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11. Monitory democracy in an age of media abundance

December 11, 2014

236407-719b294a-0328-11e4-8fce-3dc9660cd2acPublic accountability initiatives are on the rise worldwide, fuelled by a digital media bonanza.

Update 22 Dec 2014. See also Ethan Zuckerman on the related concept of monitorial citizenship.

IN 2009 John Keane, the Australian political theorist, published a book titled The Life and Death of Democracy. The book argues that a new political form has spread around the world since 1945: ‘monitory democracy’. This is the idea that decision-makers in all spheres of society – including government, the private sector and civil society – are subject to ever-increasing levels of public scrutiny. Such scrutiny can be done in the name of ‘the public’, ‘public accountability’, ‘citizens’, ‘transparency’, ‘democracy’, or some other entity (see also Strathern’s 2000 notion of ‘audit culture’). Monitory democracy does not replace representative democracy. Rather the two co-exist uneasily, with the irresolvable tension of mostly unelected actors guarding over elected representatives at its heart.

In a recent paper on Spain, Keane and Ramón Feenstra point out that monitory democracy must be understood today in relation to a ‘new architecture of communicative abundance’. In other words, we must take into account the explosive uptake of social and mobile media we are currently experiencing (Feenstra and Keane 2014).

In Spain, these authors found a huge profusion of monitory democracy initiatives. First, they found mainstream and alternative media investigations into high-level corruption. The most famous of these is arguably the ‘Bárcenas papers’ case. Luis Bárcenas, currently in detention on corruption charges, was the treasurer of the ruling Popular Party (PP) for twenty years. The case was uncovered by the left-leaning newspaper El País and its conservative counterpart El Mundo. It was then pursued in depth by civic groups linked to Spain’s indignados (15M) movement. Second, a new wave of collaborative citizen platforms such as Adopta un senador (Adopt a senator), inspired by Britain’s Daily Telegraph’s investigation into MP expenses, in which citizens monitor the expenses of Spanish senators; or 15MPaRato, a crowdfunded and crowdsourced effort that brought to justice the former IMF President Rodrigo Rato. Third, street protests and direct actions over specific issues. Among these the most prominent has been the anti-eviction platform PAH which has ‘successfully scrutinised and denounced Spanish mortgage laws, the banking system and the lack of response by elected representatives’. Finally, a whole raft of ‘anti-party’ parties like Partido X, Podemos (We Can) or Escaños en Blanco (Empty Seats) have emerged from the indignados movement to challenge the democratic credentials of the incumbent political class and demand urgent reform.

Indonesia’s election guardians

This is a compelling argument as far as Spain goes. But Feenstra and Keane claim that monitory democracy is ‘a global trend’. Is that really the case? How well does this model travel to countries with a radically different historical experience and political culture from Spain’s? As it turns out, it travels rather well.

Let us take the example of Indonesia’s 2014 presidential campaign. This election pitted Jokowi (pictured above), a middle-class furniture entrepreneur from central Java, against a member of the country’s ruling elite: a retired army general named Prabowo, the son-in-law of the former dictator Suharto. Whilst Prabowo’s campaign was bankrolled by his billionaire brother, Jokowi relied on his successful track record as the mayor of Solo and Jakarta for a strong grassroots support. Both candidates made extensive – and creative – use of social media to reach the country’s younger urban voters. In Jokowi’s case, this included countering a ‘black campaign’ (kampanye hitam) in which he was falsely accused of being a Christian of Chinese descent (in fact, he is a Javanese Muslim). In the end, Jokowi emerged the winner, but only by a small margin.

In a country plagued by corruption and ‘money politics’, many Indonesian citizens had concerns about potential ‘irregularities’ during the electoral process. Fortunately for them, Indonesia’s National Elections Commission (KPU) made all election data freely available on their website. This spurred a flurry of monitory initiatives, including crowdsourced vote counts such as Kawal Suara (Guard the Votes), Real Count, C1 Yang Aneh and Kawal Pemilu (Guard the Elections).

Thus the Kawal Pemilu application allowed over 700 unpaid volunteers to crowdsource voting tabulations (in Indonesian, gotong royong entri data) from across the vast Archipelago. The website linked to a Facebook page updated every ten minutes. Whereas Facebook helped to disseminate information, the website facilitated the process of manual tabulation of the vote tally. By 18 July the volunteers had collected nearly half a million votes.

Freedom technologists

But what part have freedom technologists (those pro-democracy bloggers, hackers, geeks, digital journalists, tech lawyers, and other tech-minded citizens that occupy us in this blog series) played in the reported rise of monitory democracy?

On first inspection (but further research is needed), it would appear that they have played a fundamental role. Let us consider, once again, Kawal Pemilu. In a post-election piece, the Indonesian scholar Ariel Heryanto suggests that it was the country’s masses, not its elites, that made all the difference to Indonesia’s exemplary voting process and to Jokowi’s success. Heryanto mentions Kawal Pemilu as one of many examples of election-related initiatives led by ‘ordinary commoners’. Yet on closer examination, the three masterminds behind Kawal Pemilu fit rather snugly the freedom technologists profile. For one thing, they all have strong technological backgrounds: while two are based at Silicon Valley, a third founder is a Nanyang Technological University alumnus now working in Singapore. Moreover, all three are rooted cosmopolitans – they may be living overseas, but their hearts and minds are still firmly set in their country of origin: Indonesia. Third, this was no spontaneous outburst of civic participation. In fact, it was the result of ten years of open government activism, as the internet scholar Merlyna Lim has suggested. Fourth, Kawal Pemilu did not mobilise the Indonesian ‘masses’. Instead, its 700 volunteers were mostly students and office workers with regular internet access and time on their hands (but not necessarily sophisticated ICT skills).

Or consider Spanish civic initiatives such as 15MPaRato and Partido X (which we have already discussed in this series) or the investigative journalism around the ‘Bárcenas papers’ by mainstream news media such as El País and El Mundo. Many of these are hybrid media initiatives led by freedom technologists who often found themselves at odds with powerful interests, especially those working for media organisations deeply caught in Spain’s thick tangle of corruption and deceit. Whilst some monitory technologists operate from within an establishment or mainstream institution, others do so from civil society outfits. But they all benefit from monitory initiatives that bridge the alternative vs. mainstream media divide.

Vigilance or vigilantism?

Earlier in the series I asked the question: ‘What do freedom technologists actually do?’. Building on research into the Occupy movement by Megan Boler and colleagues at the University of Toronto, I drew up a preliminary scheme consisting of four digital practices: adminning, documenting, connecting and mapping.

The concept of monitory democracy suggests the need to expand this list to include other digital practices, e.g. whistleblowing, researching, tabulating, analysing and crosschecking. For instance, when doubts are raised about the independence of their initiatives, monitory technologists in both Indonesia and Spain will point at the same publicly available mechanism: data crosschecking. Thus Kawal Pemilu invited sceptics to assuage their suspicions by simply ‘crosschecking both KPU’s data and their own data’. Likewise, Spain’s ‘Adopt a senator’ project encourages vigilant citizens to track and crosscheck individual senators’ assets.

This is encouraging news. Yet before we uncork the champagne bottles we must ask ourselves whether monitory democracy may, in some cases, be too much of a good thing. Feenstra and Keane (2014: 1265) write:

Within and outside states, independent monitors of power are beginning to have major tangible effects on the dynamics and meaning of democracy. By putting politicians, parties and elected governments permanently on their toes, monitory institutions [and civic initiatives, JP] complicate their lives and question their power and authority, often forcing them to chop and change their agendas—sometimes by smothering them in political disgrace.

This raises a number of thorny issues. For instance, what are the negative effects of applying excessive monitory zeal to public figures? Do they make some decision-makers overly cautious and timid? To whom are unelected civic watchdogs accountable? Where does one draw the line between vigilance and vigilantism? When does the ‘radical transparency’ advocated by freedom technologists of all stripes (from Assange to Zuckerberg) become oppressive surveillance?

Go to freedom technologists series

Further reading

Feenstra, R. (2012). Democracia monitorizada en la era de la nueva galaxia mediática: La propuesta de John Keane. Barcelona: Icaria.

Feenstra, R. A., and Keane, J. (2014). Politics in Spain: A case of monitory democracy. VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, Online First, 1–19. doi:10.1007/s11266-014-9461-2

Keane, J. (2009). The life and death of democracy. London: Simon & Schuster.

Postill, J. (2014) Freedom technologists and the new protest movements: a theory of protest formulas. Convergence 20 (3), 402-418.

Strathern, M. (Ed.). (2000). Audit cultures: anthropological studies in accountability, ethics, and the academy. Psychology Press.

Photo credit

AFP (via The Australian)

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