Two lost souls running in a fish bowl… @OurSayAust, social media, and democracy

Today, I received an unexpected tweet from OurSay:

@clothedvillainy: Have you heard of our project? [Source]

Beyond something about Q&A and something involving Malcolm Fraser, I hadn’t.  So I had an interesting afternoon reading about OurSay.

Although lots of people tell me regularly how awesome social media is for democracy, I’m yet to see a radical shift in how we interact with government.  A few politicians have Twitter feeds, but they don’t tend to engage with it much.  There’s no ‘new media’ conversation with them.

In one sense, this is strange and sad.  Given how disappointed most people appear to be with journalism and the media in Australia, new media provides an opportunity for politicians to engage directly with the public.

In this respect, OurSay is doing something interesting.  It takes the online aspect of social media and bridges the gap to engage with politicians and media personalities offline.  With the slogan, ‘Democracy is not a spectator sport’, OurSay invites the public to propose questions.  OurSay’s community of registered users vote on which questions are the best.  The OurSay crew pursue the winning questions and seek answers.

It gives you the sort of warm and fuzzy feeling most of us get about participatory media activities.  For the community involved, it’s a great way to participate in the political process.  It emulates lobby groups, really; except an online community is the interested party, not a wealthy industry.

So hat tip for that.

At the same time, there are a few things which worry me about it.  The first is that the questions asked and voted upon seem to reflect and echo the vacuity of the public debate.  During  a public presentation on renewing democracy, former Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, was asked the following three questions by the OurSay crew:

1. If we know CO2 emissions are warming the planet, if that warming could have catastrophic impacts on our planet, if we don’t act quickly enough to stop these impacts, whose fault is that?

2. Are ‘transfer payments’ and other middle class welfare – particularly those able to be received by the upper income brackets – driving a sense of welfare entitlement in Australia? Are they simply unsustainable masks over the inherent inequalities in our economic system?

3. Knowing that BP have estimated that all fossil fuels will run out in 130 years and that the Australian government has been estimated to provide 32 times more funding towards the fossil fuel industry than the renewable energy and energy efficiency industries combined, why do you think the government invests in the past when they could invest in the future and what do you think is the most effective use of young Australian’s time and efforts to help speed up the transition to a future Australia powered entirely by renewable energy?

Two questions about fuel consumption and a question about Australia’s welfare system.  Really?  That’s what people want to ask a former prime minister at a talk on renewing democracy?

The questions aren’t even provocative or challenging.  They’re basically asking: ‘Here’s my opinion.  Could you please confirm that I’m correct?’

The problem appears to be that there’s not a huge amount of diversity within the OurSay community.  Then again, there’s not a huge amount of diversity within the new media community (as noted by Lindsay Tanner in Sideshow).

On the other hand, is that really a problem?  So long as people realise the limitations of the site (that is, it’s not really representative of the people at large, but a small, engaged, left wing group), there is no fundamental problem with a particular section of the community getting privileged access to politicians and commentators.  As noted earlier, it’s giving to a group of ordinary people what lobby groups already get.

The puzzle for OurSay will be how it evolves.  Will it get to the point where people asking the questions will get challenged by the answers they receive?  That will be a matter of finding politicians and commentators with contrary views willing to engage with OurSay’s audience.  I’m not sure how likely that will be, although — given my post in New Matilda — it would be a creative way for young conservatives to get back into constructive political debate.

Further, will it spawn a neo-con copy, with an online audience asking their libertarian/xenophobic questions about how climate change couldn’t possibly be caused by humans and how asylum seekers are here to collect Centrelink?

Finally, could the OurSay model be used in other ways for political engagement?  In my last post, I said that GetUp-style activities promoted slacktivism.  OurSay, on the other hand, could be used to foster a conversation between party members and their parliamentary representatives.  The onus, of course, would be on the parliamentary representatives to engage with the discussion.

So although it’s not without problems, it’s rather nice that lobby groups are being denied their almost exclusive access to the ears of politicians through new media.

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Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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