Social media may have expanded the space for direct democracy, but it is not a replacement for representative democracy, the World Forum for Democracy was told.
The forum, organised by the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, comes at a time when representative democracy in Europe is facing growing doubts, particularly among the younger people who are getting less attracted to party politics and election turnouts are in sharp decline.
"We're in the midst of a profound transformation [due to the new digital era]," Mary Kaldor, professor of global governance at the London School of Economics, said. "We should be asking: How do we rethink democracy in the digital age?"
There's a profound gap between formal and substantive democracy, she said.
"Though we have the right to vote, we don't feel we're represented. The decisions that affect our lives are no longer taken at the national level - they're taken in DC, in Brussels, in multinational corporations … So it doesn't matter whom you elect."
More than 1,000 participants from 40 countries met last month for two days to discuss the evolving landscape of democracy in Europe and beyond. Many of the younger participants were apparently keener to use social media to advance the course of democracy through various digital platforms, while older participants and experts tended to be more cautious and warned that representative democracy was still needed to maintain legitimacy.
Robert Walter, a British MP and chairman of the European Democrat Group in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, said social media was rewriting the rules of democratic engagement, but it could not replace democratic elections. He was one of the key speakers at the forum along with Kaldor.
"Be careful, this is my warning. What I called the 'crowds on the cloud' are not necessarily the voice of the people," he said.
Opinions on the Internet can be manipulated and may not represent the entire society.
"Is this the new version of mob rule?" he asked. "Digital politics should not be the replacement of a well-established formal democratic system … The irony is, the more debate on Twitter and Facebook there is, the less fruitful the output. Serious issues become a pared-down talking point. The view of a few thousand Twitter users does not reflect the constituency as a whole."
The danger is that the vocal minority can have a disproportional sway on issues on social media, while the good point is that awareness is raised and dialogue opened up, Walter added.
Kaldor also acknowledged the difficulties in holding deliberation on social media. "You don't get the kind of deliberative debate. All the outpouring on the Internet can turn nasty, xenophobic and racist."
Among other issues raised by the participants and other speakers was the enabling effect of social media, which allows citizens greater Internet penetration to become less dependent and even bypass the mediation of the traditional mainstream media.
Doubts were also raised about anonymity and the possible manipulation of views on social media that could lead to a "manufactured opinion", as well as how social media tends to encourage polarisation of positions instead of deliberation.
The issue of hate speech on the Internet was also touched upon, along with a youth campaign supported by the European Council to end online hate speech in Europe.