The world we want

The United Nations is betting heavily on the internet as a forum for global participation in the world’s development agenda post-2015, that is, the new agenda that will set the course for the world’s development actions once the Millenium Development Goals have reached their expiry date in 2015.

This time, the idea is that citizens like me and you from all over the world participate in a global conversation on shaping the new development goals. For this, the UN has created the Global Survey for a better World, an opinion poll where people can vote for their priorities from a list of development issues. They have also created a site called The World We Want, a discussion forum to promote a global conversation on the new development agenda.

This UN initiative is without a doubt an interesting take on citizen participation in the global governance agenda. It remains to see, however, if this can promote a true global participation, and if this grassroot participation translates into real results when the agenda is finally set.

The answer, the emperor’s new clothes or exaggeration?

The internet and more specifically online social media have been, in recent years, increasingly held up as the world’s great leveller, allowing people to gain access to information, communicate, participate and discuss in ways and on a scale that had hitherto never been thought possible. We often hear commentators speak of geographical and socio-economic lines being crossed, new and diverse relationships and communities being formed, and even political and civic empowerment being felt by those who otherwise live their lives as marginalised members of their society, all through social media. As Ananda Mitra and Tamara Witschge put it ‘The Internet is seen as a new discursive space that allows groups normally silenced in traditional media to ‘voice themselves and thus become visible and make their presence felt’ (Reclaiming the Media, Pg. 130).

All of this is undeniably impressive and no one would dare argue against the great leaps in connectivity and access to information that these tools have made. Indeed over the years, whilst these credentials and the incredible (perhaps literally) potential of social media for reaching out and connecting people have been trumpeted by the mainstream media and commentators, so politicians, governments, development agencies, businesses, even the British Queen, have leapt on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, in order to gain access to the limitless, open, engaged and powerful community that has been promised.

But does that community really exist, at least as the open, pluralistic, democratic space that is painted? Does social media really facilitate the forms and levels of dialogue and participation that are so often attributed to it, or is it just a case of the emperors new clothes?  Continue reading

The art of tightrope walking

In the past couple of years happenings such as the Iran and US elections and the Arab Spring have made social media and democracy two things that rarely appear apart. The has been a lot of debates of Twitter and Facebook revolutions and which impact these new media applications have to so called traditional media such as TV or newspapers. What makes social media different from traditional journalism is that social media is based on participation and freedom of expression, it provides platforms where people with similar interests can discuss, regardless where they live. Kluitenberg (2003) writes that what defines how democratic a society is, is to which extent people freely can share, voice their opinion and discuss what is going on in society and how freely people can get together to get something done to social issues that are not the way they’re supposed to be. One could say in social media we are all journalists. Godwin and Maher are quoted in Lievrouw (2011, p. 130-132) and they have quite the opposite opinions about participatory journalism. Maher sees that what people write to different social media channels cannot produce quality, credible, reliable and consistent news and Godwin’s reply to concerns about the lack of editing and liability is that it is arrogant to think that only big institutions can provide good journalism that is vital to the democracy.

Still all of us, as users and as followers of social media, have responsibility when it comes believing everything we read. This also raises the question of self-censorship. People don’t always seem to understand that what they write to Facebook or Twitter is for everyone to see, no matter if the account is protected. There is always someone who can share or retweet your opinions.

This is not only a problem among “ordinary” citizens, politicians who are on Facebook or Twitter or have their own blog have responsibility for what they write. After the last parliament elections two years ago in Finland a populist and nationalist political party True Finns became the third largest party in the country. In the last couple of years we have experienced quite many scandals when there have been racist and otherwise degrading updates in social media made by members of the party. Many of these have later been labeled as jokes by writers but in a country where you can freely express your opinion this has raised debate on how to behave on internet. Party secretary has been explaining that these writings have nothing to do with how True Finns as a party feel about certain things and other parties have expressed strong disapproval of what have been written. This makes one wonder who differently we can interpret blog posts or Facebook updates. It has to do with media literacy what we make those: either really bad jokes which should never have been published or the absolute truth.

We can follow many politicians on Twitter and Facebook and read their blog posts and getting your message through as clear as possible in order to get the majority of public to understand it right is like walking on a tightrope. Politicians should set a good example how to behave in social media, encourage people to take part in discussions, not to turn them against each other. Actions like that can be seen as good governance and real democracy.