In the past decade, the significant role that social media has played in altering the nature of communication has been undeniable. In this short space of time, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google Plus and other social media platforms have fundamentally changed the way people interact as more people turn to social media to discuss their views [...]


Sunday Times 2

Social media as an avenue for democracy


In the past decade, the significant role that social media has played in altering the nature of communication has been undeniable. In this short space of time, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google Plus and other social media platforms have fundamentally changed the way people interact as more people turn to social media to discuss their views and share their opinions.

The reason it is such force to be reckoned with is because nowadays most people rely on social media rather than the traditional news like television and newspapers to stay informed about the world around them as well as share their personal opinions and beliefs and engage in discussion. Everyone who has access to a mobile phone or a computer has a voice. Having information and having a voice give people power to engage in discussion, and creates an opportunity for all members of a population to make meaningful contributions to society.

This social trend has spilled over into all areas of life completely reshaping society and commerce. It has not only had an impact on financial services and the social sector but the business world as well, providing businesses with numerous marketing and networking opportunities. Almost every enterprise in the world is now turning to social media in order to connect with their employees, customers and partners, especially independent entrepreneurs and smaller companies for whom personal connections are significant business building blocks.

Interactive platform such as LinkedIn and Facebook provide business professionals with the opportunity to network with like-minded individuals from around the world, using them to exchange contact information and discuss pertinent business issues. It is time that

local businesses started leveraging this technology. Moving away from the traditional web based marketing to using social media and real-time engagement to connect with a more targeted audience.

Social media has also opened up new possibilities for democratic participation by overcoming the limitations presented by traditional media communications. Social media has provided the medium for such association, and citizens are now encouraged to participate in the environmental, economic, social and political decisions that affect their lives.

In a democracy every person has certain unalienable rights that must be accepted, for example the freedom of speech and the freedom of expression.

While the use of social media has opened the door to political activism, with personal blogs, video and social networking sites becoming key forums for political debate, some countries have adopted counter measures against social media such as blocking, filtering, internet surveillance or even ordering the shut down of national networks, in an attempt to restrain users’ freedoms.

Social media is a double-edged sword, usable for repression or freedom, and it is the aim of the Sri Lankan Government to promote social media as a development tool rather than to repress it.

If the freedom of expression and communication are at the heart of any democratic society based on the rule of law, to subdue it would not only impede communications between ordinary citizens, but is also a self-defeating purpose.

Prior to social media, democracy was strengthened by, the election process, through healthy debate and responsible journalism which used traditional forms of media to engage the government and relay this information back to the public.

One of the core pillars of this country’s political process is the belief that democracy works best when more people participate. In that way, social media is a liberating technology because it is inherently democratizing by nature, and it is for this reason that it can be used to bring about positive change.

Democracy operates under two main principles. One is procedural: where a country’s citizens’ influence is limited to the ballot box and electing representatives in the election process. It depends on attending meetings and joining civic groups and procedures which are limited by time and space and dependent on physical participation.

The other is what is known as “Associationalism”. Associational democratic theory is based on discussion aimed at discovering the common good which functions in the interests of the citizens. It involves empowering citizens and engaging in their participation and implies governance led by discussion. It is not aimed at influencing or gaining power but reaching an understanding with others on issues of common concern.

Associationalism is a political theory based on Alexis de Tocqueville’s idea of associationalism, which emphasizes “volunteerism, community spirit and independent associational life as protections against the domination of society “. It is a theory which advocates the creation of a deliberative forum where dialogue between the state and it’s citizens is encouraged and embodies a deliberate commitment to social cooperation as well as public well-being.

It is this communicative rationale that is attached to the concept of participatory democracy. What the term “participatory democracy” represents is a renewed faith in the wisdom and moral judgment of common citizens. It is a radical position because it challenges conventional political practices in modern society. It is a concept that implies that the active participation in the political process is a requirement of a democratic society and for that to happen, rational discourse between citizens is crucial.

It describes a system that strives to create opportunities for all members of a population to make meaningful contributions to decision-making, and seeks to broaden the range of people who have access to such opportunities.

Social media is an important instrument in initiating dialogue with citizens in a participatory democracy. It fits into this theory perfectly as it is a virtual forum whose main function is enabling discussion through media. The tools made available by social media encourage alternative voices to enter the political arena. It is easy to share, immediate and easy to access. It can lead to healthy debate, and stimulating discussions and allows for free flowing communications and citizen engagement. By engaging in rational discussion with their peers, citizens educate themselves and others and arrive at a consensus representing the common good.

It is also a forum that encourages activism, helping to raise awareness and harness support for worthy causes.

There is a distorted image of the country at the moment especially with regard to how the media operates and it is the Government’s aim to counter that view. This inaccurate image of the country has the potential to create discord among people.

Our aim is to promote unity and solidarity. Similar to how the citizens of this country stood united at the height of the war when survival and the protection of our nation was the common thread that bound one Sri Lankan to the other.

Therefore, the Government seeks to engage in social media with the purpose of inspiring unity among citizens to work towards a common good, and the progress of the country by allowing people to become more engaged in the development process.

Instead of banning social media the way forward is to use these online platforms to exchange information and views with citizens and receive feedback.

It is also necessary to educate society to make them more aware of the consequences of using these platforms as well as to increase basic computer skills and encourage computer education in schools.

While social media gives people the liberty to engage in it however they please it has a darker more sinister side to it as well. A grimmer truth is that also it allows for misinformation and untruths to be spread around the Internet and the misuse of information for malicious or fraudulent purposes.

When people are anonymous, they can essentially say things with no repercussion. Slander, false and libellous allegations can be made against anyone with the sense of security that anonymity brings. It can also lead to people thinking that they’re above the law, which can be detrimental for anyone whose reputation is on the line.

Any harmful images and derogatory comments about individuals made tend to have irreversible and long-term consequences. Since the Internet is for life, this kind of defamation can stay with people for a long time and a person’s digital identity can follow them wherever they go.

It is therefore also important that the freedom of expression and free flow of information that social media provides are protected without compromising other human rights, such as the right to privacy and the right to be free from discrimination.

It is vital that awareness and education especially of the youth become of prime concern. Educate them about the responsible use of social media and the importance of making informed and wise decisions to ensure that their social media experiences are positive.
In any country talk of governance is always closely linked to development. If democracy is the right of all people and there is a view that says that media are conducive to that development, then measures must be taken towards the development of the media in that country.

Social media has provided the country with a new arena for public debate and strengthening this link between the Internet and social participation is an essential key to ensure the vitality of the democracy.

(The writer is the Secretary to the Ministry of Mass Media and Information. He can be reached at
Follow him on twitter: @charith9

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