Social media and global governance

As a component of the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI)’s tenth anniversary celebrations, a full day conference was held on Sept. 20 evaluating the role that think-tanks can fulfill. The conference, under the title of ‘Can Think Tanks Make a Difference,’ was aired globally as a webcast.

The morning began with an opening statement from CIGI chair and RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie. Throughout the day, three roundtable discussions evaluated the interactions of social media with policy, the emphasis placed on policy by governments and who holds the greatest influence in policy making.

The first roundtable, ‘Policy Innovation in the Age of Social Media,’ evaluated the impact of Internet-based tools such as Facebook and Twitter and how this alters the role of think-tanks. The discussion was moderated by CBC News correspondent Peter Mansbridge, who began by explaining the revolutionary influence social media has had on journalism.

“For the purposes of my work, I’m a lot more confident how we, in my business, use social networking today than even a year ago,” said Mansbridge. “I think things have changed in our world, just like they are changing in yours.”

Despite acknowledging the use of social media as “ground-breaking,” Mansbridge cautioned that people must be “wary of the information that often they are seeing, especially in fast-moving stories that impact our world.”

While the impact on journalism is something clear to the everyday citizen, policy work is a more complex and typically out of sight process. Toby Fyfe, the editor-in-chief of Canadian Government Executive magazine, explained the changing nature of government policy undertakings.

“The fact is that through obvious technology like the Internet, nowadays people have access to information, but it means from a policy perspective that governments are being driven to respond more quickly,” Fyfe commented.

He continued, “The bottom line … is that governments need to back off. They’re understanding that they can’t control the way they used to.”

Alexandra Samuel, the director of the Social and Interactive Media Centre at Emily Carr University underlined this argument with examples of the use of the Internet to bypass government policy.

One of the most notable illustrations she provided was the ignorance of copyright laws, which are consistently undermined through file sharing.

“The reason we need to think about copyright is because the world of the Internet doesn’t respect that policy anymore,” said Samuel. “The policy is broken [and] there’s really no capacity for the government to enforce it.”

The Arab Spring was another frequently utilised example of the impact of social media. Outlets such as Twitter and Facebook were drawn upon in certain cases to propel desire for change and to organize resistance.

However, as was explained by Bessma Momani, a CIGI senior fellow, the problem of what to do after dictatorial overthrow was far too intricate to be solved within 140 characters.

She explained, “It [social media] has a strong co-ordinating and logistical, if you will, mobilizing effect, in getting people to a certain place at a certain time … but it can’t solve the underlying, pressing problems of governance.” Those issues, in her opinion, are better left to analytical policy institutes like CIGI.

Though each discussant evaluated the topic with a unique discourse, the overall consensus appeared to be that think-tanks will continue to play an important role into the future, assuring many more stimulating CIGI conferences to come.