The UK coalition government today published the list of e-petitions it has received so far through its e-petition website. Top of the list of topics that may be debated in parliament is a request to bring back the death penalty in the UK. Apparently, of the first 200 petitions received, 40 called for the return of capital punishment, while 7 called for it to remain out of the UK justice system. So how does this initiative perform as a tool of online democracy? Citizens get to have their voice heard, at least if their opinion makes it past the moderators and enough people agree with them that MPs take notice. As Amnesty International’s Jeremy Croft said on BBC news: “It is democracy… of a sort“. It is democracy of the populist sort, where the debate is done in Westminster and not by the public. Of course many participants may have discussed and deliberated issues and thought long and hard before choosing to support a petition. Others won’t have. The platform for participation does not incorporate any facility for exchange of views or consideration of alternative ideas or opinions. It is simply a space for citizens to express an opinion and hope that MPs will take note.
This is the model of participation that many believed would be empowered by the internet as it allowed citizens to speak freely and equally, wrestling control from the institutions and handing it to anyone with a phone line and a keyboard. But as Hindman (2009) points out, social hierarchies and winner-takes-all power laws have been quick to materialize in the on-line world, just like those in other areas that have been criticised so much. Hindman argues that this demonstrates that the internet is not the democratising tool that many hoped it would be but instead simply mirrors the patterns seen in traditional media. The e-petition initiative tackles this problem by at least providing a direct route to Westminster and the potential to get an issue on the floor of the commons. However, if Hindman is correct and the fractal structure of the internet pervades this tool as all others on the web, while some issues prosper and gain support other, possibly equally valid, petitions will fall by the way side simply due to not having the weight of numbers to be noticed by the public. As the example of the capital punishment petitions shows – 40 different petitions were set up instead of one petition with 40 times more signatures. How many other issues are represented by many, tiny unnoticed petitions?
Perhaps it is too much to ask for any technological innovation to ‘democratise’ a political system, as what is really required is action by the public to break down the barriers that segregate people and ideas. Segregation between social groups – genders, ages, ethnicities, income levels, education. Segregation between political ideologies. One method that could help to break down these barriers is cross-society communication between citizens. People talking to each other, learning about the viewpoints of others and reflecting upon them them when forming their own opinion. In other words, public deliberation. But I’ve talked about that before. Public deliberation and the potential of the internet, through the facilitation of large scale conversation, to enable it. This is not the result of the “trickle-up discourse” which Hindman states has failed to materialise; it is the potential for actual interaction, conversation in forums across the internet. Not publishing content and fighting for readership or signatures but inter-personal communication between individuals from diverse groups. So I am therefore presented with the following paradox: Technological innovation cannot democratise our society, people must do it. But people may be enabled to do so by technological innovation. The internet cannot democratise politics, yet it can enable citizens to do so. Maybe I haven’t thought that through, but the more I do so the more it makes sense. Empowering the public to shout out their views is fine. Encouraging them to discuss, share and consider each others views is better.
Hindman, M., 2009, The Myth of Digital Democracy, Princeton University Press
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