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Social Media & Political Participation: Setting a Democratic Agenda

UNITED NATIONS, Dec 17 2012 (IPS) - “To engage with emerging forms of civic behaviour, governments need to adopt strategies and use technologies that respond to citizens’ demands,” said Massimo Tommasoli, Permanent Observer for the  Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA)  at a workshop Monday on “Social Media and Democratic Governance.” The meeting was co-organised by the New York office of the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) and Estoril Conferences.

He added: “The ICTs (digital information and communication technologies), in particular social media, constitute dynamic and decentralized means for people and organisations to communicate and cooperate with one another for political and civic ends”.

Those technologies are producing fundamentals changes in governance with “the ability of people to report, document, advocate, exchange and organize peacefully for political change”.

They also facilitate the development of horizontal political networks, reduce the costs of acquiring political information, and increase the connectivity and the mobilisation effect of the youth.

Thanks to broadcasting and editing capabilities, “people are media and media are politics right now”, said Rodrigo Moita de Deus, Director of NextPower,. He reminded the importance of media and propaganda in all revolution, as a cheap way to influence decisions and debate.

He also stressed some risks of social media: “One man, one vote has become one man, one Like -(Facebook)- so the risk is that people think that it is enough to participate on Facebook.”

Ricardo Leite, member of parliament of Portugal, shared his own experiences as a user of new technologies balancing the advantages of the proximity to constituents, the accountability, the possibility of feedback on legislation and policy impact, with the risks of the exposure to criticism, the limited resources, the difficulty to address focus groups and the impossibility to measure impact.

He presented the initiative Parliament 2020 which aims to improve process and communication in Parliamentarian level in some countries, and proposed some recommendations for improving legislatures’ relationships with the public.

For instance, the electronic petitions (ePetitions) were seen as a good way to engage people, the ability to view what was going on in real time would also be make the Parliament more effective, and this latter should play a proactive role in informing the public with email notifications; digital media should help mimic face-to-face interaction.

Leite insisted on the necessity of transparency, interactivity, accountability, education to teach people how they can participate to the process, as a way to create an “open Parliament, a transparent and accessible façade, by changing its culture to include people in the process, using accessible language, with members who mix different skills as politics, management and involvement in community.

“There is a window of opportunity to grasp this chance to more fully engage, to become true agents of representative democracy and rebuild public faith in them,” concluded Leite, and it is “equal responsibility of Parliament and their members to make this happen.”

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