Updated July 5, 2011
Social Media and Democracy
According to a recent Pew Internet study 81% of U.S. internet users looked for information or completed a transaction on a government website in 2009. Many of these users believe government websites, Twitter, Facebook, blogs and podcasts are critical supplements to traditional means of communication (snail mail, phone customer services, etc.) and they are a great way to interact with government agencies. Social media is being used to improve the quality of interaction with the public because this type of engagement makes the government seem more accessible to the public and provides them with a more personalized approach, whether for informational or transactional purposes.
Take for example the United States President, Barack Obama, he used social media as part of his presidential campaign strategies because his campaign understood the potential to cheaply and effectively share his message with the masses, using a grassroots approach. World leaders have come to understand that social media can be leveraged strategically to share information across organizational boundaries and become more accessible to a public that is motivated to connect, share and learn. Even more, this real-time active flow of information lends itself to more government transparency and represents a potential tool for accountability. This trend is known as digital democracy or e-democracy. Like the United States, Chile is joining this trend.
Chile Enters The World Of Digital Democracy
As of 2010, Chile has 54.8% internet penetration and, according to a ComScore research, social networking sites reach 91% of Internet users in Chile, the most popular of these being, Facebook, Fotolog, Windows Live Profile and Twitter. It would be wise of any candidate to tap into this kind of outreach because of its massive reach potential and inexpensiveness. Sebastián Piñera, the current President of Chile, did exactly that during his presidential campaign election.
The Chilean President used social media sites such as Twitter not only to communicate his campaign ideas but also to segment his public and make sure the correct information was reaching the intended public, according to his campaign director, Pablo Matamoros. Additionally, this approach created closeness with his constituency, making the candidate more approachable to citizens.
Now that Piñera is President, his entire Cabinet is on board on this strategy. In fact, all of them have opened Twitter accounts. Chilean social media users are noticing and are taking advantage of this new way of interacting with their leaders. Many hope that this is a sign of progress and rather than a platform for merely sharing information, this will serve to steer Chile towards a stronger democracy where citizens can reach out to their officials directly. Even more, that through social media, the Chilean society will feel more to empowered to participate in shaping this country’s political future.
“I hope this is a way to establish greater horizontal communication between the ‘authorities’ and the citizenry, Chile is light years away from a real citizen government, and we have the means to do it, not only technologically, but also a large movement of people interested in the common good and with a desire to be heard… I am talking about real democracy and citizen expression.” -Enzo Abbagliati Boïls expressed in his blog, Cadaunadas.
The Backlash… Unjustified Or Traces Of An Old Regime?
Recently, a report by Radio Bio-Bio revealed that the Government of Chile hired a private company to monitor the country’s social media conversation. In a country that still hasn’t forgotten many years of dictatorship, (having started a democratic government in 1990 after a 17-year military government headed by Augusto Pinochet) some fear this is an intimidation tactic.
The government insists that it is their responsibility to listen to online conversations and gather this already publicly available information to be more in-tune with their citizen’s needs. But, social media users in Chile are concerned that along with this monitoring could come censorship based on dissenting opinions, according to Ana Piquer, Executive Director of Amnesty International Chile. “One [concern] is the right to privacy or intimacy, the other concern lies in the preservation of freedom of expression and right to assembly,” she explained.
However, it is not yet clear what will be done with the information that the government is gathering and until an ulterior intent can be proven, I consider it smart for this new tech-savvy government to access this information, which is already publicly visible, and use these tools to make their practices more efficient.
In this 2.0 world it is important for governments to be in par with new technologies and maximize their resources in order to promote productivity. Social media, when used correctly, is a powerful tool that can establish direct relationships between leaders and those affected by their measures but governments need to listen to the conversation and actively engage. Hopefully, the Government of Chile will use these resources to continue to develop democratic best practices for the country.