In the past decade, social media has transformed many aspects of our daily lives. We are now more connected to each other than we have ever been, both personally and professionally, and platforms such as Twitter have opened doors in areas of journalism, business and governance. Recently, governments in Canada and abroad have shown that they are receptive to using social media to connect with their citizens.
But critics have cautioned that there are downsides to relating with the public in this way. Social media is not always an accurate reflection of public opinion; certain segments of the population might be very vocal about a particular issue while in fact only a small group of people are truly invested in it. Re-tweets, replies and comments by bot accounts can also skew the numbers. Comment sections of news articles and blog posts can attract like-minded thinkers, leaving little room for dissenting opinions to be voiced.
Meanwhile, other jurisdictions are showing that governments must think about accountability and responsibility to their electorate when they try to engage the public in decision-making.
In late 2012, the government of Iceland turned to social media to ask what changes the public would like to see in a new, re-written constitution. They selected 950 Icelanders in a blind lottery to help draft the new constitution and asked the general populace for their opinions on Facebook and Twitter. As a result, they came up with something that more accurately reflected the public’s wants and needs.
But as of yet, the constitution has not been approved. Furthermore, lawmakers have introduced legislation that would require 40% of the popular vote to have the constitution passed. Parliament has been dissolved and many Icelanders believe the constitution they helped created will never become law.
There are many pros to using social media to connect with citizens: it can be a vehicle for innovation, and it can give citizens the sense that they are contributing to policy development in more meaningful ways. But governments must also consider the possible negative ramifications before they try to engage with the public in this way.
Do you think social media is an effective tool for governance, or is it more trouble than it’s worth? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.