Turning the Online World Into A Direct Democracy
I was traveling for business in Germany and Austria the last two weeks. As soon as people found out I live in Switzerland they asked me, how in the world could the Swiss people have voted no to 6 weeks of holidays per year? Switzerland is the only example of direct democracy at a country level. Many other countries are in fact “Representative democracies”. This means that Swiss people get to actually vote on many referendums related to many disparate issues such as whether minarets can be built, to the before mentioned 6 weeks of holidays for everyone.
In Switzerland anyone can propose an initiative, as long as they collect 100,000 signatures within 18 months. Federal and cantonal initiatives are voted by the Swiss citizens several times a year. If a federal initiative passes, they cannot be subject to judicial review. You might be wondering, how can one extrapolate a direct democracy into how social media is changing the world? Well, I do have 2 examples. One is the opposition to SOPA/PIPA that ran like wildfire a few months ago, including the one day shutdown of Wikipedia. The other is the wide support to all the movements in the Arab spring last year that resulted in a political transformation in that part of the world.
Let’s look into the details for any similarities. The first step for a referendum is to write an initiative and collect 100,000 signatures, basically to gather momentum. Taking the SOPA/PIPA case as an example this is called going viral, and viral they went. There were weeks where you would see anti SOPA/PIPA messages on your stream every second post. The second step in a referendum is to get it voted. This again is the culmination of the calls for action that were seen all over the place, with a large amount of folks contacting their Legislators, or closing their accounts in companies supporting the bill. They raised such awareness that the bills were not even brought to vote.
My personal observation after living in this direct democracy is that it takes away the powers for the politicians and parties to push agendas that do not have popular support. It kills lobbying to the political makers, and moves it to the citizens. It also slows down the political decisions, which upon deeper analysis is actually a good thing. Let me tell you an example. When I moved to Zürich some 18 years ago I was surprised that there was no highway surrounding the city. If you were coming from Germany and wanted to go to Italy you had to travel through the city. What had happened is that the citizenship had stopped the construction of several highways that would be built either on top of rivers or go through some of the nice valleys surrounding the city. It took several years, but in the end they built a highway ring made mostly of tunnels. The valleys and the rivers are still there, and downtown Zürich is surrounded by 2 rivers full of life and activities for its inhabitants.
So I do believe that social media is bringing back the power to the people, as it is the case in direct democracies. And while the time and effort to get things accomplished are higher and longer than in a representative democratic system, I believe the benefits can overwhelm the extra costs. And I know that you will ask for my opinion on the 6 weeks holidays vote. My answer is that I cannot vote since I am not yet a citizen, but that I am quite happy with the 5 weeks holidays I get a year in my current position. Yes, Europeans are spoiled on that regard, and I will be going to Spain in the year.
Do you know of other examples where the social media swarm has made a difference in the world?