Many more countries are now democracies when compared with the situation 40 years ago. In fact, six in 10 countries in the world are now democratic. The required characteristics of a democracy together make up a kind of practical definition given for what a democrative country is. Six characteristics commonly considered for a democratic country are popular sovereignty, majority rule, individual rights, free and open elections, citizen involvement, and open compromise.
The imperative of building democracy is often applied to developing parts of the world. The idea is that democracy should be built in Africa, in Asia, for example. And of course it should be done. Each non-democratic country must be examined to determine how many of the six characteristics are in place to a measurable standard, and how many of the six remain absent or underdeveloped.
But existing democracies have to be built, too. Democracy isn't something that is given once, like a divine blessing for all time. Instead, it reqiures continuous examination and reconsideration in the light of changing circumstances and then renewal, change, even rebuilding.
Consider, for example, number 5 in the required characteristics of a democratic country, that of citizen involvement. Many countries can demonstrate that citizens are engaged and participating in the democratic dialogue of their coutnry. But the measure of citizen involvement can be low and on a downward trend. The widespread use of social media would at first glance offer opportunities to enhance and extend citizen involvment, but instead it can aggravate matters.
Citizen involvements require people to become informed about issues that affect them. However, social media for many people means reading and viewing ideas through which they find comfort in repetition. The social-media experience can be as narrow as retreating at the end of each day to a social network for the purpose of viewing descriptions and photos of family and friends reporting on the quirky things they've found online.
Citizen involvement also means keeping up-to-date on the actions of elected representatives and elites, and offering opinions on those actions. While social media can be used to find informed and critical reports about local matters of public interest, the reality is that it's not used that way by many people Distractions abound online and these encourage people to "disappear down the rabbit hole."
Larry Wong / Edmonton Journal
Of course, citizen involvement also requires doing things like attending community meetings and becoming members of voluntary groups. The primary activity in this category is voting. In Canada, it's enough to know that trends in voter turnout in federal elections are not encouraging. The 2015 federal election was a spike to 68.5% voter turnout, but federal and provincial averages are at historic lows. Online voting, which would bring the ballot box online, which is where the next generation now lives, has not found widespread acceptance in Canada. The reasons may be partly technical - fear of the election being hacked - but there's evidence, too, that the status quo simply suits some individuals and groups.
The communications theorist Jürgen Habermas writes that the Internet may erode public discourse in liberal democracies, such as Canada, while destabilizing authoritarian regimes. He also argues that the dominant effect of social media is the same in both kinds of societies. In both, we see the creation and reproduction of “isolated publics." People tend to act in response only to information they find agreeable. Cue the “fake-news,” which can be counted on to find a robust and immediate audience.
At the beginning of the television age, beginning in the 1940s, liberal democracies established national broadcasting agencies as a means of providing a public space for citizens, protecting cultural sovereignty, and diffusing reliable information. Similar policies for the online age have yet to be created.