Shouting on the Internet: The Illusion of Participation

I woke up today with the most vicious hangover, the result of downing the most noxious cocktail of drinks last night when it became clear that Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was Mayor again.

Obviously Labour did really well nationally and scored a few more seats in the London Assembly – including our candidate Andrew Dismore taking Barnet and Camden from the thoroughly odious Brian Coleman – but for me it was all about Ken. I thought his policies were great and really wanted him to win. Seeing him concede defeat made me feel quite emotional.

Obviously Ken’s haters are crowing – namely one A.Gilligan of the Daily Telegraph – but there has been some more positive coverage.

I particularly liked this:

This is the Ken I voted for and the Ken I knocked on doors for. I will be genuinely sad to see him go.  I think politics will be poorer without him. I’m sure, however, that his newts and toads will be happy to be spending more time with him.

I’m tempted to send him one of my cards with a message and illustration to that effect. Would this be in anyway disrespectful? I think Ken would see the funny side but you never know…

Because I am a glass half full rather than a glass half empty type of person I will not be allowing myself to get depressed by the result.  Instead it has made me more resolved and more determined to get active and help build support for Labour at grassroots level. It has made me more determined to fight the cuts and put pressure on the party not to just become a low fat version of the Tories.

Anyway, enough of the party political broadcast.

What shocked me most about the recent local government elections – both in London and all around Britain – was the pathetic turnout. Only one eligible voter in three voted – a pretty poor show by anyone’s standard.

Whether, you’re red, blue or somewhere in between, this makes it hard to see these elections as much to shout about.  Yes, the Tories got a kicking in most of the UK (something for Labour to crow about) and yes, Boris won in London (something for Tories to crow about). But no one should really be crowing as most voters just couldn’t be arsed.

There’s a side of me that doesn’t really blame them. It was bitterly cold on Thursday – after a spell standing outside a polling station in the drizzle, my fingers were so cold that I had to run them under the hot tap to make them work properly again. I’ve written in previous posts about my own political apathy in my 20s and early 30s and cannot honestly say – hand on heart – that I would have dragged myself out to vote a few years back. If you’re not that engaged – why bother? Why trudge off to the polls when you can sit in the warm, plugged into Facebook/Twitter/telly/iPhone/Blackberry/ Playstation etc etc.

Ah the internet. Much as I love being online – as is evident from this blog and my compulsive use of both Facebook and news websites – I’m starting to wonder if the internet is maybe part of the problem – specifically the fad for “clictivism” – sign this petition to stop Murdoch/save the NHS/stop the cuts/save the forests etc etc etc.

The main culprits are and

Obviously, these sites are full of the best intentions and only a horrid person would say anything mean about them. I am that horrid person. It annoys me that they use words like “Take Action Now” when all they are really getting you to do is click your mouse. The action basically consists of you choosing to click your mouse on their petition rather than Facebook or Twitter or whatever it is that floats your boat.

This is not taking action. There is nothing wrong with using the internet as a place to campaign – look at Julian Assange – but does signing an online petition really achieve that much? Either Avaaz or 38 Degrees made a huge fuss about how it had stopped the government selling off the forests, but surely the fact that this went down like a lead balloon amongst Tory voters in the shires is a bit more important. Even Boris’s sister Rachel

spoke out about the forests and I somehow thing Mr D.Cameron is more likely to listen to her than make a massive U-turn based on the result of an online petition.

Having said that, I have started petitions myself when campaigning against the closure of a nursery and a playcentre. But they were just aspects of campaigns that involved lobbying local councillors, endless meetings, devising business plans, speaking to journalists, standing in the street and handing out leaflets in school playgrounds. For me, taking action is about more than making a lot of noise online about your pet peeve.

Apparently Ken did much better in Inner London than had been expected and this was down to local activists running round knocking on doors and getting out the vote.

I did this on Thursday with Camden councillor Meric Apak and I reckon we got quite a few people out. Imagine if all the people who had clicked LIKE on the Sack Boris Facebook page or made lots of noise on Twitter had actually gone out and helped us get out the vote. Imagine if all the armchair clicktivists had taken to the streets and actually engaged people face to face about the issues. Then how much harder would it have been for the Evening Boris to persuade us that Ken was bad and the de Pfeffel was good? I think engaging people at grassroots makes all the difference and although social media is fun  – and a good way of getting basic messages out there – it is no substitute for taking the time to talk to people in the flesh.

The problem is, however, is that most of us don’t have the time or the inclination to go knocking on doors for the political party of our choice. Many of us don’t even have a political party of choice – we think all politicians are awful and are floating voters who make our minds up on the way to the polling station. We are encouraged to be like this by the media (and by politicians); what could be better than a passive electorate that meekly ticks a cross every four or five years but otherwise isn’t that bothered?

Why care about real democracy when you can sit at home, clicking on online petitions, fighting with trolls on Facebook and whining on the comments section of Guardian Unlimited/posting “Vote UKIP” messages on the Telegraph website? This obviously applies to people who consider themselves politically engaged, rather than normal people who just go online to chat about sport or property prices or their kids or watch naughty films. Or something.

Shouting at the internet is cheap, easy and doesn’t involve leaving the house. If someone is horrid to you, you can delete their comments rather than try and understand their point of view. If anyone rattles your cage, you can retreat into the echo chamber of your online world where your cyber chums will stroke your battered ego until you feel better again.

We’ve all been there.

This entry was published on May 5, 2012 at 10:35 pm. It’s filed under Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

10 thoughts on “Shouting on the Internet: The Illusion of Participation

  1. divstivs on said:

    Online petitions are not worth the paper they’re written on.

    btw: Freakonomics has quite an interesting take on low voter turnout:

  2. Whilst it may be understandable that some people think their vote counts for nothing, if lots of people think like that then the results damage us all. As much as voting for what you believe in, it is important to vote against what you don’t believe in. Low voter turnout was, in large part, responsible for the shameful election of Nick Griffin as an MEP. Apathy is unforgivable.

  3. A click is an act of consent just like any other, writing a letter or wearing a t-shirt. Bar getting up and fixing problems yourself with a direct political action, a click is a no less meaningful form showing consent. It is attitudes such as yours that simply devalues online activism itself – as if turning up a polling station was any more significant simply because it requires you physically exert yourself to get to your local polling station (surely a luddite’s opinion). Online activism is nothing but a good thing, it engages people who otherwise would be ignorant of the issues and who would not have the time nor desire to act directly. Consequently it is also a far more accurate representation of public opinion. Frankly all the negativity towards “clicktivism” is just bitterness from a generation who feel they’ve had their political sphere appropriated. Political elitism at it’s worst.

  4. This was written to no-one in particular but it obviously applies to you. I love how you talk about “real democracy” you are clearly not as disillusioned as the rest of us. The internet is a bastion of free exchange of ideas. Half the issues would never see the light of a politicians skeleton filled closet nor are they limited to a local or national scale.

  5. Most people don’t care about voting because it makes no difference to them frankly. Only 3 parties are viable and they are all politically similar. People hear this and think it is heretical. What could be more important than issues like tiny difference between the neoliberal policies of the conservatives and labour, issues like taxes and public funding. Well frankly it not that important when you compare it to people dying across the world in wars and poverty. Perhaps our belief that which of the big three you vote for is just little more than a form a self-obsession about slight differences in the way our tiny isle is run and not really as important as you assume it is?

  6. Rachel Collinson on said:

    Would voting make no difference if you could vote on the internet instead of at a polling station?

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