The internet is revolutionising politics, democratising debate and giving people a voice, but those with a democratic deficit lack internet access too, says Aziz Tworo.
Young people are possibly more politically engaged than ever before. All over the world they are taking to the streets, leading movements and demanding change. And yet, they are less likely to vote, to join a political party or a trade union. This is a microcosm for a bigger debate about the evolution of political engagement in the post-industrial era.
The most commonly cited examples of expressive or ‘non-institutional’ forms of political engagement include petitions, boycotts, protests, and online activism such as social media campaigns. This has been made possible by a technological revolution that has massively increased the speed of communication and information flows: the internet. The internet has impacted political engagement in four major ways.
First, the internet has increased access to information thus lowering the cost of attaining political information.
The range of information has also been diversified and ‘democratised’ as the number of news sites, channels and commentators has dramatically multiplied. The viewpoints available to citizens have increased. Information can now be shared rapidly, widely and easily by anyone, and as a result, family, friends and peers are becoming the new curators of news and information. Therefore, we are no longer reliant on institutionalised or national media or political parties for political information.
It has become increasingly easy for individuals to become creators of web content and not just passive consumers. Through blogs (like this one), social media sites, and other online fora, individuals can locate like-minded individuals and get actively involved in their field of their interest. These people can easily start a website or petition about a political issue important to them and circulate it widely not only among their immediate friend group, but far beyond.
Finally, even when individuals lack interest in politics, their online sphere can still influence their political engagement. Social media has increased individual’s exposure to political information and social mobilisation when friends and family post links to news stories or express political opinions.
Proponents of this democratic phenomenon argue that the internet can provide a space in which new voices are heard and previously marginalised groups can express their views and lobby for change in civic, political, cultural or social spheres. They are particularly optimistic about the mobilising and democratising potential of online tools for the younger generations.
Fresh ground or old inequalities?
However, this electrifying evolution of democracy is only open to those with electrics. This new political engagement is a preserve for the privileged especially since less than 42% of the population in Uganda has access to the internet. This is mainly due to limited access to electricity, social media taxes and poor internet infrastructure especially for people in rural Uganda. This inequality is exacerbated as those with internet access continue to dominate and influence political opinion at the expense of those without.
The internet isn’t going anywhere, and it will continue to play a central role in changing and redefining the frontlines and theatres in which the politics of the day is played out. This unpleasant reality presents a formidable task for young and emerging leaders together with enthusiasts of meaningful youth political engagement. The goal is to advocate to ensure equal internet access to all persons regardless of their status, and fast. This can be achieved through targeted advocacy aimed at securing a review of internet tax laws, a reduction in the cost of internet bundles, the creation of free internet centres and rural electrification.
At the same time activists can help to bring the abundance of political, human rights and legal information available on the internet to those who can’t currently access it, through innovative approaches such as poetry, drama, music, sports among others.
Empowerment of all is the most viable way to ensure the full potential of the internet, as a new voice for the youth, is harnessed.
Aziz is a professional electrical engineer and research associate at the Mastercard Youth Think Tank. He is part of a 20-member team across 7 countries in Africa tasked with exploring the barriers young small-
scale business owners face in expanding their enterprises. He works in tandem with colleagues at the Youth Think Tank to map out thought leadership events and activities where they share findings and
recommend strategies with relevant stakeholders so as to influence decision making to suit the needs of young people across the continent.
You can find him on twitter: @tworo_aziz