Digital Democracy: It’s not for everybody April 10, 2012 Lindsey Fair Cape Breton University
Social media and the use of it for accelerating democratic agendas has become a hot topic as of late; infact a new term has been coined for it – digital democracy. There is no doubt that the world has seensome major shifts from authoritarian regimes to democratic-hybrid regimes in the last 5 years, and thatat same time the Internet has exploded with participation on social networking sites such as Facebook.The question is whether the two are as closely related as some argue.The Freedom of the Press index is indicative of current social media participation [Table 1]; so whythen is the democratic agenda progressing faster now than it did before social media existed but otherdisruptive channels such as radio did exist. According to popular belief the difference is with the natureof the communication tool. Originally, political information was disseminated via telephone or mailwhich is considered one-to-one communication channels. Then it moved to one-to-manycommunication channels with the likes of television and radio. Social media on the other hand is many-to-many, creating more voices, more listeners and more talkers on every issue. Table 1: Facebook Penetration and Freedom of the Press Index Freedom of Press Freedom of Press Penetration Penetration Facebook Facebook ranking ranking Country Denmark 51.6 2 8 1 Norway 55.82 1 9 2 Canada 51.13 3 15 3 South Africa 9.89 9 24 4 Uruguay 43.4 4 26 5 Greece 34.66 5 28 6 South Korea 13.77 6 29 7 India 3.91 11 41 8 Zambia 1.78 12 63 9 Algeria 9.98 8 63 10 Egypt 13.34 7 76 11 China 0.03 14 80 12 Somalia 0.79 13 80 13 Libya 7.33 10 94 14 *Social Media Data (Socialbakers, 2012), Other Data (World Resource Institute, 2005)
Social media has inherent democratic capacities (Loader, 2011). It’s a tool used for mass collaborationthat leads to new innovations and discussions for democratic practices (Leadbeater, 2008). It iscentripetal in nature in that it connects and globalizes very easily. Its low cost of access and ability toempower ordinary citizens are two of the main arguments supporting the idea that social media has theability to change democracy where other media channels have failed to do so in the past (Chokoshvili,2011).Democracy is about the rights of the individual; however, inherently social media is about collectivism(Dahlberg, 2011). The collective voice on social media does not represent all, instead it has withskewed participation of people (Starr, 2010) already engaged in political reform, not those mostimpacted by authoritarian regimes (Loader, 2011) that supporters of digital democracy often speak of.There is validity in the argument that social networking does increasing social capital and civicparticipation through developing public spheres (Habermas, 1962); but the concrete evidence ofchanging democratic authority is unsubstantiated (Chokoshvili, 2011). Table 2: Fourteen Country Comparison showing the Top 5 Democracies ranking high in all categories Penetration Freedom of Democracy Corruption Perception Facebook Ranking ` Ranking Ranking Ranking ranking Access Digital Press Index Country Norway 1 1 2 2 3 Denmark 2 2 1 1 1 Canada 3 3 3 3 4 Uruguay 4 4 4 5 6 Greece 5 5 8 6 5 South Africa 9 6 6 4 7 India 11 7 10 8 12 South Korea 6 8 5 7 2 Zambia 12 9 9 9 13 Algeria 8 10 12 10 11 Egypt 7 11 11 11 10 Libya 10 12 13 14 9 China 14 13 7 12 8 Somalia 13 14 14 13 14*Social Media Data (Socialbakers, 2012), 2011 Democracy Ranking (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2011), Other Data (World Resource Institute, 2005)
In looking at a cross-section of the globe comparing fourteen diverse countries it is clear that the topfive democratic ranking countries have the highest freedom of the press, highest participation in socialmedia and lowest corruption, but after those five the correlation is not so clear cut; it gets a little messy[Table 2]. Table 3: Shifts in Social Media Participation and Democracy Rankings from 1990-2011 from 1990-2011 Change 2010- Change 2010- 2011 Ranking Social media Social Media Index 20005 Democratic Democracy Democracy Democracy Index 2011 Democracy Index 1990 Index Shift Difference Country Ranking Index 2011 Zambia 34.55 4 -9 1 6 15.19 1 Libya 105.09 2 -7 -7 4 10.55 2 China -14.71 14 -7 -7 3 10.14 3 Egypt 22.1 7 -6 -6 4 9.95 4 Somalia 146.25 1 -7 -77 7 5 Algeria 29.38 5 -2 -3 2 4.48 6 South Africa 9.54 9 5 9 8 2.79 7 South Korea 64.11 3 6 8 8 2.06 8 Norway 3.52 11 10 10 10 0 9 Denmark 2.85 12 10 10 10 -0.48 10 India 25.93 6 8 9 7 -0.7 11 Canada 0.03 13 10 10 9 -0.92 12 Uruguay 10.65 8 10 10 8 -1.83 13 Greece 6.81 10 10 10 8 -2.35 14 *Social Media Data (Socialbakers, 2012), 1990 Democracy Index (Earthtrends, 2007), 2011 Democracy Index (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2011), 2005 Democracy Index (World Resource Institute, 2005)Social media isn’t completely decentralizing power in authoritarian regimes (Dahlberg, 2011), but it isshowing evidence of progressing already democratic states (Sander, 2011). Authoritarian states such asChina that do not allow Freedom of the Press and participation in social media have still shownprogress on the democracy index; suggesting that democracy can be accomplished without the likes ofsocial media. At the same time, countries that already rank high on the democratic index do not showan increase in their ranking as social media became more prolific. They don’t have the need tochallenge their democratic state as much as flawed democratic states do and even less than people fromauthoritarian states do if they had freedom of the press (Chokoshvili, 2011). The major shifts in
democracy are occurring with the hybrid democracies and low ranking flawed democracies such asZambia, Libya and Egypt [Table 3]. These countries have also seen substantial change in their socialmedia activity over the last year. This suggests that social media is most effective in places where abase level of democracy already exists.Social media’s role in a democratic state is very different than its role under an authoritarian state(Chokoshvili, 2011). In authoritarian states, when used at all, social media is used primarily to generateinternational support to limit human rights violations (Ritter, 2011). In flawed democracies and lowranking hybrid regimes the main use is for forms of early protest and demonstration (Chokoshvili,2011). Working democracies on the other hand, do not need to use social media for these purposes andinstead use it to develop social capital and increase civic participation.In hybrid regimes and flawed democracies, social media is playing a part but is not making thesedemocratic shifts in isolation. The scenario must be ripe for democratic transition which includeshaving several parties willing to govern and with no single party able to seize complete power; therehas to be a decrease in wealth and there a substantial amount of the population must be fighting age(Olsen, 1993). If these factors all align and local participation in social media increases at the sametime, digital democracy can happen such as in Egypt. It is important however, to clarify what socialmedia’s role was in Egypt as it was limited compared to common belief. Facebook did help to create atipping point (Gladwell, 2000) of commitment to protest early on in the uprising; however, once thephysical protests began Facebook participation declined. Social media’s most important place in digitaldemocracy then is at the dawn of civic unrest (Chokoshvili, 2011).The Arab Spring is probably the most noted case study for digital democracy and rightly so. Between2005-2011 the Arab Spring countries have seen major shifts in democracy and equal increasedparticipation in social media, suggesting that there is a correlation [Table 4].
Table 4: Arab Spring Case Study Social Media Penetration Change between 2010- Democratic Index Shift from 1990-2011 Ranking Democracy Index Difference from 1990-2011 Social media Change 2010-2011 Ranking Country Democracy Index 20005 Democracy Index 2011 Democracy Index 1990 2011 Libya 105.09 2 -7 -7 4 10.55 2 Egypt 22.1 7 -6 -6 4 9.95 4 Algeria 29.38 5 -2 -3 2 4.48 6 *Social Media Data (Socialbakers, 2012), 1990 Democracy Index (Earthtrends, 2007), 2011 Democracy Index (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2011), 2005 Democracy Index (World Resource Institute, 2005)Digital democracy is creating what Morozov (2011) has coined the “dictators’ dilemma”, whererepressive governments are limited to two options in dealing with social media participation – eitherthey limit citizens access which has economic repercussions or they relax restrictions but this couldlead to pre-conditions for the start of democratic transition. They have to determine if the otherconditions for transition are ripe and if they are this is a hefty risk indeed as we have seen in the ArabSpring.For the people, for the time being, social media isn’t hurting very many in the short run and it just maybe that tipping point for transition (Shirky, 2011). There are tools being developed such asCitizenbridge (http://citizenbridge.org/ ) to aid in digital democracy but for now they only exist inworking democracies; the real transformation may begin when we see those tools reach out to flaweddemocracies and hybrid regimes.
Social media doesn’t create democracy, but no doubt democracies do inspire participation on socialmedia. This is creating a digital divide between the haves and the have nots (Starr, 2010), a scenario ofuneven development. Social media over-represents the views and opinions of democratic states. Theway in which we develop and categorize a democratic state is evolving, in part due to social media butalso for a variety of other complex contributing factors far from the digital world. As democracy itselfevolves, social media will play a role but contrary to recent dialogue (Chokoshvili, 2011) it alone is notprogressing democracy evenly across the globe.
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