Well over a decade after its birth, social media remains a digital Wild West. The modern stage of democracy demands that there should be rules around elected representatives blocking citizens on social media.
One common issue that I am sure most of you have come across (or experienced yourselves) is of elected representatives blocking Canadians on social media. Often times, the blocked person complains that they were blocked simply for having offered a contrary opinion / fact in response to a post by the politician in question, that too in a civil manner. In such cases, it leaves the affected person with a sense of disappointment at the very structure of politics.
In the larger scheme of things, this may seem like a trivial issue, but I think it is of considerable significance. If we accept that democracy is a form of participative governance, then it is inescapable that the emergence of social media has catapulted the extent of public participation in the political process into a much higher orbit. As time passes, its role in shaping public thinking on issues of significance is bound to grow and perhaps become dominant (if it isn’t already). As a mature democracy, it behooves us to think about formalizing the use of social media as it exists in the political sphere. Certain parameters need to be set for better outcomes of our society and democracy.
When I was very young, kids often had quarrels to the point that they stopped talking to each other (I suppose this is a widely shared experience). This situation usually didn’t last long – the children’s peers, older children and parents commonly intervened to get the two kids to start talking to each other again. This was always an informal process, but what I am getting at here is that while s are part of human nature, it is equally natural for humans to devise mechanisms to resolve them. A society that is better equipped in terms of such mechanisms has a better future than others.
The question is what form such a mechanism should take when it comes to online friction between elected representatives and citizens.
Here we have to acknowledge that in some instances, the citizens can indeed be at fault. I am able to think of three categories of instances in this context: verbal abuse, threats of or incitement to violence, and trolling. Perhaps there are more categories. Our mechanism, while preventing politicians from blocking citizens unreasonably, would also protect them from these types of ill behavior from citizens in a more credible manner.
Before we explore the contours of the mechanism, however, I need to clarify one point regarding administrative apparatuses, because that’s what this mechanism would be: an administrative apparatus.
The place where I grew up was Gandhinagar, the capital of the state of Gujarat. It had been built from scratch, and human habitation was just getting started when we moved there. For nearly two decades, most of its population consisted of civil servants and politicians. Casual talk normally centered around the workings inside the government. As a result, I gained an understanding of the function that the civil service plays in the functioning of a society.
The above narration is meant as a counterpoint to the oft-repeated opinion about administrators as being useless and a drain on society. My view is that the administrative function serves as a backbone of any grouping of people (whether a business, a government or a society). Administration is what keeps the machinery moving, the gears lubricated and the place humming. Without capable and efficient administration, orderly functioning is impossible. This is perhaps why the educational degree in business management studies is commonly called a degree in business administration.
However, the key lies in arriving at the exact balance between inadequacy and superfluousness of administration.
What we have on our hands now is a complete lack of any mechanism to keep the functioning of political discussion between politicians and citizens on social media in check.
With those thoughts in the background, let us not look at the possible shape that an administrative mechanism could look like. I approach this with considerable hesitation, because I am generally averse to having ‘moderators’ interpose themselves between individuals. However, for the reasons cited above, I think that the potential downside here far outweighs the expected gains.
Broadly speaking, there needs to be an entity that receives information about a politician blocking a Canadian on social media. This can either by way of a complaint by the affected citizen or automated in cooperation with the social media platform itself. Staff at this entity would then examine the facts of the case, and if the blocking does not fall within the accepted parameters (e.g., abusive language, threats etc.), then the politician would be required to remove the block.
In addition, since any regulatory measure must possess a deterrence value, a politician found to be repeatedly blocking Canadians unreasonably should face some penalty. This penalty needs to be stiff enough to be effective in achieving its objective.
A natural question then arises about a citizen who was blocked rightfully. I think that so long as no laws were violated (especially those related to threats etc.), the block being ruled as justified is sufficient penalty for such citizens. If any laws were violated, then it would become a relatively simple manner of law enforcement. In this case, penalties would depend on successful prosecution or the terms of any out-of-court settlement.
The above suggestions are my current thoughts on how we can strengthen the foundations of our democracy in light of the present – and growing – reality of the role of social media in our political debates. It is likely that I am overthinking this, but I am pretty convinced that the idea of having oversight of the actions of elected representatives is a good one. At any rate, we do need an extensive and open debate about how to keep our politicians accountable to the citizenry in the modern world.