Vox Populi Vox Dei: Harnessing Social Media for Social Reform

– Siddharth Pai

“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

-Winston Churchill

 It’s odd for one of the most belligerent defenders of Democracy to utter such a harsh sentence against the very institution of which he was the succor, but his sentiment is still echoed by us all. The formal roots of democracy lay in the forums of Athens, wherein every free born citizen could vote on all matters of security and state. Every major policy mooted by the boule, their executive body, would be tabled before the citizens to ensure that their voices would be part of the state’s collective action. Over time, this form of direct democracy was diluted by demographic constraints and a general sense of ennui that encompassed most people.

Democracy, in essence, became of the people, for the people, by some of the people.

We’ve distanced ourselves from the very foundations of democracy by divorcing ourselves from the democratic processes. We used to lack the formal mechanisms to collate the collective views of our fellow citizens across all walks of life because besides taxes and death, there was nothing to unite all the people of any country. There have been several experiments in democracy conducted by political scientists in the laboratories of former communist countries as they join the brotherhood of nations.

Of the many revolutions that rocked the world in recent times, the smallest, but perhaps the most potent one, was the pots and pans revolution in Iceland. They suffered near economic collapse during the 2008 recession and were crippled by natural disasters, but the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull was matched solely by the public foment that enveloped the country recently. The people, channeling the spirit of Howard Beale from the 1976 movie Network, ‘were mad as hell and weren’t going to take this anymore’. They took to the streets with their cutlery and raised a din against the government, quite literally.

The ramifications of this were quite startling. The government acceded to having the entire constitution of Iceland crowd sourced by the people of Iceland. They harnessed both Facebook and Twitter to collate the views of all the people on the future of Iceland as a country. This online referendum took a period of one year to table before the Icelandic Parliament, although the results weren’t as exuberant as one would have expected.

Online referendums are fast becoming the staple of every political organisation. SMS campaign and online campaigns to gauge voter sentiments were undertaken by the Aam Aadmi Party in India as they galvanized opinion on multiple issues from the people of Delhi. They even used these same channels to decide upon their manifesto. Vox Populi, Vox Dei.

We are at a delicate crossroads in our journey as a species, wherein we now have the tools to enfranchise the greatest number of people in the course of human history. What matters now is how we use this. We’ve seen revolutions organized by the most disparate people from across the world foment change that once upon a time, hinged on a group of people who were willing to take a violent stance or stand up for a cause. The arms of erstwhile revolutionaries’ have been replaced by the fingers of the current crop.

It’s time to bring people back to democracy and bring democracy back to the people.

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