Beware politicians on the Internet, as they find forms of manipulation

Electronic demagogues

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PLEASE don't do it again, boys. There are several things that political leaders should not try out in public, like dancing, riding a penny-farthing,or standing too close to Gyles Brandreth. These activities, unless carried out expertly and with panache, are guaranteed to generate public scorn and ridicule.

This week, the efforts of Messrs Hague and Blair to top one another in the realm of cyberspace democracy were worthy but should not be repeated unless and until everyone has had some lessons. Mr Blairs' unfamiliarity with a keyboard was manifest; his advisers wisely told him to let Sir David Frost and his minions do the typing. Mr Hague knows his way around a computer, probably from the McKinsey days; he tried to top the Prime Minister by typing his answers in real time. His problem is that though he can cope with real time he still has problems with real people who ask awkward questions about the euro.

This is the age of enhanced democracy. We want our public figures constantly to be interrogated and tested in public. A few politicians are responding to this. The Labour MP Barbara Follett, has established a system of consulting groups in her constituency on most big items of government policy, face- to-face. She brings together all the people who have written to her on a particular subject, plus all the local interest groups, and they thrash out the issues, agree a line if they can and send it in writing to the relevant minister. It sounds painful, but is probably enlightening. But not all MPs have Ms Follett's energy and resources; many would shudder at the idea of regular contact with their constituency busybodies.

That is why the Blair-Hague efforts this week to do democracy at a distance is so interesting. As an effort to demonstrate that computers can work in the service of democracy neither stunt quite came off; but they did neatly point to one possible future for democracy. The pushbutton democracy, where we make decisions instantly and collectively may be just around the corner. As soon as Mr Gates and Mr Murdoch can get us all online through our shiny new PCs and satellite screens, we too can tell the prime minister what to do, every day, all day, just like them.

In fact, as you troll off to put your tick next to the name of a local council candidate you do not know, or if you are in London, to vote "yes" to democracy for the capital, you might be wondering why in these days of home PCs, satellites, internets and digital doodahs you cannot already cast your ballot from your comfortable armchair. After all, if you can buy fake pearl earrings without moving from your front room, why can't you pick a politician of slightly less value the same way? The answer is that although you cannot yet; soon you will be able to do so. In the US, experiments are being conducted to see whether there are better ways of dealing with local issues than leaving them to elected representatives. Local plebiscites on parking systems, school reform, even the design of municipal stationery are being conducted in small towns. The citizens of these Periclean enclaves of direct democracy, it seems respond to them.

As a semi-anorak myself, I could hardly argue with the prospect of taking democracy out of the hands of the contemptible self-serving politicians and putting it into the hands of the people. Why not harness the wisdom of the people, engage their enthusiasm, and settle pointless arguments quickly and decisively?

And there are other attractions. At present, because we cannot have referendums every day, we must elect governments, local and national, of which we only broadly approve; we may dislike many of their specific policies, but we have no choice about which ones we can reject once we have put the tick by the name. Pushbutton democracy would allow us to say which aspects of a party's platform we dislike; the elected representative would come into office knowing what bits of the manifesto to leave at the front door.

Above all, in the post-ideology age, the pushbutton democracy could be the instrument that frees us from the tyranny of the party. If we the people, possess the means to direct policy on a weekly, even daily basis, surely all that we need are effective and honest managers? Their job should be to give us the stakeholders as much information as we need to make our decisions, and then to carry out those decisions quickly and effectively.

This is a New Britain vision of democracy. It whirrs, it hums and it's graphics are bright and cheerful. For the prophets of the Information Age, it is Nirvana. There are, of course, bound to be transitional problems. Maybe not everyone has the gear; but the answer to that is simple - IBM, Microsoft and BT join with the government to wire up every household in the UK. Or you could register via the local library, or if that's been closed down, through Tesco's, where there are soon bound to be Internet- linked computer terminals right next to the phone booths. If you don't know how, you'll be trained, or assisted by one of the Government's welfare- to-work trainees. It is all possible; and as much as it pains me to say it, it is all ghastly.

One problem with push-button democracy is that it is too easy. What happens if we, like most human beings change our minds? In fact, the capacity to vote again might well encourage us to do so. Ten years ago, being a technophile, I persuaded London Weekend TV to purchase a new digital editing system that was twice as fast as the systems then in use. The idea was that we would cut editing time in half and save wads of money which could then be used to pay more journalists to deliver more and better stories. Some hope; what it actually did was enable directors and editors to tinker with their films twice as much. We got better-looking films, but we saved little money. The point is that given more choices, most of us will use the opportunity to dither.

Another worrying aspect of the push-button democracy is that it removes the time to reflect. If you have e-mail, you will by now be used to the morning routine of opening your online mailbox to discover a dozen or more messages - all of which have to be answered immediately. It certainly makes us talk - but what are we saying? Are we sending considered responses - or are we simply getting the e-mails off our list of things to do? Today we all expect the e-mail to come winging its way back within hours, if not minutes. The same would be true of a system where the government could consult the citizen every hour of the day; you could be sure that the politicians would make the process one that prevented informed choice rather than enhanced it.

The greatest problem with the pushbutton democracy is that its very speed and convenience would make our political currency emotional impact rather than rational argument. Quick decisions based on minimum knowledge give advantages to demagogues, populists and opportunists. Maybe that's what we deserve.

I could just about live, I guess with the modern equivalent of Pericles; but what happens if the machines gave sway to a true master of the gut instinct, someone who was a perfect conduit for mass emotion rather than a filter of the people's will? Can you imagine Cyber Prime Minister Jerry Springer? Pull the plugs now, I say.

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