Democracy has been proven to be the political womb of development since its conception in ancient Greece. The key feature of democracy is the freedoms and liberties it provides, especially its freedom of speech. It has brought about a culture of engagement between interested parties –authorities and subjects which hitherto was rare in governance.
This culture has driven change and brought development to the many jurisdictions where it is practiced. The pressure it brings to bare on decision makers makes some section of the political class to detest the practice and relentlessly fight against it to the point of bloodshed.
However, the more the mighty try to suppress the feeble, the more the feeble devise means of escape. With the prevalence of information technology in this era of history, I ask; is information technology a hindrance or an advantage to the practice of democracy? Information Technology has revolutionized the century with cutting edge innovations and inventions in information creation, access and distribution. Being fully aware that democracy thrives with information, the advancements of IT have implications on the system of governance.
Most jurisdictions practice the representative democracy where they elect a set of representatives to superintend their affairs. After elections, most of the elected detach themselves from the electorates and almost always are disconnected from the views and concerns of the electorate they represent.
Pre-IT era, citizens engaged each other in thoughtful arguments at the city gates, under trees, homes or in pubs and discuss issues of national concern and how the administration of the day is running their affairs and it all ends there. They hardly get access to their representatives and vice versa.
Where they are bold enough, they organize a protest group to press home their requests, but the success or otherwise of it depends on the resilience and honesty of the group leader most often to ward off any attempts to compromise him/ her to give up the course by the powers they fight against and also the number of citizens who are willing to make the change happen – most often not many of them. Now, the proliferation of IT enabled platforms and services have totally changed the “engagement” culture.
With the development of new catalysts – social media, internet etc. citizens now have far reaching voices to vent out displeasures with the democratic system and its actors, incite like-minded individuals to plead their course and engage the powers that be. They have hard facts at their fingertips and no more rely on only what they are told. They now engage representatives they cannot access in person on social media platforms with all the issues on their mind for the entire community of that platform to see and where the issue is a critical one, it starts to trend – the most discussed issue on the platform, and the discomfort it creates most often than not pushes the authorities for an immediate resolution of the issue.
The era of using days to organize a protest is gone! It is now just a matter of minutes to hours. Citizens can develop a digital petition and get enough digital signatures to it and plead a particular cause, run an online poll to prove the general sentiments around a particular government decision and even use news portals to counter inform the population on burning issues to foster their cause.
IT inventions have been deployed by citizens to engage authorities in unprecedented ways to fight the excesses and the oppressions of democratic rule. The IT catalyst has left the actors with no option but to join the buzz and go with the flow. Campaigning has become a different ball game all together. The kingmakers in every democracy are the majority band of the population and it is usually the youth that make up this bracket. Any representative seeking a mandate to represent people in the legislature or executive has to appeal to the youth to be successful at the attempt and majority of the youth basically “live” online.
This has resulted in the development of digital campaigns to reach out to the youth and convince them of a particular candidate. This is a completely new kettle of fish being introduced into the age old democracy and the success of a candidate becomes dependent on how technologically sophisticated his/her campaign is. This form of campaign has its drawbacks and advantages depending on which side of the divide one is. This is how much information technology has had a bearing on democracy and its processes.
In all of this, the one question which remains is whether Information Technology is a hindrance or an advantage to democracy. The answer? It depends on which side of the equation you lie and what your motives and intents are and what you seek to achieve. I tell you why.
To the institutions and the political establishment of a country where bureaucracy is used to stifle citizens on the quest to seek answers and to demand their part of the social contract they entered into, IT and the power it has armed citizens with is a hindrance. It is a hindrance because, their names, institutions or the locality they preside over risk being constantly in the news and in the trends as a result of citizens’ agitation.
When citizens who feel marginalized demand for inclusion before the entire world, when people demand accountability and transparency of their resources, when citizens demand for the adherence to their freedoms and liberties etc., information technology becomes a demon to them.
In a society where there is goodwill and the political establishment, institutions and citizens are together on fulfilling each other’s part of the social contract where there is accountability and transparency, inclusion of all, judicious use of resources etc. they see IT as an enabler to be more accountable, more engaging and more transparent with their locals and to foster further their relationship with those they represent.
They see it as an advantage to make citizens more inclusive in the democratic process and build a nationwide consciousness in the national interest. For those who provide the IT enabled tools – social media, political applications, news portals, digital campaigns etc. it is all about solving a societal need and getting financial compensation for it. It will forever remain an advantage for them so long as they are able to meet the society’s need and get paid for it. Much do not concern themselves about a change in culture – good or bad.
This is how democracy has become in an information technology sophisticated era of history. Whether a hindrance or an advantage depends on which side of the aisle you sit.