Weblog on the Internet and public policy, journalism, virtual community, and more from David Brake, a Canadian academic, consultant and journalist

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1 March 2016
Filed under:E-democracy,E-government,Net politics at9:50 am

McGill student vote mob 2011

Canada is the latest Western country to find that the youth vote, long thought to be in terminal decline, has in fact been rising. In the run-up to their 2015 elecion there was considerable speculation that Canadian young people had turned out to vote, but proof of the scale of the change has just emerged. Two thirds of 18-24 year olds there voted, compared with 55% in the 2011 election and as low as 35% in the 2004 election (the first where reliable statistics were gathered). This is still, of course, lower than the 77% of the voting age overall who voted (fully 86% of 65-74 year olds voted for example) but is further evidence that there may at last be a shift away from a worrying trend in many western countries of youth disengagement from electoral politics. Similar trends towards higher youth engagement were also visible in the UK as well, in its 2015 election. Nearly six in ten people between 18 and 24 voted then, compared to 52% in 2010 and just 38% in 2005.

The reasons for this apparent shift are not yet clear. Some have suggested that increased use of social media by politicians is helping. Surveys in America after the 2008 election suggested that because young people were more likely to be online, they were also thereby more likely to engage in electorally-relevant online activity.

There has certainly been plenty of social media activity by politicians across the world, though it is hard to pinpoint any social media-led event or talking point that had an impact during the election itself in Canada. Indeed, the most visible impact social media had in the Canadian election is arguably a negative one. Misbehaviour by some candidates – many of them young – on social media led to 12 candidates being withdrawn and at least as many being criticized after the exposure. While it is important that candidates be held accountable for their political views, many of the blunders seem to have been due to jokes in poor taste or intemperate language in their postings rather than deeply held abhorrent beliefs. As I have argued in my book, “Sharing Our Lives Online: Risks and Exposure in Social Media“, there is a real danger that young people will rule themselves out of involvement in electoral politics fearing the exposure of their online pasts by other politicians or journalists.

In the UK if anything the problem seems to be the opposite – despite hundreds of Facebook and Twitter postings by parties during last year’s election, their impact on young people may have been limited because, as Darren Lilleker remarks, “it remains largely a broadcasting tool… they [the parties] use Facebook and Twitter in similar ways to push out messages rather than communicating with their supporters.” Instead of being too personal, they may be not personal enough to really engage with young people.

A literature review by Samara, a Canadian think-tank, suggests finding ways for young people to be involved with the parties they identify with short of full membership could be one way to increase their engagement with formal politics. Reducing the voting age to 16 has been mooted as a way to get young people thinking politically sooner, though making this possible for voting in the UK in EU elections for example was recently rejected by the House of Lords). Of course there is a simple, “brute force” solution, espoused by Martin Wattenberg in his US study of youth disengagement – make voting mandatory. In Canada, the governing Liberal party has said it will be considering this option in its electoral reform programme.

The real answer may be more simple – as Samara found, young people are active in conventional politics when they are contacted directly by parties and party members. Because historically they vote in lower numbers (and because they are harder to target, being mobile and often lacking landline phones) politicians tend to focus their energies and their policies on older people. Some recent anti-establishment politicians on the left like Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the US have made much of their connections with young people. But it is not clear there are enough young potential voters to enable them to break through and bring the concerns of the young into mainstream politics.

6 August 2012

Evgeny Morozov has recently delivered a scathing (and funny) dissection of a collection of TED ebooks, including most prominently one by Parag and Ayesha Khanna. Leaving aside the superficiality of the ideas he mocks (I have not read the works in question) he points out something rather more disturbing in their work – the anti-democratic streak that appears to run through it eg:

We cannot be afraid of technocracy when the alternative is the futile populism of Argentines, Hungarians, and Thais masquerading as democracy. It is precisely these nonfunctional democracies that are prime candidates to be superseded by better-designed technocracies—likely delivering more benefits to their citizens…. To the extent that China provides guidance for governance that Western democracies don’t, it is in having “technocrats with term limits.

It gets worse though – after the publication of Morozov’s critique, Vishrut Arya found an interview with Ayesha wherein she reflects on the exciting possibilities that augmented reality glasses would enable people who didn’t like homeless people to simply delete them from their sight. When I read this I assumed it was meant by her as some kind of warning but on listening she follows this with “…so now we have enhanced our basic sense”.

I am not surprised to find TED giving credibility to this kind of pundit – I am, however, disturbed and disappointed to see that my alma mater, the LSE, giving her a platform by making her director of their Future Cities Group (while she finishes her PhD there). Seems like another potential Said Ghaddafi embarrassment in the making. Certainly Beatrice and Sidney Webb would be turning in their graves!

28 February 2005

I have mostly been blogging over at the Media@LSE group weblog – tonight I am blogging from the LSE itself where I am at an event about The Fall and Fall of Journalism – featuring one of my supervisors, Prof Robin Mansell.

22 January 2005

Ethan Zuckerman has written thoughtfully about Wikipedia in response to a recent “article”:http://www.techcentralstation.com/111504A.html (by a former editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica) suggesting it is impressive but its accuracy cannot be guaranteed. Zuckerman points out that Wikipedia is great if you are looking for in-depth coverage of (say) how “GSM”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GSM works but, ‘when I use Wikipedia to obtain information that I could find in a conventional encyclopedia, I often have a terrible experience, encountering articles that are unsatisfying at best and useless at worst.’

Danah Boyd notes usefully that one of the benefits of signed, scholarly resources over community ones like Wikipedia is that “scholars have something to lose”:http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2005/01/08/on_a_vetted_wikipedia_reflexivity_and_investment_in_quality_aka_more_responses_to_clay.html when they get things wrong.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the debate about the quality of Wikipedia has spread fairly widely across the Internet punditsphere. It now even has its own “wiki page”:http://www.emacswiki.org/cw/WikipediaQualityControlDebate which attempts to summarise the debate (and if you use a blog search tool like “Bloglines”:http://www.bloglines.com/citations?url=http://www.techcentralstation.com/111504A.html you’ll find 83 more sites with something to say on the subject).

P.S. Sorry if this is coming to the debate rather late – I am not doing as much blogging as I used to to free up time for writing my PhD about it instead – and where I am blogging I tend to do it on the “Media@LSE Group Weblog at get.to/lseblog”:http://groupblog.workasone.net/index.php I set up. In the last few weeks I have blogged about “Korea leading the world in numbers of bloggers”:http://groupblog.workasone.net/index.php?p=39, a “database of predictions about the Internet”:http://groupblog.workasone.net/index.php?p=28 “Santa Studies”:http://groupblog.workasone.net/index.php?p=23, “Online transcription services”:http://groupblog.workasone.net/index.php?p=22, “The Economics of Search”:http://groupblog.workasone.net/index.php?p=15 and the “global broadband digital divide”:http://groupblog.workasone.net/index.php?p=20 (and my colleagues in the LSE’s PhD programme have also had several interesting things to post). Pleas come and take a look (at least if you want to hear about the academic side of my life).

3 December 2004

David Weinberger at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society raises an important issue in a recent discussion at Harvard using a metaphor I hadn’t thought of before:

Put aside for the moment question of what is legally ours on the Net. Instead, consider what’s ours in a less explicit and less rigorous sense. Google feels like ours (even though it legally belongs to its shareholders) while Microsoft’s new search site feels like theirs. Weblogs feel like their ours while online columns do not. The Mac feels like it’s ours while Dell computers do not. Craigslist feels like ours while newspaper classified ads and Monster.com feel like theirs. In fact, many of us feel and act as if downloaded mp3s were ours.

Is this sense of “ours” an illusion? Is it a temporary artifact that will vanish in months or years? What makes something that’s not legally ours still feel that way, on the Web or off? And does this provide a way of figuring out why many of us feel so passionately about the load of bits we call the Net?

Well of course not everyone agrees on what technology they consider ‘theirs’ – I don’t feel a big psychological difference between Google and MSN search for example. But I think David W is on to something here. The Berkman folks will likely approach this from a legal perspective (should laws be written from the POV of how people have come to feel about a given tech?) while my interest is more cultural – (what makes people invest a tech with personal significance?)

12 November 2004

Over in the Live Journal of “blog sociology”:http://www.livejournal.com/community/blog_sociology/ here’s a reference to a pair of matching sites – the sorry’s and the not-sorry’s. Both feature pictures sent in by Americans who are (or aren’t) sorry that Bush was re-elected.

This is interesting to me from an academic point of view as an example of how ‘ordinary people’ can use Internet technology to make political statements that have the power of authenticity precisely because of their ordinariness but which have a very low ‘barrier to entry’. You don’t need to be clever or articulate to express your views on the site – you just need a camera.

update Along similar lines “Geodog”:http://www.thebishop.net/geodog/archives/2004/10/08/late_night_thoughts_on_browsing_the_iraq_tag_on_flickr.html points out that services like Flickr make it easy to find photos about what’s going on in Iraq – many of them taken in Iraq. Also see “my earlier blog posting”:http://blog.org/archives/cat_current_affairs_world.html#001222 about this…

6 November 2004

And now Google’s ad policies are public. Google will not run ads promoting gambling, beer or spirits (wine is apparently fine), fireworks and a long list of other banned subjects. Of course you can always argue about what they should have added and what doesn’t belong there – I also expect a number of objections by borderline cases. For example, they ban advertising of ‘miracle cures’ (but seem happy to allow ads for homeopathy). And I expect there may be a couple more exclusions they don’t mention. Would they allow dissidents to advertise the “anonymous proxy servers”:http://www.samair.ru/proxy/index.htm that would enable Chinese people to get around their government’s “internet filtering”:http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/filtering/china/? Would they let people advertise “Nazi Paraphernalia”:http://www.metronews.ca/tech_news.asp?id=2702 as Yahoo got prosecuted for? (the stuff arguably isn’t in itself ‘advocating against a protected group’ (which they ban) but I don’t see any ads come up if I search for ‘nazi for sale’).

Nice at least to see some openness from Google about the ethical policies they have exercised until now without scrutiny.

2 November 2004

Some things I was expecting that don’t seem to have turned up:

1) Whatever happened to the ‘October surprise’ that both parties were rumoured to be cooking up? (I don’t count “Bin Laden’s pre-election address”:http://blog.octobersurprise.net/ – it is hard to see which candidate it would favour). There is so much ideologically-led error and just plain sleaze around the Bush administration I was waiting to see if the Dems were holding back on some of it to use at the last minute but if there was a ‘smoking gun’ they didn’t use it. Neither did the Republicans try to pull anything major after the swift boat veterans garbage.

2) Where was the serious issue-led debate? Iraq dominated but most of the discussion about that was on the now out-of-date question of whether the war should have been started rather than looking seriously at how things should be done differently to end it successfully. Where was the discussion of a wider middle east peace process? I guess it’s probably too much to ask politicians in an election campaign these days to grapple with these issues however…

3) Why is it the press continued to obsess about minor scandals like the faked (?) bush war record memo, and horse race/process stories and largely failed to force the politicians to face issues like the the social security crisis, the budget deficit and the ongoing healthcare crisis? Jon Stewart of the excellent “Daily Show”:http://www.comedycentral.com/tv_shows/thedailyshowwithjonstewart/ seems to be one of the few high profile figures to complain about this but why do we need to rely on comedians to tell us democracy is in trouble?

update: I just listened to “this realaudio report”:http://www.thislife.org/ra/276hitt.ram from NPR’s “This American Life”:http://www.thislife.org/ about how senior Republicans have been caught blatantly trying to make sure Democrats don’t get registered to vote. (Democrats have done this too but it appears not to the same extent). Why didn’t we hear more about this stuff?

4) Where were the much-vaunted weblogs? It seems to me that they played a very similar role to that of the mainstream media – concentrating on minutiae, the process and the occaisional whacky conspiracy theory and completely failing to engage with the bigger picture. Admittedly most webloggers are normally not going to have the time to investigate issues like health care in depth but what they could do is draw journalist’s attention to the valuable work of academics and think tanks and even more importantly attempt to provide some of the colorful first person accounts of where things are going wrong with the US that might spur both journalists and the wider public to action. As far as I could tell political weblogs were just ways for activists and policy wonks to talk among themselves during this election (and to raise money).

To tell the truth these impressions are off the top of my head and not based on any kind of rigorous research. I don’t spend my day reading the American political weblogs or even watching American news (I mostly listen to NPR streamed online and even that was pretty poor!) but I would hope that if the media and the blogosphere had been doing a good job of serving democracy during this election I would have heard more about it. If you disagree with me and you can come up with some more positive examples I would love to hear about them.

Meanwhile if you’re American and in America don’t forget to vote (and please vote Kerry)!

1 November 2004

It seems – contrary to suggestions made earlier by Cass Sunstein in Republic.com and “essays”:http://bostonreview.mit.edu/BR26.3/sunstein.html (and by many others) – people using the Internet don’t tend to just get more political information that agrees with their previously-held beliefs – they are better informed about both sides than their offline counterparts – at least according to the latest report based on a large scale survey from the excellent “Pew Internet & American Life Project”:http://www.pewinternet.org/.

Before you say ‘well that is just because Internet users are on average better educated or of higher social status’ (as I admit I was tempted to do) they found:

Simply being an internet user, controlling for demographic factors such as gender and education, as well as the other factors already discussed, increases the likelihood that a person has heard more arguments about a candidate.

This seems quite persuasive to me but I doubt this argument will go away in a hurry!

23 October 2004

I always assumed that the large amount of news I receive about battles with the US Congress about various communications policy issues (copyright, privacy, digital divide issues) was simply due to my own interest in these subjects influencing my choice of online media sources. But it seems according to a report by Syracuse University’s “Convergence Center”:http://www.digital-convergence.org/,

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, communications and information policy (CIP) replaced the environment as the policy domain of greatest congressional activity, as measured by number of hearings. From 1997 to 2001, the annual number of congressional hearings devoted to CIP surged to approximately 100 per year.

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