Last night I took part in a panel discussion at the BBC’s Radio Theatre in London on the theme of ‘technology and democracy’ as part of the corporation’s #BBCDemocracyDay celebrations.
The day marked the 750th anniversary the first parliament of elected representatives at Westminster. As the UK looks ahead to its general election on 7 May, it was a great opportunity to reflect on the impact technology has had on political debate and democracy around the world, and the challenges ahead of us as an industry.
Joining me on stage were three diverse voices from the world of technology — Arvind Gupta, head of technology at India’s BJP party (@buzzindelhi), Rick Falkvinge, founder of Sweden’s Pirate Party (@Falkvinge), and Emma Mulqueeny, founder of the Rewired State Group and Commissioner for the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy (@hubmum).
I was fascinated to hear from Arvind Gupta about how he and his team had grown Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s (@narendramodi) Twitter following to 9.5 million, making him the second-most-followed political leader in the world. To put this in perspective, in the 2009 India elections, there was just a single active politician on Twitter, with 6,000 Twitter followers. By the 2014 election, there were more than 56 million election-related Tweets as the debate came to life on the platform.
Mr Gupta explained how he felt politicians needed to “Listen, inform and engage” on social media. “The listening part is very important, not just in the election campaign,” he told the panel. “Listening will have to be improved by politicians.”
Rick Falkvinge spoke about the challenges of electronic voting, speaking articulately about society’s responsibility to balance the confidentiality of the secret ballot with technological innovation.
Emma Mulqueeny gave some great insights into digital citizenship and how political systems need to adapt to suit the needs of a millennial audience who have grown up with the internet in the palm of their hands.
I took time to reflect on ways in which our users around the world have used Twitter to make their voices heard. In fact, seeing the Arab Spring unfold on the platform was one of the things that motivated me to pursue a job at Twitter.
More recently, I’ve been moved by how people on Twitter have used the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls to highlight the plight of the Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram. That hashtag allowed a previously unheard story hit global headlines and, whilst the situation has sadly not been resolved, it remains on diplomatic agendas around the world to this day.
Looking ahead to the election
In the UK there are more than 15 million people actively using Twitter, 80% accessing it on their mobiles. With little over 100 days to go until the general election, the nation’s biggest political debate is already happening live, right now, on Twitter.
With seven million Tweets about the Scottish #IndyRef last year, we can see how vibrant and lively political conversation is on the platform. We’re already seeing organisations like @BiteTheBallot place Twitter front and centre of their campaign as they seek to engage young voters with their their #LeadersLive debates.
Image credit: Bite the Ballot
In coming months it will be fascinating to see political parties, candidates, and the British public use Twitter to follow the general election and discuss the issues that matter to them.
Joining the conversation
Last night’s panel was chaired by Gareth Mitchell (@GarethM) with commentary from technology expert Bill Thompson (@billt). It was part of a day-long celebration of democracy on the BBC, and listeners and viewers were invited to join in using the hashtag #BBCDemocracyDay and #DemocracyDay. Those hashtags were Tweeted more than 20,000 times.
It was a particularly special moment for me when, during the discussion, former Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan (@KofiAnnan) joined the conversation with this Tweet:
His message was a poignant reminder of the challenges and opportunities ahead for our industry as we seek to use technology to support democracy around the globe.