With the advent of the Internet and all the new technologies and features that have appeared lately, many aspects of our lives have changed: how we learn, the way we do our shopping, or even the way we relate with others. And many other aspects will certainly be metamorphosed in the coming years, in ways we cannot imagine now.
Even though these changes are important in our day-to-day activities, the question is: can new technologies really reshape in depth the democratic society as we know it today? Are we living the beginning of a new era, of a new kind of democracy?
The Wikileaks case
During a seminar on Fundamentals of Management of the Grenoble école de management’s Advanced Master’s in Digital Business Strategy conducted by Emmanouela Mandalakii, we came to discuss the Wikileaks case. For those who are not familiar with this story, Wikileaks is a Web site founded in October 2006 by Julien Assange. It specialises “in the analysis and publication of large datasets of censored or otherwise restricted official materials involving war, spying and corruption”ii. It has already published several millions of confidential documents, including Iraq and Afghan wars documents and US diplomatic cables in 2010, or Guantanamo Bay files in 2011. But the most known of all were the Global Intelligence documents leaked in 2015 by whistleblower Edward Snowden showing how the NSA (the US National Security Agency) had spied on allied governments for yearsiii.
The disclosure of these documents brought many reactions, both from the governments involved, which would have preferred not to see them published, and from citizens who discovered blameworthy behaviours from these same governments.
However, it struck me that, for all these more or less strong reactions, the political consequences of the scandals have been almost non-existent. The same governments that so overtly misbehaved are still in place. Thanks to the Internet, it certainly is a child’s game for information to be spread and for everyone to access this information. But it seems that the easier the people can express their dissatisfaction, the less the governments listen to their protests.
This is to be compared with the Watergate scandaliv back in the 1970s, that made the President of the United States, Richard Nixon, resign (and there was no internet at that time to spread the word).
Towards a digital democracy?
Of course, new technologies, and most particularly mobile and social media, have given more power to citizens. Everyone remembers the Arab Spring movements that lead to the change of regime in several Arab countriesv between 2010 and 2013.
Notwithstanding the above, democracy might be on the verge of a radical evolution thanks to the Internet. More and more initiatives are indeed facilitating the engagement and participation of citizens in their countries’ governance.
- Change.org is a platform launched in 2007 with more than 130 million users that allows anyone to start a petition. Chances are that measures be taken if the petition reaches enough signatures.
- The White House opened in September 2011 a section called We the People in their official website, where citizens can launch a petition. Petitions that reach a certain threshold are examined by the Administration’s experts and receive an official response. Some may even lead to a new law.vi
- In France, the Parliament launched a Web site called Parlement & Citoyens (Parliament & Citizens), where members of the French Parliament can start public consultations. Citizens can also propose topics for new consultations or even amendments to laws that are being discussed at the Parliament. This was the case of the bill “Pour une République numérique”, adopted by the French Parliament on 26 January 2016vii. More that 20,000 people voted over 150,000 times and proposed over 8,500 modifications to the draft.viii
These online initiatives may seem anecdotic, but they are surely a good start to improve people’s involvement in the political decisions that affect them.
In a period where voters are disappointed by successive governments (in France, the abstention rate at legislative elections have risen from 20% in the 1970s to more than 40% in 2012ix), the generalisation of these digital tools might eventually bring the necessary renewal to democracy.
iEmmanouela Mandalaki is PhD Candidate in Organizational Behaviour at Grenoble école de management
iiWhat is Wikileaks, Wikileaks Web site, https://wikileaks.org/What-is-Wikileaks.html
iiiEdward Snowden, Wikipedia Web site, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Snowden
ivWatergate: The Scandal That Brought Down Richard Nixon, Watergate info Web site, http://watergate.info/
vThe path of protest, an interactive timeline, The Guardian Web site, http://www.theguardian.com/world/interactive/2011/mar/22/middle-east-protest-interactive-timeline
viAnswering the Public’s Call, The White House Web site, August 2014, https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2014/08/01/answering-publics-call
viiQuel avenir pour les consultations législatives en ligne, Steven Zunz, Journal Du Net Web site, February 2016, http://www.journaldunet.com/ebusiness/expert/63490/quel-avenir-pour-les-consultations-legislatives-en-ligne.shtml
viiiCinq choses à retenir sur le projet de loi “Pour une République numérique”, Anne Brigaudeau, FranceTVinfo Web site, January 2016, http://www.francetvinfo.fr/internet/cinq-choses-a-retenir-sur-le-projet-de-loi-pour-une-republique-numerique_1276069.html
ixAbstention lors des élections en France, Wikipedia Web site, https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abstention_lors_d%27%C3%A9lections_en_France