July 2012

e-Politics

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We are in the cusp of change when it comes to the manner in which politics is conducted


With the advent of Internet, there has been a significant democratisation of the ability to distribute and consume information. The power to distribute information and the ability to reach out to the people is no longer being controlled by a few in the society. This has had disproportionate impact on all walks of life and society. However, this change in the asymmetry of power to distribute and consume information is only just beginning to impact the business of  politics but growing at a rapid pace. In 2011, almost one-third of Internet users described the web as an important source of political information, compared v with less than 15 percent in 2007 according to the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM).

We are in the cusp of change in the manner in which politics  is conducted. Tweets from a twelve year old girl had galvanized the population  of Seoul to converge at the Town Hall to protest against beef imports from US. A few years later, similar  localisation over the Internet had  started toppling governments, starting with the Government of Egypt. Nearer home, civil society has effectively used the Internet to create one of the largest people’s movements since independence. People notwithstanding their geographical location have joined the fight against corruption through the Internet. We have also  seen how Internet is being used to run political campaigns and to also reduce the cost of campaigning. The presidential campaign run by Barack Obama in US was highly dependent on the Internet. Digital media gives any politician  the “baseline” pulse thus knowing when people favour or disfavour the candidate and his/her policies. Thus, the internet allows trends of people’s expectations to be mined that will help politicians and policymakers to target people’s need more effectively.

Most importantly, we are witnessing the metamorphosis of  emocracy itself. Democracy is slowly morphing from being an Indirect Democracy to a Direct Democracy with people’s views being factored in for most policies that are being adopted by the government and also for most legislations being passed by the parliament. No longer do the elected representatives have the sole prerogative to unilaterally decide on what is the appropriate legislation and appropriate policies for the entire nation without any further consultation with the citizens. Thus politics is moving towards a more collaborative leadership model. Waves of ICT applications in politics have empowered groups of political neophytes (‘netizens’, ‘cyber-libertarians’), extending the power of people who are from the disadvantaged layers of society to shape and transform conventional politics into a stage of ‘virtual democracy’. This transformation is being expedited with the advents of Internet access over mobile phone which gives citizens new opportunities to mobilize and be heard.

Increasingly net savvy citizens share political content in real time. This can lead to phenomena such as the ability of the new-found tools for mass political mobilization. Internet was used as a tool in the Egyptian anti-government protests which further provoked a series of uprisings. In the case of Myanmar, where there are limited avenues to express dissent, the recent protests and their global impact were only possible through extensive use of mobile phones and the internet.

However, the disconcerting aspect of ePolitics is that in a society with an urban-rural digital divide, how do we ensure that we also do not have a divide over which sections of the population can express their opinion? What level of political dissent will be tolerated? In a world of government censorship crackdown, will citizens and smaller political parties succeed in finding alternative routes to safeguard their cherished freedom of expression? Such questions and the value of the internet to Politics will shape how politics will evolve with the power of Internet.

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