Social media and new technologies can be without doubt an important tool for politicians and governments to create a direct relationship with the public. Using Facebook, YouTube or even creating a personal blog to go direct to the people could be a step towards defeating the sense of distance people feel towards politics.
But could this turn out to be counterproductive for journalism?
Recently Renzi has strengthened his line of communication with citizens via his Facebook page and his personal website, claiming his right to choose the way he prefers to communicate, and prompting criticism from journalists and local journalism authorities.
"Could the citizens be informed only via social forums?" wonders the article. "Is it legitimate for a civil servant - and not merely a politician - to completely bypass media outlets (even his own public relations office) in order to communicate uniquely through a direct line to citizens?"
The Tuscany Press Association (AST) and the Regional Association of Journalists, complained this month that their role is being diminished and undervalued by the decision of the Mayor to bypass them in giving news regarding official events. In their opinion, the Mayor, even if he is perfectly entitled to create a direct line to citizens through social networks, can't however restrict the official communication only to those means. What's more, Italy has specific laws (L. no. 150) on official communication regarding the governmental administration, they noted.
The risk - LSDI argued - is that using social networks to inform citizens could shift from being a simple information service to become a sort of "propaganda."
Between those in power and the citizens, the mediation of journalists is important. They have the right as well as the duty to scrutinize those in power and verify their statements, providing accurate and fair information.
"What we are experiencing," the article continues, "is not an innovative use of digital technologies but an exploitation of these".
There are several problems. As LSDI noted, firstly, information via social media provides only partial information as it comes from the organisation directly involved, and secondly, there is no certainty that a debate that originated online would find a real implementation within the political processes.
Moreover following a Facebook page or a Twitter account implies that users actively choose to do it, "liking" the Facebook page or subscribing on Twitter. And this usually happens when people support a particular candidate or politicians. But even if an opponent could decide to do it, what say do those have who are not on Facebook or social networks? Specifically regarding Italy, it's important to bear in mind that the digital divide is still a reality.
The decision taken by some Italian ministers to use YouYube for addressing official information is not an Italian prerogative, as many heads of states such as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev have their own YouTube channels.
Dangers of bypassing traditional media were raised also regarding US President Barak Obama, the "YouTube president" and towards what the New York Times called his "YouTubing-Facebooking-texting-Twittering grass-roots organization," during the campaign and his team are looking into how these new media can be used by the administration.
Criticism was raised towards the new version of WhiteHouse.gov in the early days of Obama's government. The Columbia Journalism Review noted that the transparency continually claimed by the government was in effect, leaving journalism out of the matter.
"Indeed, WhiteHouse.gov's many claims about the priority Obama will place on transparency are offset, somewhat, by a glaring absence on the site: its grand plan for renewed transparency doesn't mention the press. At all", the article said.
It continues highlighting that "WhiteHouse.gov presents itself as a kind of social networking portal in which citizens can essentially "friend" the government--and it frames the ensuing dialogue as one that takes place directly between the people and the government. The press, it suggests by way of omission, need not be part of the exchange."
"There's a thin line, after all, between transparency and advocacy--and, for that matter, between information and propaganda. The goal can't simply be transparency itself--how can we hold anyone accountable to something so self-referential--but rather transparency that is processed through a journosphere that is diligent, curious, and sceptical. Otherwise, «direct democracy» easily veers into «direct publicity»", the article concluded.