E-Democracy in the 21st Century: Methods, Mediums and Media

E-Democracy in the 21st Century: Methods, Mediums and Media

by MARTIN HOGAN

Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, a captivating Sci-Fi novel with fascist overtones, was first published in 1985—well before the advent of the Internet as we know it. One part of the story (attention: spoilers) is the ascendance to power of two of its central figures, Demosthenes and Locke. Those are the aliases of two precociously intelligent children, a brother and a sister, who design a plot to seize power at a national level. They log onto their community's electronic discussion forum and, over a long period, win over the adults in their community using careful logic and convincing rhetoric. The anonymous Demosthenes and Locke build up powerful reputations before revealing their true identities as children, at which point, by virtue of the children's sheer intelligence, the adults have no reasonable choice but to take them seriously. A little time and a few plot points later, one of the children—now a young adolescent—becomes leader of the world government.

This process was a very optimistic account of what Card imagined as a possible future of electronic communication. A highly capable leader was elevated due to a communication process that prioritized logic and reason over prejudice. A child, someone who would not have otherwise found a voice in the system, was heard, all thanks to a communication system accessible to all. Ender's Game shows a democratic process reaping great benefits from using what we now know as the Internet.

And the Internet we know today, at least technologically, has far surpassed Card's online forum. The average person has access to practically infinite information about news, history, politics and a multitude of other subjects. Not only can they read and respond to this bountiful information, but they can do so on a handheld device from anywhere in the globe (despite it is still hard to imagine an anonymous child genius conquering the world by keystrokes). Yet, the internet has doubtlessly affected modern politics—political debates and elections take place much as they always have, albeit with town criers largely having given way to hashtags. But, the Internet has not caused a truly radical change in democracy because it has not altered the fundamental ingredient of successful political deliberations: interpersonal relationships rooted in everyday experience.

If one looks back at the earlier days of the Internet, this assertion might not have seemed so certain. The Internet of years past may more closely resemble the Ender's Game scenario than what we have today. In the 1980s, there were Usenet groups on which people communicated and clustered around common topics of interest. People could share their real-life identities or remain anonymous. With the rise of blogs, people would establish their own corner of the Internet where they could write their thoughts, and anyone who happened to find them could read along, perhaps comment or even have a conversation with the blog's writer. Some blogs were heavily tied to real-world selves, while others were quite separate, allowing the mild-mannered accountant by day to become the world's leading critic of I Love Lucy fan fiction by night. The hallmark of this early Internet was its comparative scatteredness. People would look for content that interested them, a process which became easier with the advent of search engines. Networks of the Internet did not necessarily bear any resemblance to networks of people offline.

One potential negative consequence of this scatteredness is an increase in polarization. Offline, we are often communicating with our families, friends, coworkers, neighbors, and so on. These groups of people are, to varying degrees, in our lives without us choosing them. They are often different from us and hold differing opinions. The interconnected and ever-changing networks of people in our lives will inevitably expose us to new points of view that challenge our own.

This may not be the case, however, with networks and discussions on the Internet. Given the freedom to choose, people tend to seek out and read opinions that are similar to their own. A 2010 study of political blogs found that this principle is borne out in online communication. In the study's conclusion, the authors lament that “both sides of the ideological spectrum inhabit largely cloistered cocoons of cognitive consonance, thereby creating little opportunity for a substantive exchange across partisan or ideological lines.” [1] Some feared that proliferation of political discussion on the Internet would lead to greater polarization and make cooperation harder.

Cass Sunstein, an Obama adviser and Harvard legal scholar, followed this train of thought in his 2001 book Republic.com. The Internet's tendency toward group polarization, he argues, will create problems for democracy. As people associate more and more into like-minded groups, Sunstein writes, the opinions of group members tend to become more extreme in whatever direction they agree. A feedback loop that reinforces shared opinions and gives no voice to opposing ideas will eventually erode nuance and open-mindedness. The great virtue of democracy is precisely the reverse: that it, according to Sunstein, encourages people to deliberate about values, problems, and policies. It is not just the final decision of the majority that matters, but for Sunstein, the process by which we arrive at the decision, enriching collective understanding and producing judicious compromises that also matters. He sees in the Internet a world where browsing people are detached from their communities, seeking out echo chambers, and encouraged in this habit by news sources that offer customization such that each person's Internet experience is only what they want to see. Sunstein fears that this self-reinforcing tendency will increasingly undermine the deliberative virtue of our political culture.

A political story presented by someone in our life—especially by someone who feels passionate about it—is much more compelling to investigate than that same story sitting on the front page of a news website. 

Some of these fears seem to have come to pass, at least marginally. Much has been made of the increasing polarization between America's major political parties, although this is mainly due to parties becoming more cohesive in their ideologies, and not necessarily reflecting the changes in the attitudes of voters. Surveys of political values and attitudes do show that among the American public, liberals and conservatives have grown somewhat further apart. [2] The average American conservative is more consistently conservative in their political ideas than that same conservative ten years ago, and the same goes for liberals.

Yet, how the Internet has changed polarization is, contrary to Sunstein, far from clear. Today, social media is a central way most of us engage with the Internet: roughly one-fifth of the human population has a Facebook account. [3] We are deeply social beings, and it is no accident that platforms built around peering into the lives of our friends, and exchanging validation and ideas with them, have come to dominate the contemporary Internet's landscape. And today, most of the news some of us read online comes largely from sharing on social media. A political story presented by someone in our life—especially by someone who feels passionate about it—is much more compelling to investigate than that same story sitting on the front page of a news website. Studies seem to confirm the idea that political information shared online between those with personal connections is much more likely to make a difference in behavior. [4] An opinion coming from a distant source is easily dismissed, or met with apathy. An opinion from our friend, our coworker, or our cousin is met with more respect, or at least with more of an implicit feeling that it means something. Social networking platforms, for the most part, fill our feeds with people who are in our lives in some way or another. They encourage us to import our relationships from our offline lives and nurture those connections with likes, comments, and reblogs, online. When we listen to what people are saying in our social media feeds, we are not consulting a panel of experts but a circle of acquaintances. It is actually not so distant from the conversations around a dinner table before the advent of the Internet. With a diversity of opinions that reflects real-world social connections—not necessarily just anonymous, radicalized clusters of like-minded individuals—reports of the Internet's impact on the polarization of politics seems overtly exaggerated.

Furthermore, social networking platforms have tended to maintain the kind of online spaces that promote this correspondence with real people. The largest example, Facebook, has attracted controversy by upholding a “real name” policy, disallowing profiles that are apparently not the legal name of its real-life user. The policy has even caused difficulty to such groups as Native Americans and transgender people, many of whose names were not accepted by the website. [5] Despite the bad publicity, Facebook has held firm to its policy, albeit with talk of accommodation. [6] This underscores real-world identity as one essential quality that can both make social media powerful, and implicate diverse discussions that may not entirely fit Sunstein’s views.

It is within these environments, these online communities which by design reflect and nurture our offline connections, that we see real efforts to make change on a person-to-person level. 

It is not hard to see why social media platforms are working hard to uphold having one's own name on a website: without a real-world identity, online spaces risk becoming nothing more than YouTube comment threads, a concept near-synonymous with thoughtless, mean-spirited dreck. On an anonymous forum, where people are represented by screen names or avatars with no necessary correspondence to their own identity, it becomes especially easy to abstract away the meaning of another's comments, and even the humanity of a source of information. With the presence of a coherent personal identity (the names, pictures, and personality info vital to social media) we are prompted to recognize the humanity of others. With the fact that we are talking to a person, not an opinion, at the forefront of our minds, people more readily offer consideration and empathy. Perhaps more importantly, when the reputation of our own identity is at stake, people are discouraged from being too harsh to others, even if they would otherwise want to be.

This maintenance of a civil space for communication is so important that social media platforms not only adopt controversial rules to preserve it, but they employ thousands of people to keep objectionable material out of users' feeds. People are drawn to discussion spaces where they can interact using their real-world identities and build on the connections they have with others. They can also be discouraged from using those spaces if people violate the rules, treating the platform like a 4chan board. Thus, social media companies find it necessary to engage in content moderation, one of the less visible aspects of social media. Large amounts of labor go into the task of sorting through content that is reported for being explicit, offensive, gory, sexually explicit, and so on. [7] This labor tends to be emotionally draining, and that it is largely outsourced to underpaid overseas workers highlights the fact that the dynamics of capitalism work just the same on the Internet. That content moderation is so keenly demanded further confirms how essential it is for an online social space to function similarly to an offline social space.

It is within these environments, these online communities which by design reflect and nurture our offline connections, that we see real efforts to make change on a person-to-person level. One powerful illustration is an article that was shared across social media in the aftermath of the Ferguson protests, a long and painful story that showed deep divisions in how Americans understand race and inequality. The article, by Nigerian writer Spectra, explains that the author was tired of seeing white Americans post about unfriending other white people for holding racist views. [8] This was a shallow display of solidarity, Spectra argues, when the real work of anti-racist solidarity is for white people to maintain their personal connections to racists and begin the difficult conversations pushing toward introspection, and against racist assumptions and attitudes.

The communication that matters most still happens between people who have built up personal connections to each other, and our online personal connections often reflect our offline connections. 

This is an example of someone with a political goal in mind making clear the personal dynamics of social media, and making an ethical exhortation for people to recognize those dynamics and use them for the greater good. Her argument is convincing, and might have stood well enough by itself on an anonymous Internet forum. But her writing is hosted on her own website, which features and emphasizes her own real-world identity, as well as coming with copious buttons for sharing her articles on social media. On today's Internet, the power of the message is deeply intertwined with these real-world connections. This is true even for a message advocating for behavior changes purely within the online sphere, and those purely online behavior changes are just as intertwined with offline connections.

It seems then that modern online political communication, for all of its technological advancement, has not changed things so radically. We can send a message visible to a stranger on the other side of the world in a second, but we cannot compel them to care about what we have to say. The communication that matters most still happens between people who have built up personal connections to each other, and our online personal connections often reflect our offline connections. Respect, empathy, and reciprocity are needed for effective deliberation, and these qualities do not behave so differently online than they might in a school, office, church, or courtroom. Instead of fundamentally changing the nature of deliberation, the Internet has only made more clear the principles that have always defined it.

 

[1] Lawrence, E., Sides, J., and Farrell, H. (2010) Self-Segregation or Deliberation? Blog Readership, Participation, and Polarization in American Politics. Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 8, pp. 141-157.

[2] Pew Research Center. (2014) Political Polarization in the American Public. [online] people-press.org. Available at: http://www.people-press.org/2014/06/12/political-polarization-in-the-american-public/ [Accessed 21 Mar. 2016].

[3] Halleck, T. (2015) Facebook: One Out Of Every Five People On Earth Have An Active Account. [online] International Business Times. Available at: http://www.ibtimes.com/facebook-one-out-every-five-people-earth-have-active-account-1801240 [Accessed 19 Apr. 2016].

[4] Boulianne, S. Social media use and participation: a meta-analysis of current research. Information, Communication & Society, Vol. 18, pp. 524-538.

[5] Holpuch, A. Native American activist to sue Facebook over site's 'real name' policy. [online] The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/feb/19/native-american-activist-facebook-lawsuit-real-name [Accessed 19 Apr. 2016].

[6] Holpuch, A. Facebook adjusts controversial 'real name' policy in wake of criticism. [online] The Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/dec/15/facebook-change-controversial-real-name-policy [Accessed 19 Apr. 2016].

[7] Chen, A. The Laborers Who Keep Dick Pics and Beheadings Out of Your Facebook Feed. [online] Wired. Available at: http://www.wired.com/2014/10/content-moderation/ [Accessed 17 Mar. 2016].

[8] Spectra Speaks. Dear White Allies: Stop Unfriending Other White People Over Ferguson. [online] spectraspeaks.com. Available at: http://www.spectraspeaks.com/2014/11/dear-white-allies-stop-unfriending-white-people-ferguson/ [Accessed 6 Mar. 2016].

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