Saturday, 2 March, 2024

Democracy In The Internet Era

Kishor Basyal

According to Cambridge Dictionary, democracy is the system of government that seeks to safeguard freedom and promote equality among people. So, it is often equated with ‘presence of justice and absence of inequality’. Like elsewhere, democracy in Nepal was earned through untold sacrifices made by the martyrs and several democratic movements. Today, we are blessed to live in a world where the aspirations of democracy are easier to fulfill than ever before.

That’s because we live in the age of internet democracy. The main goal of internet democracy is the robust integration of citizens in the political debate called “digitalisation of participation”, which aims at increasing transparency and legitimacy of our political systems through democratic engagement. Internet connectivity enables more people to participate in many discussions that until recently used to be out of reach for many people.

Decline in protests
Social media like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have not only enabled people to strive for the ideals of democracy, vibrant public discussions there have galvanised governments to take decisive actions or to retract their decisions in the face of backlash, thereby changing the course of the society. What’s more, since the people’s participation in such discussions has increased, violent protests in the streets have been in decline.

According to Wikipedia, “digital democracy or internet democracy or e-democracy is the use of information and communication technology (ICT) in political and governance processes. It is a form of government in which all adult citizens are presumed to be eligible to participate equally in the proposal, development and creation of laws. It encompasses social, economic and cultural condition that enable the free and equal practice of political self-determination.”
Thanks to digital participation, today every citizen gets a chance to have a say in every government decision that affects him/her, putting him/her in a position to call the shots. This is no small achievement.

E-government, which heavily uses the internet for governance, enables the more efficient management processes. The aim of e-government is to run government efficiently and promotion of transparency. This is achieved by the digitalisation of services and processes and the increased use and publication of government data. When more data is readily available for use, there is more accountability. These days we see people filling out their taxes online, registering their vehicles or property online, making payments online, among many other day-to-day activities. The goal is this: as more services are digitalised, the demand for a digitalised government grows, leading to hassle-free and efficient governance.

At the same time, we see more and more people voicing their concerns, opposition, rage discontent in social media, an entirely recent phenomenon made possible by the internet. This empowerment at the grassroots level has not only made democracy resilient to attacks, but has also given voice to the voiceless. The internet expands one’s capability of information sharing. This impacts the freedom of expression, one of the cornerstones of democracy, in a positive way.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made internet democracy more relevant and influential than ever before. In 2020, the pandemic forced countries around the world to implement safety measures, resulting in sudden upheavals in society. This led to suspension of political issues, among other critically important activities. However, using digital platform, individuals continued to voice their opinion, participate in social movements meant to foster change and raise awareness. These are internet-enabled democratic exercises allowing people to carry out public affairs and exercise active citizenship virtually at a time when practically all democratic exercises were on the hibernation.

Internet democracy also enables inclusiveness by allowing everyone’s voice to be heard. This prevents marginalisation of the less-privileged. A sense of social inclusion is also provided through a wide variety of internet sites representing a vast range of viewpoints and ideas, boosting social cohesion.

The internet is an extremely flexible area of participation. It is low in cost and widely available and is able to play an active role in societal change. The lower cost of information exchange on the internet but high level of reach makes it an attractive medium for political information, particularly for the low-income people or social groups.

Creation of awareness
Great many people are finding the internet an easier tool to increase awareness of their issues as well as voice their opinions as compared to traditional media outlets, such as television or newspapers which require heavy financial investment. On the internet, the exchange of ideas is widely encouraged through a vast number of websites, blogs, and social networking outlets, such as Twitter. All such activities encourage freedom of expression. Through the internet, information is easily accessible, and in a cost-effective manner, providing access and means for change. This all-encompassing nature of the internet makes it an all-powerful agent of change.

That said, the internet is not without dark sides. Those using it to propagate fake news or disinformation has potential enough to disrupt communal harmony or thwart democratic exercises. Because such nefarious activities have increasingly made headlines in recent years, the government as well as we the people have a role to play in keeping them at bay.

(Basyal works as a journalist at TRN.)