By Areeq Chowdhury & Oliver Sidorczuk.
Fake news, cyber-trolls, echo chamber. We’re in a new era. An era where digital technology has a tangible impact on our lives and in our politics. It’s ‘Democracy 2.0’. Although there are so many possibilities, we need to understand and clamp down on the abuse, in order to exploit the potential. There are so many positives and negatives of the internet. It’s time for action on both.
Clicktivism has wiped out the costs and enabled political action on a mass scale. Whether it’s for the organisation of worldwide rallies for women’s rights, or the gathering of thousands of signatures for a petition, the internet has made it easy for citizens to organise and campaign.
This blessing has come with the plight of bullying and ‘alternative facts’. Whilst social media provides a platform for us to voice opinions on a digital soapbox, the fear of personal abuse from strangers or anonymous profiles has a stifling, silencing effect and prevents people from sharing ideas and challenging misconceptions. Alternative facts and fake news spread like wildfire on the internet. The risk is that any political action that people do take may be entirely misguided and ineffective.
The plague of fake news and the escalation of cyber-trolling requires action. The onus is on politicians to listen, and then act. Fact-checkers and Facebook are not going to end the problem of fake news on their own. The answer is to educate young people on how to critically analyse what they read online, and in the media. By failing to ensure that our democracy keeps up-to-date with technology, the UK Government risks allowing political engagement to slide into decline.
Two years ago, the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, reported the findings of his Commission on Digital Democracy and recommended the introduction of online voting and greater political education. The Commissioners also made recommendations on modernising the inner-workings of the UK Parliament – of which there has been some progress. However, with regards to action by the Government on voter engagement, this has been severely lacking. It’s a shame that instead of accepting, and then tackling these challenges with reforms that are actually needed, the Government is instead prioritising voter identity pilots.
Our political processes must be updated to reflect the lives of digital natives and made more accessible for those who are locked out of the system altogether. As we walk the road towards greater devolution with more elected Mayors and powers going to local councillors, we have to look at these issues of voter engagement and political engagement, afresh. Research published last year found that 95% of elected politicians were voted in on turnouts of less than 50%. It’s surely time to take action.
Citizens need to be in a position where they are able to cast informed votes, on tough decisions. They should be empowered to know what their local councillors and elected Mayors are responsible for, as well as what their prospective local councillors and elected Mayors stand for. And in 2017, technology should be playing a big role in moving this forward.
A report published today by the Institute for Digital Democracy explores the progress made since the Speaker’s Commission two years ago. It sets out a series of recommendations for the Government, and Parliament, to adopt; including reforms such as mandatory political education in schools, and a call for the Electoral Commission to create an official, independent voter advice application – ‘VAA’ – ahead of the 2020 General Election. The idea is for the VAA to be developed in cooperation with political parties, academics and citizens – and coordinated with the publication of candidates’ manifestos. This app would then be widely promoted to ensure that as many voters as possible could take advantage of the tool, as part of weighing up which party deserves their vote.
On political education, it’s perhaps an understatement to say that it is a subject that’s not taken seriously by students or teachers (despite the best efforts of many educators, NGOs, and campaigners). We currently risk allowing pupils to leave the school system without even a basic understanding of the political world, and how they can make their voices heard. This becomes a bigger problem, particularly in the digital age, when we expect people to cast informed votes whilst being bombarded by the likes of fake news and false facts.
Words and reports alone will not change anything. Since Mr Speaker’s report, there has been no progress on cyber abuse, no progress on political education – and no progress on online voting. The solutions are known. The ideas are out there. The Government needs to accept its leadership role, look to the future – and take action.
Download and read the Democracy 2.0 report here.