Through greater access to information, owing to the ubiquity of digital devices, more parts of society, globally, are being empowered to contribute to development discourse and to learn from and replicate successes in other parts of the world, said University of Pretoria Department of Political Sciences researcher and Centre for Mediation in Africa deputy director Dr Quraysha Ismail Sooliman.
Perceptions of, and responses to, an issue, such as a policy or development of infrastructure, were often shaped and cultivated by the mechanics of communications and information dissemination, and the most impactful voices in the development discourse tended to be those that have power, whether political or economic, she said.
Further, the perspectives or positions communicated by stakeholders may have elements of truth or verifiable details, and when these are used to create an exclusionary or binary narrative that denies any other perspectives or opinions as valid, this restricts the dialogue around a development issue, often to the detriment of the interests of those stakeholders with less power, reducing trust in the outcome.
"This tactic [of using crafted narratives couched in verifiable details] is used across the board and is a common tactic in politics. It creates the notion of a forced consensus, as based on the facts the bloc uses, including by using language to install fear of other outcomes, or without acknowledging external facts or perspectives," said Sooliman.
When citizens are more informed, such as through the use of digital devices and social media, they are more able to question whether the narratives surrounding a particular development issue are what they, as a constituency, would approve of or not, and whether this issue is in line with their interests.
"Owing to the alternate mechanism by which individuals can access more sides of a story, more citizens can begin to question the dominant narratives. Individuals are typically galvanised when their own particular comfort zone is impacted by these issues, such as loadshedding and water shedding affecting everyone," she illustrated.
The greater access to faster information flows has also revealed a global trust deficit between citizens and governments, including in highly developed countries.
In South Africa, for example, the discourse is changing because even those that had access to State services or benefitted from misgovernance are mobilising as they are also feeling the impact of misgovernance.
"Because these groups have access to resources, the government is forced to pay attention to them," Sooliman illustrated.
However, cheaper and ready access to information and news is leading to a change in the dynamics of communication, with a different sector of the population getting to raise their voices. While there are biased parties on social media, the fact is that there are more voices countering and questioning dominant narratives, and this spreads ideas and affords more people the ability to reply and participate.
Further, ordinary people can reply almost instantly to news or information about issues on a range of social media. The ability to participate in social dialogue is helping to provide people with a sense of empowerment and is reducing perceptions of isolation and revealing the extent to which others worldwide suffer from similar challenges.
"The poor no longer only have a value during elections, and governments, multinationals and big business must genuinely engage with stakeholders and communities that had been ignored or sidelined during development discussions around policies and infrastructure," Sooliman noted.
The evolving dynamics of communications and engagement were changing the way societies held States to account, how workers held management to account, and vice versa, or how a minority held a majority to account for fairness and equality within a political system, she added.
"It is unhealthy for citizens to live in fear, including the cultivated fear created by biased narratives to develop a notion of forced consensus. Such tactics lead to an erosion of trust between citizens and leaders of society. When people and perspectives are excluded to only recognise what one party wants to hear or believe, it creates a situation where trust breaks down.
"However, the majority of people, worldwide, are now recognising that the State is not the authority, but that the power of their societies lies with them, the ownership of the State belongs to them, and that they contribute to and empower the State.
"This is changing the narrative of how people view the State, and also how they view their roles within the political system. This is leading to uncertainty over the short term, but will lead to greater trust within a political system in which more people have a voice," she said.