The incidence of crime, including violent crime, continue to fall. Various explanations have been offered for this. One is demographic: the cohort of young people is smaller than in earlier decades. According to one study, one contributor to the decline in violent crime has been a reduction in alcohol consumption. That, though, appears specific to the UK, whereas the decrease in violent crime is not specific to the UK. An earlier study, as I recall, attributed a decline in crime to the use of social media. People are now too engrossed in online activities. The Internet enables instant access to whatever interests the individual, be it contact with friends, listening to music, following the news, gaming, or whatever. It also encourages and satisfies the need for instant gratification. Whereas addiction to alcohol in the past has been seen as a cause of crime, addiction to the Internet may now be a cause of its reduction.
This, to my mind, is an interesting thesis. It also links to my view of the decline in political engagement, especially of the traditional party-oriented engagement. People are less likely than in earlier decades to join political parties and to vote. The latest Hansard Society Audit of Political Engagement 11 shows that half of those questioned say they are ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ interested in politics and 38% say they would like to be fairly involved in decision-making nationally. However, there is little evidence of engagement. My thesis is that this is because there are so many competing interests compared with forty or fifty years ago and these can now be pursued online. The Internet is both a facilitator and a cause of declining involvement in politics. People are more interested in music, sport or human interest stories than they are in the latest developments in Westminster and their interests are fed and satisfied at the tapping of a screen. Parliament and political parties are not geared to activities that feed the need for instant gratification. Political parties used to fulfil tasks, including that of social integration, that are now fulfilled by a range of other bodies. Parliament and MPs could do more – MPs use innovative technology, but not in an innovative way – but the challenge is enormous. They have to compete for public attention in a way that they did not in earlier decades.
In short, the growth of the Internet has had major consequences, some for the better and some arguably not. The challenge for politicians is to be aware of exactly what is happening and adapt to it.
At a meeting the other evening organised by Unlock Democracy and the Constitution Society, one member of the audience was declaiming that the political establishment would be overthrown and the medium for this would be social media. If anything, social media, certainly in Western nations, may be more conservative instruments, encouraging an apolitical population. If we are to achieve electors who are both informed about and interested in politics, then the route is through citizenship education. That is where we need to be devoting resources.