Let me take you back, for a second, to 1999. No Twitter. No Facebook. Your parents didn’t know what an Internet was and they definitely did not happen upon your innermost thoughts or social life.
Yes, I know, it’s a struggle to try and remember a time before the Like button and selfies and drinking a latte without photographing it, but bear with me.
In 1999, I was 18. A wide-eyed, optimistic Political Science student with dreams of becoming a Senator. I was sitting in a lecture about the Australian political climate. We were told, quite brutally, that despite our idealism about the average voter, that we needed to accept that the vast majority of the electorate are apathetic. That they rely predominantly on 30 second sound bytes on commercial television to inform their vote. That an overwhelming majority of the electorate don’t know the difference between the federal and state governments. That a disheartening number of people either donkey vote or pay the fine rather than vote for a political party. That the majority of Australians are homophobic, sexist and racist. And that, ultimately, the electorate-at-large do not engage with politics beyond coughing up $1.50 (remember it was 1999) for a sausage in stale bread.
In 1999, We were living in the shadow of Pauline Hanson and One Nation receiving 9% of the vote at the 1998 Election. Traditionally, the views expressed by One Nation were relegated to the fringe, but everyone’s favourite Fish & Chip shop owner exposed the ugliest side of Australian politics and changed it forever. So much so that the major parties saw the threat and rather than address it, played into the hatred and ignorance. It certainly affirmed everything I had been taught and as a result, I lost interest in a political career.
At the time, there were a handful of websites I used to visit, on a PC in the corner of my tiny flat, on a 56kbps dial up modem. The politically active communities were predominantly based in the US, where politically minded people could source information, debate and get active. There were a few Australian communities, mostly UseNet channels that were filled with abuse and ideology wars, with the rare productive debate that would end in abuse and ideology wars. That was about the extent of it. The only real media metric of electorate sentiment was determined by an animated worm — with Ray Martin as facilitator — and Newspoll.
Fast forward to today. 2014, where we have this revolutionary thing called Social Media. Pauline Hanson has turned herself into a Reality TV spectacle, and been relegated to the malaprop sound bytes that initially got her elected. We have since elected, sexually harassed and squeezed out a female Prime Minister and now there’s a few new players vying for the Hanson bloc — and, more importantly, everyone carries the Internet in their pocket. It is still mostly filled with abuse and ideology wars, but here’s the kicker: the way we participate in conversation and, on the other side, measure engagement, is vastly different from that day I had my brush with academic cynicism over the sentiments of the Australian electorate.
Right now, like many others, I am watching several political debates unfold, often fruitlessly, on my News Feed. Not live on television. Not by turning on the news. Not even actively pursuing articles on it. It is appearing in my Twitter, Facebook and Google+ feeds, by ordinary people. Those same ordinary people that were disengaged in 1999. Everywhere I look, people are talking about the Budget. They are laughing at Christopher Pyne calling Bill Shorten a…. ummm…. grub. They are talking about marriage equality, the environment, taxes, welfare. They are debating it. Of course, the fringe hasn’t changed — people polarise into endless discussion, and that is inevitable. But, separate from the issue, I have observed that people are… engaged. They might not be well-versed on the details, or the theory, but… they are paying attention.
Builders, academics, professionals, the unemployed, farmers, health workers, teenagers, stay at home mothers, journalists, ordinary people. Left, right, centre, swinging voters. People are talking. Engaging. Arguing. And yes, of course, as is natural with the internet, being completely idiotic and obnoxious (I suspect at least partly this is a result of being dismissed and ignored and told they were apathetic because they hadn’t read Kapital or Kant). I have seen several examples of people who would have been labelled as apathetic in 1999, and not given a moment’s thought by any journalist unless it was to condescendingly source Vox Pops from the ‘man on the street’… suddenly talking positively about political change. Getting involved. Getting active. Changing their minds.
The apathetic are engaged in political discussion. We just weren’t listening.
It makes me challenge the foundation that my education was built upon: that people aren’t interested in Politics. Maybe all people ever wanted or needed was to feel like what they say is being heard, or to be… asked?
The ability to tweet at the Prime Minister, or the media. Being able to correct the record, and not let them tell people like me that they don’t care about politics without knowing why. The ability to comment on a news post, no matter how misspelled, politically illiterate, or down right harassing it might be. The ability to express their views on a level playing field, and similarly, be held accountable for them. The ability to shit-stir your friends in a venue that isn’t a dinner party where you’re having to watch your Ps and Qs.
It might not be the preferred way for those in power – who have put increasing amounts of informational and bureaucratic barriers to participation for those they call ‘apathetic’ – and have made every touchpoint of government so unpleasant and dehumanising only someone with a humiliation fetish would think is good – it’s a start.
It’s the beginning of a conversation, if you’re willing to listen.
I sit back, I observe, and I marvel at how revolutionary this is. That something I had been taught as a fundamental principle of political engagement, is being turned on its head. That Politicians are being forced to listen. That Kyle Sandilands is being exposed. That caucus discussion is being shared with the public. That moments in Question Time are up on YouTube for the LOLs within 15 minutes of it occurring.
What an incredibly heartening thing… to witness fundamental change as a result of technology. It almost makes me less cynical about Politics. Almost.