Every week there are more examples of how disruptive social media like Facebook can be to politics.
After the riots in North Africa and the demonstrations in Spain over the last few weeks, yesterday Italy added to the mix with an unexpectedly high turnout of voters for a popular poll about a number of topics – including the adoption of nuclear energy privatization of water services and abolition of a norm that would allow politicians in office not to show up in court when indicted – which had been either blatantly opposed or just tolerated by most political parties. In Italy popular polls are valid only if more than 50% of voters cast their votes, and in over 15 years no other poll had achieved that target. This time about 57% of Italians showed up.
One might get the impression that Italians felt an urge to participate in policy making. However anecdotal evidence shows that most voters did not have a clear idea about what they were asked to express their opinion about. The real driver for participation was that, since the popular poll was meant to abrogate laws proposed by the current government, this was an opportunity to express a vote of confidence (or lack thereof).
Facebook and other social media platforms were filled with buzz about how voting for the popular polls would turn into such a vote of confidence and ultimately bring down the government. In this respect, the phenomenon is comparable to what has being going on in North Africa and elsewhere to coordinate a protest against somebody or something.
This may be the sad truth about social media. It is easy to gather people around a cause against somebody or something, rather than to coalesce around a new idea or a proposal for improvement. After all, this is human nature: most people will take the time to complain about a disservice, but won’t spend a fraction of that time to thank for a great service.
This casts a shadow over the optimistic assumption that social media will increase participation and, by doing so, help governments improve their policies. Will citizens feel compelled to propose rather than criticize, provide ideas rather than challenge them, vote for something rather than against something else? Of course there is a cultural element at play here, and in some countries the use of social media in policy-making could be less confrontational than in others. But it is definitely something that governments and politicians should be weighing in when thinking about open government.