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 Misbehaviour by some candidates – many of them young – on social media led to 12 candidates being withdrawn and at least as many being criticized after the exposure.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!

27 November 2006

The exemplary chaps at MySociety.org, a group of mostly volunteer developers producing e-democracy-related web apps has managed to get the prime minister to support (or at least host) an online petition system (see BBC news coverage). Among the petitions launched so far is one which asks him not to replace the Trident nuclear weapons system. I encourage you to sign it – though note that these petitions are for UK residents only.

I oppose the replacement of Trident both on economic grounds and in the interests of encouraging others to abandon their own nuclear arsenals. Nation states who would use nukes against us would surely be deterred by the US and the international consequences of their use, while terrorists are not deterred by nuclear weapons and couldn’t in any case be targetted by them.

It seems to me that this decision comes at a crucial point in history where by deciding to turn away from nuclear weapons we could help turn the rest of the world in a new direction (and save billions that could be used to tackle important issues like climate change).

If you have some more time after signing that petition, please also sign this petition asking for a free vote and a full debate in parliament or visit The Big Trident Debate which has its own similar petition and discussion spaces.

31 October 2005
Filed under:Academia,E-democracy,Weblogs at12:05 am

If you are or have been a long-term resident of the US or of China, please visit this survey by a student at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. It “focuses on different uses of weblogs in mainland China and the United States and is a first step to investigating the increasing political influences of the weblogs in Chinese civic lives.”

14 August 2005

Laurie Taylor in his excellent Thinking Allowed radio programme recently interviewed Simone Abram at length about her anthropological study of tenants’ experiences of “urban regeneration” in Norfolk Park, Sheffield (she has produced a film about this as well with accompanying website). The programme also features interviews with the residents themselves. Strangely enough she concludes that even with the best of intentions the connection between consultation and results on the ground can be very tenuous – especially when a public private partnership (or a tangle of overlapping partnerships) is involved!

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.

13 December 2004

I just added a “post about global broadband penetration”:http://groupblog.workasone.net/index.php?p=20 and a few days ago I posted about research on “hit counts as a predictor of the number of citations”:http://groupblog.workasone.net/index.php?p=14 for academic articles published online. There have also been some recent postings by other blog members on “literature reviews”:http://groupblog.workasone.net/index.php?p=13 and the “use of the Internet for politics in the UK”:http://groupblog.workasone.net/index.php?p=18. I have some postings yet to come there about search engines (you should look there for any future information on search engines – especially as one of my colleagues there is studying them for her PhD)…

P.S. If you want an easy-to-remember address for the site (which does not yet have its own ‘proper’ domain) you can get to it by typing “http://get.to/lseblog”:http://get.to/lseblog.

9 November 2004

In an hour-long segment on Chicago Public Radio’s Odyssey. Both guest speakers had interesting things to say about the changing media and its impact on politics – I can’t do better than to quote the description given here:

Most Americans used to get their political information primarily from the evening news. But with the rise of cable TV and the Internet, there are countless venues for political news and opinion. How are new media shaping what we learn about politics? Political scientist Arthur Lupia and communication scholar Bruce Williams join Chicago Public Radio’s Gretchen Helfrich for the discussion. Lupia is coauthor of The Democratic Dilemma: Can Citizens Learn What They Need to Know? Williams is director of the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He’s working on a book project entitled, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: The Eroding Boundaries between News and Entertainment and What They Mean for Politics in the 21st Century.

“Listen to the realaudio”:http://www.wbez.org/DWP_XML/od/2004_10/od_20041008_1200_3415/episode_3415.ram

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!

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