking about the real value of social media.

In the article, Emily Badger refers to Lee Rainie’s (Director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project) notion of “engagement as a spectrum.” He suggests that “we want lurkers to become commenters, and commenters to become forwarders, and forwarders to start knocking on their neighbour’s doors… If social media helps move any of those people a little further down that line, isn’t that increasing engagement…” So maybe all I’ve done to support my local MP is join his Facebook group. But what if my friends see this on their news feed, and a few of them decide to do the same, or even more? And what if this process replicates and builds further through their networks? In this context, I don’t think that the impact of the online social network can be understated.

Before I go, I also want to highlight something that I found really interesting. Part of the Obama administration’s digital engagement strategy is the “White House White Board.” This is a series of short (3-4 minutes), YouTube-hosted videos of well-known, senior public servants explaining some of President Obama’s major policy initiatives. Wouldn’t it be great to see something like this here in Canada?

– Tristan Eclarin –

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