Dan Jellinek’s rather despairing piece on “something sick at the heart of eDemocracy” must be seen, methinks, in the context of his overall enthusiasm for online debate. But he highlights a real and pressing issue. There is, indeed, evidence that online engagement can coarsen the debate. Especially when individuals are anonymous (or even pseudonymous), there is a possibility that some participants (particularly males?) will use more aggressive language and become more extreme in their statements, because their identities are not known. However, the reverse can also be true as there are many examples of serious, thoughtful policy blogs and web-sites where real and valuable debate takes place. Also, compared to some other media like TV, social networking sites can provide opportunities for more in-depth engagement between politicians and the electorate. When Barack Obama last year put up his 40 minute speech on race it was down-loaded by millions of individuals – an opportunity to address a serious issue in depth which would hardly be possible on TV where one minute sound-bites are the rule.
Aggressive online behaviour can be mitigated to some extent by careful moderation, especially in the context of transparent community standards and guidelines. But, as Dan points out, it also reflects our personal levels of tolerance, which only better education can improve. We are still getting used to this new form of engagement, and I remain an optimist and am committed to seeing the bottle at least half full. Moreover, anonymity can be useful in some contexts, for example to protect the identity of vulnerable individuals in sensitive situations, or to assist ‘whistle-blowers’. In all such cases, however, independent validation is probably necessary to ensure that such anonymity is justified.
The behaviour Dan describes can be seen to be a constant feature across society and history, and wasn’t invented by the Internet. I have heard as much, nay worse, in many pub (so-called) discussions, and Dan wouldn’t believe the language used (normally behind closed doors) between members of the same political party. (Been there, done that.) Any new medium of expression is bound to be used for the same outbursts. So what’s new?
Interesting questions: how indeed is eParticipation (eDemocracy or whatever) new – what does it change, if anything, how, and what can we do to maximise the positive?
PEP-NET together with the European eParticipation study are at 10.00 TODAY launching a 12 day online consultation where we don’t expect foul language nor anonymity. But we do expect something of value to emerge, as the consultation is designed to lead to concrete, considered and useful outputs addressing the above questions, and synthesised from your wisdom. So, please join us on: https://www.internet-discourse.eu.