/Is digital media changing political representation?

Is digital media changing political representation?

One of the most interesting phenomena that politics is going thru is its disintermediation. As digital media allows any citizen to take part into politics and represent him/herself, representation has to adapt. Theoretically, mass media are getting rid of their political role and citizens are taking this role by themselves. At the same time, politicians are also not so necessary any more, as more and more people want to be able to take part in public decisions by themselves. But is this really happening?

Unfortunately, not so far. For several reasons:

– Mass media are finding ways to become more personal and sincere. TV shows are getting full of personal stories that show emotion and interactivity, thru SMS messages and Twitter, is catching up on these shows. The Big Brother contest is a very good example, as all Reality TV programs.

– Some internet tools are being used as if they were mass media, creating a new elite of top users that control most of the messages. In fact, 10% of users create 90% of the content produced on Twitter, so it works more as a broadcasting network than as a really social one.

– Politicians are turning to social networks to create a more personal and sincere image of themselves. But there is no real change. It’s mainly marketing. See these two examples: Meghan McCain, John McCain’s daughter, created a Facebook page that she is not updating any more. And Senator Mark Warner has even changed his language when he tweets.

– Information overload and the increasing amount of interactive tools is making it impossible for anybody to follow them. Specially for politicians, who are turning to assistants to keep track of their internet presence. Therefore, the so-called closer relationships between citizens and politicians is kind of fake. In fact, an average US congressman receives more than 8,000 e-mail messages per month, wich is not easy to manage.

– In continental Europe, representatives are still very partisan. They are more attached to their parties than to those they represent. This is specially true in European elections.

– A lot has been told about the revolution in Iran, where many people moved to Twitter to express their anger against the government. The problem is that this same tool can be used for the opposite, to give legitimacy to authoritarian governments or to minorities who get to manage blogs or twitter.

Even though, it’s interesting to analyze which are the specific attributes that an online representation system has, as compared to an offline one. This work has been done by professor Stephen Coleman, who in his great work “The Lonely Citizen: Indirect Representation in an Age of Networks“, mentions the following:

– Connection: thru twitter, video, e-mail and other online communication systems, people feel closer both pshychologycally and spatially, which ends up creating pseudo communities.

– Mutuality: the network connects citizens (communities) and government, which takes both to recognize that problems must be solved together.

– Coherence: the Internet has a capacity to put together all voices that must be taken into account in a democratic conversation.

– Empathy: government representatives must exhibit empathy toward the people they govern. This is mainly done thru the use of video to express politicians’ feelings. This Obama’s video is one of the best examples, because of its theoretical authenticity, which has a lot to do with :

As Coleman wrote, “in an age where authenticity and ordinariness are valued more than prestige and expertise, the challenge for democratic politicians is to be seen as ordinary enough to be representative, while extraordinary enough to be representatives”.

And if politicians don’t manage the tools and change politics so it really connects with the people they are representing, they are going to get in real trouble. This is how Coleman explains it: “The danger for the political class is the emergence of a subterranean sphere of discourse from which they are excluded. Public communication could migrate, leaving the ‘leaders’ behind. Direct representation provides an opportunity for the terms of political communication to be renegotiated for the digital age”.