Social networks are everywhere. People belong to different social groups and interact with relatives, friends, colleagues, civil servants, professionals and politicians. Interaction may take place through various forms of communication and is influenced by a variety of political, cultural, social and economic factors. In our times, information technology has accelerated and widened the possibilities, pace and flows of communication.
In Malta, physical and digital networks are perhaps more pronounced than is the case in many larger societies. Given the size and population density of our country, we are always physically close to each other. Hence, we can chat on Facebook in the morning and bump into each other in Valletta in the afternoon.
Many of us also tend to wear multiple hats. For example, many behind-the-scenes political party volunteers during elections may also have other affiliations such as family, employment, pastimes, memberships and favourite hang-out venues.
Malta also has one of the highest incidences of social media usage in the EU. Politicians ignore the social media at their peril, but the opposite does not necessarily hold. Indeed, there are some politicians who never tire of posting comments on everything under the sun, but who still fail in elections.
This may have to do with various reasons including political party affiliation, charisma, communication skills and mere luck. But contact with constituents is definitely a key factor for political success in Maltese society. House visits are imperative, but so are other activities such as mingling with residents and communities in localised fora, places and activities.
The proximity of constituents and politicians can translate itself into stronger communities. Here, politicians would be in synch with everyday challenges, problems, needs and aspirations. Micro-issues such as the quality of pavements, the quality of playing areas for kids and one’s employment experiences may not hit the news headlines, but may be priorities for constituents. And the effective politician knows this very well.
This is not to say that such networks do not face challenges. As our society becomes more diverse, social integration is becoming a major challenge for policymakers, community leaders, educators and politicians. As individualisation increases, it also becomes difficult to reconcile instant gratification with the common good.
People’s individual needs may also vary and may slip beneath the net of social solidarity. Some politicians or community leaders may not even be aware of the needs of certain individuals, who may be lonely, disconnected or suffering in silence due for example due to mental health issues or oppressive family realities.
Strong social networks may also have negative impacts such as corruption. This may encourage certain politicians to promise corrupt practices to their constituents in return for their vote. It may also act as a form of social control to keep voters in check.
We needn’t look far. It is an open secret that before June’s general election Labour micro-targeted constituents and satisfied their requirements even when these were not exactly in line with good governance. Hence the explosion of development permits, public service jobs and other favours.
Social networks or the lack of them can also help reproduce inequality. Here, one may refer to individuals or groups whose employment experience is precarious or non-unionised. Their voice tends to be muted compared to those of unionised workers.
Inequality can also have a partisan flavour, for example if partisan decisions such as promotions or vindictive transfers take place. And Malta does not seem to be lacking in this regard.
Hence the presence of social networks, and their impacts, whether positive or negative, should be seen as a key starting point for grounded politics. Empirical social-scientific research on people’s trust, interaction and sense of belonging can be very helpful in this regard.
It is also imperative to analyse the importance of leisure, pastimes, identities and voluntary work. And such research should be grounded into local realities, traditions, challenges and changes. The bigger picture is only as real as its parts.