Democracy in the time of Internet

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Elections in India are always a big circus. After all it is the largest democracy in the world.  There have been some firsts this time round. Like the US Presidential elections, campaigning started well before (months if not a year) the dates were announced.   Increased (as compared to 2009) penetration of the internet and social media platforms has seen lot of political activism and slactivism around these elections. Most of this comes from the youth, after all this election is going to see 150 million first time voters.

Is internet access good for democracy? I reflect on this question in this post.

As with any complex issues, there are multiple sides to the story.  I am going to try and look at the ways in which it will help or hinder or not affect. There are of course ways in which the same facility can help or hinder depending on how it is taken on board. 

How will internet (I include social media as a subset) help democracy?

  • By improving transparency and making information available to citizens. One does not need internet to be transparent but just that it is easier & cheaper to achieve scale when it comes to putting out information in the public domain.
  • Using e-governance to simplify processes: Reducing bureaucratic processes offers an advantage of saving time and also weeding out corruption.
  • By making it possible for citizens to voice their opinion easily: internet access enables citizens to climb on the social media platform and voice their opinions. If they manage to mobilise and get sufficient numbers, they may even influence decision making. After the disastrous collapse of the banking sector, Iceland broke new ground by crowd-sourcing its new constitution. The jury is out on whether this was a wise move but there is no doubt that this turned citizens participation on its head.
  • By enabling leaders to engage with the citizens. Look at the way that President Obama has been engaging on the Healthcare reforms.

How will internet (I include social media as a subset) hinder democracy?

  • Strategic decision paralysis: Leaders will be tempted to run opinion polls on anything and everything before making decisions. This will lead to populist decisions no doubt but may not lead to strategic ones. Popular decisions and good decisions are seldom the same. A case in point is the opening up of the Indian economy in the early 1990s. It was a strategic decision, no doubt forced upon India due to impending bankruptcy, but the issues it raised at that time meant that there was no way it was ever going to be popular in the short and medium term. Leaders are elected by the people and while they need to remain accountable, they also need to lead. They are not going to be able to do so if they try to also follow what the people are thinking about.
  • Internet offers easy options to slacktivists. It makes them feel good without too much effort. Note that in the current general elections in India, the 2 cities which recorded pathetic voting (compared to the rest of the country so far) were the information technology capitals – Pune and Bangalore. People from these cities have been at the forefront of raising noise on the internet but when it came to going out and voting, I suspect the lure of the 4 day weekend was too much. Without internet, those who wanted to make a difference / be heard had to make efforts as I remember from the elections of 1977 which came on the back of the The Emergency (India) in 1975.

Areas where it will not affect at all.

  • Internet may make it possible for citizens to amplify their voice but it also makes it possible for the powerful to amplify their voices even more. That is roughly what happens even now. There will always be those whose voice is not heard and those who will be shrill and insistent and hence will be heard.
  • In places which have been strangers to democratic norms, internet will make no difference whatsoever in the near future. See what is happening in Lybia, Tunisia, Egypt etc. When the ‘revolutions’ started, they were touted as a rebirth of democracy which came in surfing the internet. Three years later, things are messier.

What do you think?

Makarand