Assessing the Potential of New Social Media

Article 6 / 12 , Vol 36 No 2 (Summer)

Assessing the Potential of New Social Media

The Internet and social media are almost universally assumed to be essential to election campaigns and the work of parliamentarians, as well as being centrally important to how individual Canadians engage with politics. Indeed, it is regularly assumed that new information and communications technologies have transformed politics in ways that enhance the quality of democracy by connecting and engaging citizens with political processes that are more transparent and interactive than in the past. This article offers a partial assessment of the impact of the Internet, social networking and related information and communications technologies on politics, campaigning and parliamentarians. The perspective offered is rooted in a desire to avoid unfounded enthusiasm and unsubstantiated assumptions about the extent to which potentially interactive information and communications technologies have actually transformed politics.

Thirty years ago before widespread access to high speed Internet, user-friendly e-mail programs, political weblogs, and social networking sites, the political theorist Benjamin Barber speculated that new information technologies had the potential to strengthen democracy by increasing public access to information that would enhance civic awareness and facilitating participatory dialogue and deliberation across great distances.1 During the 1990s, as popular access to new information and communications technologies and the Internet became increasingly common, optimistic democrats believed we were on the cusp of a new era social and political democratization. Cyber-utopians believed computer-based information sharing and interaction would transform democratic politics.