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Using technology to inject the demos back into democracy

Online deliberation allows us to take a leap towards much deeper democracy.

The Agora at Tyre, Heretiq, Wikimedia

The recent Brexit referendum revealed a deep societal rift about what the word ‘democracy’ means. To some, the term ‘democracy’ is inseparable from the idea of majoritarian rule, and is viewed as the revolutionary triumph of the downtrodden over a corrupt aristocracy meant to deliver freedom, equality, and a system of personal advancement based on merit and graft instead of birth and wealth. But to a surprising number of others, democracy would appear to be conceived more as an elaborate debating society, where points are politely exchanged on the issues of the day before everyone concurs in doing ‘the only decent thing’. On the rare occasions when the hoi polloi are given the opportunity to make a decision, as happened during Brexit, their betters should feel no compunctions in over-riding it, should it prove convenient to do so.

This ‘debating society’ conception of democracy surfaced in a multitude of articles written post-Brexit, e.g. here, here, here and here. Such perceptions of democracy as the mere art of noble statecraft tend to portray the common folk as ignorant dupes, incapable of assessing their own best interests and dangerously irresponsible, all too prone to shrieking ‘Give me freedom or give me death!’ in front of blood-stained guillotines, or – at the other end of the spectrum – marching in jackboots by torchlight. The debating society democrats are, by contrast, self-portrayed as intelligent, courageous and above all righteous in their willingness to save the people from themselves, or at least from making any decisions that could negatively impact a balanced stock portfolio. Debating society or bloodthirsty chaos – these are the alleged choices.

But the truth is that champagne-flute clinking ‘civilized debate’ and the classic peasant revolt are but two sides to one coin. Exclude people from having a hand in their political destiny for too long, ignore their repeated polite warnings that they’re unhappy with the decisions their self-anointed superiors are ostensibly making for their own good, and eventually their anger and frustration will boil over. The relationship is not one of alternatives, but rather of cause and effect.

And for evidence that the people are excluded from politics under current ‘democratic’ practices, one need look no further than the fact that the Conservative party currently wields 100% of political power in the United Kingdom with less than 37% of the vote. Such skewed election results are the norm rather than the exception – Tony Blair’s Labour ruled even more absolutely with much the same level of popular support. And ‘ruled’ is indeed the appropriate term, because between elections, there are few ways in which the general population can participate in politics. Referenda are non-binding and, due to their extreme infrequency, tend to be dominated by moneyed interests, petitions are merely an advanced form of groveling, and protest an exercise in letting off steam. No matter how often or passionately people protested the Iraq War, for example, they did not suddenly acquire command of the United Kingdom’s armed forces with the authority to direct their activities. Consequently, the war happened. 

As this demonstrates, possibilities to ‘take action’ under our current system may exist, but they are rarely effective. Debating-society democracy leaves the majority of people increasingly conscious of the fact that, while they may be able to express their opinions, there is no mechanism in place for translating those opinions into action. It has long been understood that it is the duty of politicians to listen to these expressions and act upon them, but there is nothing in our political system that actually ensures that this happens at any point, much less in a timely fashion. It depends entirely on politicians voluntarily doing their duty; when they don’t things go pear-shaped. Fast.

If we want to correct this, we need to incorporate a legitimate and visible connection between citizens expressing their political preferences and concrete actions taken. Such a mechanism would need to involve citizens in decision-making on a continual basis, so as to allow issues to be dealt with before the tension builds. With millions of citizens in the United Kingdom, it is impossible to imagine how this could be done offline, but such a system of rolling participation could be implemented online. After all, Estonians have being using internet voting in elections since 2005 with parts of Canada and Switzerland following suit.

More sophisticated online tools (see eg. here, here, and here) allow citizens to vote not just in elections, but directly on specific issues, such as rent control, financial regulation, or fracking. Frequent issue-specific voting means that it is less likely for the accompanying debate to become conflated across issues, and commenting functions can allow citizens to directly engage with each other, introducing a deliberative aspect to decision-making across disparate sub-groups that is currently utterly lacking in both referenda and elections. Most importantly, online voting on specific issues allows for transparency, removing much of the guesswork from politics, and making it difficult for representatives to dismiss voters’ expressed will. The grey space between expression and action disappears.

If we want to reset democracy, we need to put the demos – the people, that is – back in the middle of the process, and this is precisely what technology allows us to do.

Despite oft-repeated fears of the dangers of ‘online participation’, the facts indicate that we are ready for this transition.

When The Guardian analysed over 70 million comments, posted on its site over 10 years, it discovered that only 2% of them had been blocked by moderators, including comments blocked for being off-topic rather than for containing offensive content. Actual threats were described as ‘extremely rare’ while ‘[h]ate speech as defined by law was rarely seen on Guardian comment threads’. Similarly, a Pew study in the United States revealed that 27% of internet users had been called an offensive name online while 6% had experienced online sexual harassment. Compare this to the 24% of women who experience sexual harassment in the workplace and what must surely be the 100% of people who have, at some point, been called an offensive name offline. Obviously any level of harassment is unacceptable, but this data does call a narrative of an unruly online environment that is intrinsically more abusive than the offline world into question. Thus, while it would certainly be necessary to set parameters on the deliberative aspect of online decision-making, there is no reason to believe that this would prove an insurmountable task.

When things are out in the open and people are regularly consulted in a manner that clearly leads to results, contentious situations tend to be more easily defused, mistakes more easily spotted and rectified, and debate more easily centred on the issue at hand. It is when people’s wishes are suppressed for long periods of time, that politics begins to get chaotic. The debating society version of democracy we have been championing for so long is not an alternative to, but rather a cause of, social unrest. Giving people a transparent stake in decision-making, as technology now allows us to do, is the best, and perhaps the only, way to effectively reset democracy in a peaceful manner.

About the author

Dr. Roslyn Fuller is the author of Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed Its Meaning and Lost Its Purpose. She consults public and private organizations on using technology to enhance democratic decision-making. 

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