There are a lot of fairly shallow ‘gee whiz’ type stories around about the growing use of Twitter and other social media by politicians. But while a lot of it is fairly faddish – not dissimilar to the rash of ‘wow, a politician is using a blog!‘ stories of a couple of years ago which completely ignored (or were oblivious to) whether the example detailed was of any value or significance – there remains an important element of social media which can and sometimes already is enabling greater connection and interaction between different sectors of society, including government and the electorate.
Having tried to maintain a reasonably wide-ranging eye on the way different usages of social media in politics have evolved in various parts of the world over the last five years or so, I am becoming more and more convinced that its greater potential for improving genuine public engagement on issues that affect them lie in the developing countries and democracies, rather than democracies in the Anglosphere.
The mass media in some developing countries can be either overtly censored, government controlled or seriously constrained in other ways to varying degrees. This makes social media far more crucial as a means for genuine information and expressions of opinion, including for opposition politicians.
In other cases, the political culture is such that there is far more of an overt distance between politicians and general public. This means that the potential for expanded open engagement is greater, and social media can be well suited to this given its exploding popularity in many developing countries (which is why openly authoritarian regimes such as in China or Iran go to such lengths to block or censor it).
The reason for my musing on this is a piece in the New York Times about the impacts of a government Minister in India using Twitter. The potential significance is not that there is another politician trying to show they are up with the trends, but that the politician in question – who is Shashi Tharoor, a junior Minister of Foreign Affairs and former UN diplomat – could be acting in a way which
collapses the distance between the governors and the governed and dismantles the layers of protocol and decorum that keep elected officials and senior bureaucrats here aloof from the everyday concerns of those they serve.
The fact that Twitter is being used is mostly irrelevant. The novelty of that will soon fade, even with the media. It is the potential shift towards a political culture that expects closer engagement and openness which is significant. From Mr Tharoor’s comments, it seems that it is the potential interactive nature of the medium which appealed to him.
Politicians from all countries, rich and poor, will always be looking for new ways to communicate their message to the voters. The differing mechanism might be of significance to campaigning professionals and marketers, but make little difference to the public or to improving democracy.
But providing better ways for the voters to interact with politicians – and with each other – is something that matters to everyone; perhaps even more so in evolving or developing democracies where they have opportunities to build more vibrant systems than the older democracies in some western countries which have become somewhat ossified and even dysfunctional.