Ioannis Zisis explores how the use of our online social networking platforms are transforming the political landscape.
More and more representatives at local, national and international level interact with citizens through Social Network platforms (SNs) like Facebook and Twitter. Whether politicians have succumbed into this communicational trend or if they facilitated it is not of great importance. What matters is that more and more of these interactions extend to issues of legislative behaviour and policy formulation, while only a few years back the political/legislative agenda was safeguarded within layers of partisan control. What for politicians started as a popular marketing activity, has now developed into an unavoidable trend, with consequences for their role within democratic functioning.
British MPs and MEPs exhibit an increasing engagement with their voters via Twitter, linked to an ever growing demand for responsiveness and accountability within an expanding framework of euroscepticism. Networking with constituents, image promotion, activity advertising or campaigning initiatives give their place to justification of political decisions, discussion of future legislative behaviour and direct policy suggestions on issues like trade relations, social security, pensions, health legislation, the relationship with the EU etc.
These interactions also take place outside campaigning/electoral time-frames and quite often they result to a form of commitment from representatives to act in a specific manner. As Twitter ratings demonstrate, this new kind of e-deliberation is rapidly expanding in volume and magnitude.
Apart from a zest to externalise their political passions, likes, dislikes, claims or preferences, voters try to interfere with policy making in order to feel once again included into the chain of political decision making. Casting a vote every five years does not seem to be enough for a growing portion of citizens experiencing a political reality that is far from what they are promised during political campaigns. Thus they even interact online with representatives from constituencies other than their own.
The concept of a ‘virtual constituency’ is now emerging, where citizens can interact with representatives online regardless of their location or regional interests. In the case of MEPs this is even more apparent as MEPs have a dispersed presence between their constituencies and the European Parliament headquarters, thus a greater geographical and communicational gap to bridge.
However, certain arguments arise to contradict the embracing character of e-deliberation in Twitter. The first relates to the characteristics of e-deliberation. How can you express arguments and deliberate comprehensively and efficiently within a short 140character space? Is this deliberation taking place with the actual representatives or delegated assistants who may express their own views obscuring the quality of communication?
There is also the case of equality and representativeness of the deliberating citizens. If all citizens are equal and e-deliberation is only for the IT-literate and the networked, then is this a rather exclusive privilege for the few rather than the many? If so then why representatives engage into it?
These questions take us to the second argument related to the value of e-deliberation. What is the incentive for representatives to deliberate online? Is it that they want to demonstrate an online presence which enhances their personalised political brand? How much does this distort the process? Are they trying to ‘educate’ citizens from an elite position thus manipulating their preferences? Eventually, does e-deliberation have an actual impact on representatives’ actions and can this be practically identified within their partisan or legislative behaviour? Is it enough to justify citizens’ involvement in this process?
Answering all these questions is an issue of debate and ongoing research but regardless of the findings there is an initial vital conclusion. We have irrevocably entered an era of unmediated online interactions, which challenge the democratic potentiality of the internet, producing implications for political participation.
In a contemporary transparent world of hi-tech communications, the issue of an IT-supported citizen involvement in the definition of policies, inevitably emerges as a potential means to strengthen democracy and reshape traditional representational practices.