Is our democracy moving into cyberspace?

David Cameron at computer David Cameron visits the office of social network site Netmums earlier this year

Politicians have complained of an ambush, after David Cameron was surprised on ITV's This Morning by a list of people named online as paedophiles. Is our democracy moving into cyberspace, and should we be worried in case the values of the internet prevail?

Facebook and Twitter campaigns, it seems, are replacing the old-fashioned demo or sit-in.

In the White House, there is now a team whose sole job is to monitor the world according to social media.

I'd be amazed if No 10 didn't have something similar, watching how the online community responds to current events. And I can imagine the conversations between advisors:

"Badgers has gone viral."

"Plebgate is still trending."

"#savetheashtrees is out of control. We're going to have to respond."

"If we don't react we'll look complacent."

"Or complicit. We need an initiative."

"A review."

"An inquiry."

"Maybe we'll have to change our mind."


And so real political power is shifting, it could be said, from the judicious mainstream to the rushing mob.

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Politics by Facebook rarely adds up to considered rational debate. It is visceral communal response. And governments are becoming scared silly by it”

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In some ways there is purity in virtual democracy. It reflects public mood in real time. It's difficult to rig. Sometimes truth is flushed out, with old power structures helpless to respond.

You can't have a quiet lunch with the editor of Twitter. And even if you could, it would be too late.

But politics by Facebook rarely adds up to considered rational debate. It is visceral communal response. And governments are becoming scared silly by it.

Those old fashioned focus groups, a dozen people in a room, seem irrelevant next to tens of thousands of tweeters suddenly getting angry about something.

Or ridiculing something.

Mitt Romney's phrase "binders full of women" inspired its own satirical Facebook group with 12,000 members. Nick Clegg's Apology song on You Tube has had more than 2m views.

Obama on Twitter Barack Obama used Twitter to announce his election victory this week

It can be clever and funny, but with politics conducted on social media, there's no Speaker in his chair, no referee, few rules. So the standards, the manners that govern behaviour in the real world don't always apply.

Want to accuse a public figure of some dreadful crime but don't have proof? Yes, you can Google the accusations in seconds. Hundreds of them.

Maybe with due process sometimes the guilty escape justice. But there's a reason the mainstream media haven't done the same.

It's not just the libel laws. There are deep professional and ethical concerns about adopting the values of the Internet, and troubling signs the mainstream is edging in that direction.

If our democracy completes its journey into cyberspace, and I suspect it might, there are huge questions about just what kind of democracy we will be left with.

Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Policy making by the twitterati, no thanks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    We no longer need to elect and pay for an area representative to represent us in their big clubhouse in London: we can all just vote on anything that matters online. So let's get rid of the MP's.

    But while public votes should now matter, and count, a lot more, we do need a safeguard from descending into 'mob rule'. We don't want Twitter followers, or Facebook 'likes', deciding UK policy or law.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Worth repeating a HYS comment I made yesterday to the article "DC testing App to aid Govt decisions":

    "The app, which had the working title of Number 10 Dashboard...- and pulls data from hundreds of data sources including Google, Twitter and Facebook.."

    We all know how reliable/accurate the info from these sites is..Another demonstration that the Govt doesn't know it's a*** from its elbow.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    11 piroflip

    But are they "the vast majority" or just the ones that shout the loudest on the internet? We can come up with all sorts of clever tools and fancy diagrams to show what's trending on the web but, ultimately, the only way we can find out definitively whether, for example, the majority would rather be in or out of the EU is to ask everyone by means of a referendum.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    There is no real democracy! We get to vote in one of two virtually identical governments every four years who then do whatever they please.... even when very obviously against the wishes of the people!

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    In one sense I'm very excited about Cyberspace because previously the only real time response to public policy was the financial markets which has special interests.

    Cyberspace should be another tool for the public to communicate with leaders. But its just one tool of many, it needs a prominent, but defined place for it to be effective.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    If Britain was a REAL democracy then it wouldn't have any problems with the internet

    Like China, it has problems with the internet

    The USA too, with its wikileaks witchhunt

    As long as governments have secrets the problems will continue

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    What democracy?
    The vast majority want us out of Europe but the political elite will not give us a referendum. The vast majority are fed up to the gills of mass immigration but still, in they pour. The vast majority want much tougher action on crime but the PC brigade block it. The vast majority are suffering (real term) wage cuts while the fat cats get ever increasing salaries.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    I have always considered it the "art" of an experienced and gifted poltician that he may be surprised in public, but it will look - for all intents and purposes - as though it is no surprise at all. It's called quick-thinking. or even no comment (if that feels more appropriate). But than again Cameron has never seemed to me either quick-thinking or appropos on the spot.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    It would suit the faceless robotic way our politicians act towards us. Apps wont help you connect to people who see living as harder day by day. Its fine to gossip on Twitter or Facebook but these "Suits" are devoid from reality enough, you are damaging lives and communitys with silly ideas and policies like Mass Immigration, unfair tax systems and a failure to help victims of crime.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Successive governments have ensured what civil liberties we may take - strike action, demo's peaceful or otherwise, direct criticism etc are been slowly eroded and legislated against. People, being people, will keep moving to the places where freedoms still exist - just now that is cyberspace. However, governments will slowly legislate against that too - until something gives that is.

  • Comment number 7.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Democracy? In Britain? What democracy? How can there be democracy when Brits don't get to vote if they want to remain part of a confederation they were duped into joining that continues to slowly but surely usurp their sovereignty over themselves? When they get a public debate and referendeum on remaining in the EU, the BBC can talk about democracy in Britain but not before.It's a sham.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    One problem (of many!) with this "cyberspace democracy" is that it promotes short-termism. The shrill voice of the digital mob demands not only that "something must be done" but that "something must be done TODAY", regardless of whether the issue would be better tackled through sober consideration and a measured response, rather than a heat-of-the-moment knee-jerk reaction.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Democracy: govt of, for & by the people, based on elected govts and opposition listening to the voice of the people, local representation, a judicial system, etc.

    The internet should be the greatest advance in democracy since universal suffrage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Mob rule mentality is the risk of this rush towards digital and the internet as a source of democracy - hiding behind anonymity and drive by vested interests. It is not open nor is it democratic.
    You need only read most boards on papers and here to see the sort of ignorance adn opinion dressed up as fact (and this covers all political persuasions and none).

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    You redeem this piece with "If our democracy completes its journey into cyberspace...."

    There is no doubt we have to come to terms with the changed nature of transparency and media freedom. The law of libel will need to catch up and democracy will change But democracy has always changed.

    Can the establishment cope?

    If not, we face revolution.

    It was always thus.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Advances in technology mean we can dispense with parliament - far past its sell by date & we can vote online. Ministerial posts should be advertised online & anyone can apply - then 10 candidates chosen & the best selected online. Of all the ministers selected they can apply to be PM - we vote online for the best. We can end the party political system tomorrow & have real democracy.


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