Error 404: Democracy Not Found — what social media tells us about the state of our culture

Error 404 Democracy Not Found

At a time in our world when there are more people voting for their government representatives than ever before, it’s a discomforting thought that most of us are unhappy with the way our lives are run. To be fair, we are growing up alongside financial crises alongside an overpopulated planet. Still, whether political systems are under more assault due to having so many more eyes on it or whether people are feeling somewhat more entitled, the fact remains that the web — specifically when we look at social media — is playing a massive role in how it’s being shaped and ultimately understood.

A recently released book, titled Defining Democracy in a Digital Age, revealed that the majority of people on Twitter have a negative sentiment towards democracy. Based on the tweets analysed, 62% of people on Twitter are not fans of our old Greek-inspired political system.

“It feels like people are seeing more errors in [democracy],” says Barend Lutz who co-authored the book alongside Stellenbosch University Professor Pierre du Toit. Lutz, a political risk analyst and digital media manager, points to events such as the Arab Spring and how democracies are struggling to consolidate. In the West, ideas such as Occupy Wall Street — vaguely protesting against social and economic inequality worldwide — was harpooned by Twitter and Facebook.

This unrest has been the main driver behind Lutz and du Toit’s study, which asked the question, “Can one effectively measure opinions on democracy on Twitter?” Apparently you can.

Read more: #SONA2015 reached 30 tweets per second in SA’s first true social TV event

Now, for the general public, Twitter only allows you access to one percent of all tweets that are created. For the methodology the pair developed, they had access to 1% of all the tweets created within three months in 2012. Of the 500 million tweets per day, there were around 100 000 relating to democracy. They ended up analysing a total of 102 000 tweets from across the globe.

Estimation of actual sentiment

As the above graph shows, over 48 000 tweets expressed negativity towards democracy, whereas nearly 30 000 were positive. The methodology used relied on machine learning and language processing software.

“The tweets are not a representative sample of the world but they are representative of a very influential part of society,” explained Lutz. He explained that, in the same way the Greeks used Agoras to gather, debate and form public opinion, people later conversed in the French coffee houses and soon relied on media — newspapers and then television news. Today, with things like Twitter, the platform for public opinion is no longer concentrated. Instead, it’s being democratised, which is kind of ironic seeing that the general sentiment isn’t happy about the whole deal.

So where to from here?

In our instant-gratifying culture born out of on-demand social, sex, entertainment, lifts and laundry, traditional political structures are getting stretched by a much more demanding and free society than ever before. As nicely summed up in an essay by The Economist:

The internet makes it easier to organise and agitate; in a world where people can participate in reality-TV votes every week, or support a petition with the click of a mouse, the machinery and institutions of parliamentary democracy, where elections happen only every few years, look increasingly anachronistic.

Lutz predicts that while the process is very long-term, the world seems to moving towards a more direct, representative democracy. There are significant leaps being made by governments and activists alike to keep up with the pace.

Switzerland has a semi-direct democracy where citizens can participate with decision-making online. As well as having the right to propose an initiative of their own, Swiss citizens have veto-rights on laws proposed by parliament through an optional referendum. While such a system sounds ideal, it demands a strong infrastructure as well as a sound education system, which the country is proud to have.

In Argentina, the Net Party is using an app called DemocracyOS that seeks to “help citizens who don’t have time to attend local government meetings, follow new laws, and monitor elected officials.” This piece of software is open source and has thus been used by Tunisians to boost participation.

In light of the recent #SONA2015 episode with signal jamming and the like, it would probably be beneficial for government to take heed of some of these examples.



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