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Politics at the speed of thought

This article appears in the issue May 2013, [Volume 22, Issue 5]


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If you don't think the speed of change is seriously accelerating, consider the plight of Boiko "Batman" Borisov, 53, a former karate instructor, bodyguard and until recently the prime minister of Bulgaria. Elected in 2009, the leader of the former communist republic knew his government was fragile. But he had hoped he could at least hold on until the July 2013 elections.

Then in January, already economically strapped Bulgarians received a shock in the mail—a 100 to 200 percent increase in their electric utility bills. Complaints poured in to the Ministry of Economy and Energy, the very title of which suggests the strong link between energy and the Eastern European economy. Ministry officials responded in typical bureaucratic fashion, promising to check for and replace defective meters and to look more closely at the power companies' financial statements.

Borisov and his cabinet quickly found out how social media works. On Friday, Feb. 15, thousands of mobile device-enabled protesters took to the streets in cities and towns throughout the country. The government quickly offered to "meet" with the "protesters," not knowing exactly who would be meeting whom.

As was evident in last year's "Occupy" protests in the United States, such movements are purely self-organizing. Those on the receiving end, with their formal hierarchies and responsible parties for decision making, response planning, communication and other designated functions, become highly frustrated at the lack of a "single point of contact" on the protesters' side.

This is typical of what happened in the capital city of Sofia, where hundreds showed up en masse at a planned public appearance of the energy minister. The "meeting" consisted of the protesters hurling snowballs at him as he tried in vain to explain the principles of supply chain math. Meanwhile, the intensity of the protests continued to build, as people scanned their electric bills from the previous year and posted them along with their current bills to their favorite social media sites.

It is now Monday, Feb. 18, and the Bulgarian finance minister has resigned. Not to be deterred, yet perhaps not fully realizing the power of those little things called "tweets" (what could be more benevolent sounding?), Borisov emphatically insists that he will not resign. By Tuesday, the protests in the streets grow into bloody clashes with police, and by Wednesday, the prime minister and all of his remaining cabinet members are gone.

Next, the protesters turned their attention to local officials. On the day of Borisov's resignation, a protester in the city of Varna set himself on fire. He died from his burns on March 6 and immediately afterward, the mayor of that city resigned.

As we write this, many of the ousted politicians are still shell-shocked at the speed at which their world was turned upside down. We have all seen the Arab Spring, which built up over a period of months. Now we can add an Eastern European Winter that avalanched in a matter of a few weeks.

What's next? Keeping score isn't easy. Romania has had three prime ministers in 2012. And less than two weeks after the events in Bulgaria, Slovenia's prime minister received a late-night no-confidence vote, joining the growing list of top officials being shown the door, enabled in large part by instant two-way mass communication. People taking to the streets was in itself a shock to this normally peaceful country.

Meanwhile, Croatia is looking for ways to get its social networks ramped up. Not because of any internal turmoil, at least for the moment. Rather, they need to clear one remaining hurdle in their quest to gain membership in the European Union—a longstanding border dispute with Slovenia. But nothing is certain in a world in which entire governments can change on a dime.

Mob rule or open society?

In our "smart cities" articles, we warned of the fragility of maintaining social cohesion among a massively interconnected populace. "Smart mobs," a phrase coined by Howard Rheingold in his book Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, are only a few key clicks away from turning into angry mobs. This is politics, flash mob style. The same goes for corporations, nonprofits and individuals.

Let's be clear. In the case of Bulgaria, electric bills were the tipping point, not the root cause. Years of irregularities, corruption and politics-as-usual served as the tinder and firewood waiting for a spark to set the whole thing ablaze. That spark is more frequently becoming the Internet and social media. In a serious dose of irony, the Bulgarian government official nominated to head the commission that determines utility rates had a little side business selling bootleg cigarettes ... online.

Although we mostly hear about the destructive aspects of social networks, they have an equal capacity for constructive action. The same power used to instantly mobilize can also be used to quickly analyze, discuss and validate, all while preserving an audit trail of the supporting rationale (recall previous The Future of the Future articles regarding capturing the why). And with that comes tremendous opportunity.

One example is the potential for more thorough vetting of politicians' claims. In a world of 30-second sound bites and 140-character tweets, so-called "low-information voters" need not be the norm. When multiplied across thousands or even millions of inquisitive minds applying their critical thinking skills in a rational way, 140 characters can turn fiery political rhetoric into fodder for late-night comedy.

The real possibility of moving from our current mind-numbing state of dumb-downed politics to smart politics is quite appealing. Enlightened politicians will eventually realize that opinion polls are becoming increasingly less useful. Rather, they will begin to see the benefits of mining social network discourse, looking for trending topics. Corporate marketing departments have already figured this out. Governments need to get on board as well.

Of course the ability to capture, store, retrieve and mine every single post has valid privacy concerns. A more transparent, open society enabled by open systems will help keep both sides honest. A challenge for sure, but one we must address.

The outbreaks of anarchy we have seen are only a taste of what might be in store if we don't collectively put our minds around using social networks more constructively. Social media need not be limited to mobilizing crowds chanting the latest "down with ... " slogans. As a greater percentage of tweets slowly evolve into golden nuggets of knowledge, crowd mobilization will eventually be replaced by knowledge mobilization. Then we may finally come close to achieving that old KM dream of "right knowledge, right place, right time."


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