And demons in your pocket… @OurSay – Tragedy of the Commons #pmhangout #atheism

Nobody can deny that OurSay is achieving amazing things.

In June last year, I wrote:

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. […] 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.

A little over a year later, OurSay has managed to score a massive win.  On July 21, OurSay hosted the Prime Minister for a Google+ Hang Out session.  Three questions asked by members of the public were voted on by the masses to be asked.

During the previous election, a lot of people accused the media of obscuring public debate through trivialising the policy platforms of politicians.  The assumed idea was that politicians had excellent policy arguments and, pushed by a desire to attract readers and viewers, the media only looked at the stunts and the sideshow.  Social media means that there’s a reduced need for politicians to rely on the traditional media.  In theory, this should mean politicians can ensure their message reaches an engaged audience.

In one sense, OurSay was an opportunity for politicians to bypass the media and allow the public to ask them questions directly.  In practice, the OurSay exercise showed that politicians might just be vapid, vacuous individuals.

During the nearly 60 minutes of the OurSay Google+ Hangout, the Prime Minister didn’t deviate from the dreary talking points.  Far from showing how terrible traditional media had become, it showed that politicians themselves have become parodies of themselves.  Our Prime Minister proved that she lacked insight and incisiveness.

More interesting than the question and answer session was some of the politics involved in the questions.

One question was posed by David Nicholls:

Dear Prime Minister. Against the strongly expressed concerns of mental health professionals, teacher unions and secular organisations, why do you allow the outrageous situation to continue where largely unqualified, religious evangelists have access to young children in public schools, in the form of the National School Chaplaincy Program?

Ignore the content of his question.  I’ve written about David Nicholls before: he was one of the people who was more outraged by claims that atheism was being hijacked by racists and Islamophobes than he was by the racist and Islamophobic statements made by megaphone atheists.

He’s the President of the Atheist Foundation of Australia (completely different to the Australia and New Zealand Secular Association, formerly the even more different Australian National Secular Association).

It’s not problematic that he’s president of a more-than-slightly-ridiculous organisation.  What is problematic is how his question came to be the third most popular question.

One of the louder US atheist megaphones and Islamophobes, PZ Myers runs an extremely popular blog, Pharyngula.  Myers wrote:

The Atheist Foundation of Australia would like their prime minister to answer one simple question:

Dear Prime Minister. Against the strongly expressed concerns of mental health professionals, teacher unions and secular organisations, why do you allow the outrageous situation to continue where largely unqualified, religious evangelists have access to young children in public schools, in the form of the National School Chaplaincy Program?

She’s been dodging it, of course, and I suspect that if she were backed into a corner she’d be entertainingly frantic in her efforts to escape. So let’s corner her! And she has made the mistake of making that possible.

Dear members and supporters,

OurSay is giving us the opportunity to directly ask Prime Minister
Julia Gillard a question, and we have chosen to focus on the
outrageous taxpayer funded National School Chaplaincy Program.

This Saturday, Gillard will answer three of the most popular questions
as chosen through OurSay. One of these questions could be ours.

Please follow these simple steps to make sure that we have a seat at
the table:

1) Sign up for OurSay

2) Vote seven times for our question:

3) Recruit a friend to do exactly the same

Click here to get started: http://oursay.org/s/2ea

We only have until Thursday but, if we all came together – we could
make sure that this important issue is being heard by Prime Minister
Gillard and all of Australia that very Saturday.

Regards, David Nicholls

President – Atheist Foundation of Australia

PS. Make sure that you sign up and vote seven times to get an answer
from Gillard on Chaplaincy.

It’s a poll with some teeth. Let’s make Gillard dance!

This feels like cheating.  Sure, it’s just a popular webpoll.  Sure, there are no rules against this sort of behaviour.  But this was the question which came in fourth place:

“Dear Prime Minister, the Stronger Futures legislation was recently passed in the Senate, subjecting Aboriginal people in the NT to 10 more years of Interventionist policy. This is despite overwhelming opposition expressed from Aboriginal leaders, national organisations, the general public and even condemnation from the United Nations. How can we call ourselves a country of the ‘fair go’ if the Government is now refusing to allow a human rights test of the legislation by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, as called for by the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples? ”

A question about some of the most disadvantaged people in modern Australia was jibbed by a bunch of predominately white, middle class crybabies.  Something feels wrong here.  It makes the system feel illegitimate somehow.  We have enough special interest groups hijacking traditional media.  Do we want them hijacking emerging media?

Myers received a lot of hate mail for his actions.  His response to the accusation that he unfairly influenced a popular vote so that predominately white, middle class crybabies had their question advanced at the expense of Indigenous Australians:

Suck it up.

I’m worried by this, but I don’t know what can be done about it.  Of all the global echo chambers you don’t want influencing your political discussions, it’s the pop-atheist crowd.

More importantly, the reason why I haven’t participated in OurSay for over a year is that I can’t feel a connexion with the community when I know that it can be hijacked so cynically.  So easily.  I can’t invest in a community where it’s so susceptible to trolls like David Nicholls and Andrew Bolt.  Democracy might not be a spectator sport, but OurSay is turning into an uneven playing field.

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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

2 thoughts on “And demons in your pocket… @OurSay – Tragedy of the Commons #pmhangout #atheism”

  1. Let’s ask Myers the “tough question” of why he pretends to advocate “democracy” when he can’t even let an internet poll be left to the designs of democratic action. Imagine what he would do with even one more iota of power.

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