The rise of the clickocracy

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 8 September 2011 in Diary
It's easier than ever to click on a petition and 'participate' in democracy. But is is a good thing that we can click without understanding?

Have you signed one of the new government e-petitions? Or sent to your MP one of those automated e-mails of the sort propagated by earnest campaigners like 38 Degrees?

You must be even the slightest bit politically engaged to be reading Total Politics, so the odds are that you have. And if you have arrived here via Twitter or some other time-wasting wonder of social media, the chances are even higher.

As you are so democratically plugged in, I am guessing that you remember what it was you were signing up to, whether post offices, forestry, healthcare or even that old chestnut of hanging.

But can you remember exactly when it was?  Can you remember the wording? What proportion of the country’s forestry is owned by the Forestry Commission? What did the Hooper Report have to say about the fall in Royal Mail letter volumes? What was the composition of the NHS Future Forum?  Why are you even in favour of capital punishment?*

If you know your onions from your leeks in the manifold realms of public policy, have a pat on the back and read or watch something else. This video of a dog waking up and running into a wall is quite good.

But before you go, ask yourself whether you’ve ever signed a petition or typed your postcode into one of those campaign websites without really knowing much about what it was you were doing. I’d wager, in fact I’m near enough sure, that this applies to most of us (I, in not-so-cross times, included).

We are all taking part in these acts of ‘direct democracy’ because the rise of internet communication and social media has made it so laughably easy – so easy that you don’t even have to know the name of your local MP. You are influencing the system, giving those politicians a piece of your mind and reminding them that they serve you, the voter (you did vote, didn’t you?).

And of course, you are well within your right to do all of these things and your elected representatives are most certainly obliged to take heed of what you say, even if they don’t agree with you – though, frankly, would you have ‘sent’ that ‘e-mail’ to them if you had believed that they did?

Nonetheless, the ease with which people can make their digital voice heard is actually detrimental to the democratic process.

When each and every one of these campaigns proudly flares up – and I am speaking directly about the email campaigns here, not e-petitions – the inboxes of MPs are inundated – nay, overwhelmed – by constituents’ complaints.

You might argue that is precisely the point. In yesteryear, petitions from around the land would be deposited in the sack behind the Speaker’s chair in the House of Commons: mass and length of petition mattered if you wanted to get heard. Indeed, these tsunamic email campaigns can even sometimes achieve things, such as upsetting the misguided forestry sell-off (although how much of an impact the likes of 38 Degrees had compared to proper organisations like the National Trust is another matter).

But more often than not, these email campaigns are just a puerile fit of pique directed at a body of politicians deaf to your pleas or whipped against hearing them in the first place. They achieve nothing more than clogging up the system to the injury of other constituents with proper concerns that they have actually thought about and submitted to their MP with more effort than clicking a link. Grief, they might even have picked up an old fountain pen and written it by hand.

Because of course, in the spirit of democratic accountability, each and every one of these mindless emails has to be replied to in writing. Different MPs will have slightly different methods but as a rule the good-spirited crusaders with an internet connection will receive the same pro forma reply as everyone else. Their reward will be about as fulfilling as their input.

Who gains from this? Certainly not the constituent, who is likely to be made even more irascible by the rebuff and likely to go click-click-clicking again. Certainly not the MP, who learns very little about what their constituent actually thinks.  And certainly not the democratic process.

Now think about the student fees protestors last winter; or the trades unions members who marched in the capital over the summer; or further back, the Iraq war demonstrations, and the hundreds of thousands of rural citizens who jumped in the jalopy to attend the countryside marches.  Agree with the cause or not, those people were really engaging with democracy and making their voices heard.

If citizens ‘engage’ without understanding, then they increase the risk of disenchantment when the rebuff is returned. With understanding comes empathy for someone else’s point of view.  By just clicking, citizens see only the headline, not the detail.

There is this apparently inalienable belief that social media and the internet has brought citizens closer to democracy. Think twice. The rise of a clickocracy could actually be driving them further apart.

*18 per cent, or 965 sq miles; down 7.3 per cent in 2008-09; clinicians, patient representatives, voluntary sector representatives and other frontline NHS staff; I’m sorry, I haven’t a clue

Tags: Capital Punishment, EPetitions, Forestry Commission, Royal mail

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