Windows on Democratic Engagement – MPs and Web 2.0

When online news sites in the UK receive between 250,000 and 1 million messages a month and a Downing Street web-petition petitions.pm.gov.uk attracts even more signatures in less time, it is tempting to imagine that we are witnessing the dawn of an electronically enabled age of social engagement. After all, we want to believe that the internet can deliver on its promise of connectivity rather than increasing the amount of green ink emanating from the virtual pens of the disgruntled. However, at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) www.rsa.org.uk conference on the Social Impact of the Web, May 25th 2007, a constant refrain was that new technologies do not yet live up to their democratising potential.

The conference touched on many of the issues that are raised by our Parliament for the Future (P4tF) brief. Georgina Henry, editor of The Guardian’s Comment is Free commentisfree.guardian.co.uk noted that although MPs and campaigners can draw attention to themselves through blogging and social networking online, their endeavours do not necessarily enhance democracy. Technology makes it easier to form a vocal opposition but those who govern still need to find ways of engaging with and speaking to those they represent. Speakers discussing the Communications Allowance of MPs at the New Statesman New Media Awards meeting on 18th May 2007 www.newstatesman.com made a similar point when they discussed the need to find ways of using technologies to galvanise engagement rather than promote partisan agendas.

The danger of misdirected online strategies ran through the various presentations made during the RSA conference: Andrew Chadwick, of Royal Holloway and Bedford New College warned that a blind devotion to technology may result in sound-bite politics and public solipsism. According to keynote speaker Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago, the opportunities for developing dialogue across ideological and digital divides were only possible when communicative norms were established: even then, particular aspects of human behaviour (the desire to be seen to be right or to achieve consensus around one’s beliefs) mean that people tend to flock to opinion-affirming sites rather than to those that challenge their perceptions.

Social networks, according to Bronwyn Kundhardt – former Director of Citizenship of Microsoft and co-founder of Polecat, an agency supporting not-for-profit organisations online – can deliver on the promise of like-mindedness, but only within communities that share the same outlook. The problem is that opinions become polarised and the internet is Balkanised. The question, then, is whether MPs as representatives of the people can harness new technologies in ways that allow for true deliberation and engagement. Can we create the tools to allow MPs and the electorate to transcend party politics and is that desirable?

Laura

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