Best Methods For Undemocratic E-Participation
The recent warnings from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) that the internet poses a major threat to endangered species by providing an efficient communications network for traders were a reminder that the impact of the internet is not always positive.
In itself, like most technologies, the net is neutral, a tool to be used for social benefit or detriment. So when it comes to ‘e-participation’ – online tools allowing people to exchange and discuss ideas, organise into groups and affect the workings of their society – we should not be dazzled by the glitz and excitement of the latest buzzwords like ‘Web 2.0’ without stopping to consider how we can try to ensure that the effects of these technologies are as positive as possible.
We must ensure that the addition or integration of new digital channels does not make existing power structures less socially representative, and if possible, should improve democratic systems, for example by providing voices to people who previously would have struggled to be heard. Mastery of new technologies and ownership of expensive equipment must not become pre-requisites for engagement in e-participation.
Overall, technology is the servant, not the master, of a fair political system. To safeguard people’s rights a country’s democratic system must first be strengthened, with technology deployed in support. We must remember there are wrong ways of going about e-participation, ways which will tend to centralise power, reinforce existing social inequities or play into the hands of private power. The use of jargon; expensive, brand-new technologies; and technologies which are hard for poorer or less educated people to access may all, consciously or unconsciously, have such anti-democratic tendencies.
At a workshop at the EDEM10 conference in Krems, Austria in May 2010, ‘Best methods for undemocratic participation’, with the help of Hans Hagedorn of Zebralog, we asked the question the negative way around – – if we set out to make an e-participation system that was as undemocratic as possible, what would it be like?
The assembled group of e-democracy analysts and practitioners had a lot of fun answering this question. But there was a serious point to the exercise: first, the process of thinking about what had made projects unsuccessful in the past can be easier than thinking about what worked well, and more revealing: everyone remembers crazy or absurd examples of web projects that were hard to use, or unfathomable in purpose or outcome. By throwing these together, we have created a good starting point for further work to build the positive counterpart of rules to make it work, or pitfalls to avoid – an exercise for a later date.
So here we go with the latest list, as adapted from our brainstorming session: please do add further comments and suggestions here and we’ll hone the list further over the coming weeks and months, before deciding what else to do with it.
Best methods for undemocratic participation
1 – TOPICFOR DEBATE/CONSULTATION
Pick the topic for democratic debate yourself, without reference to any of the bothersome people who are going to be doing the debating.
Choose a topic with no emotional impact for anyone normal
Or…Invite anyone to suggest any topic, even if there are very many and most of them overlap, and then allow people to discuss them all at the same time
Pre-select the questions you are going to answer in a “live” online debate
2 – TECHNOLOGY/DESIGN
Don’t waste time on accessibility. Nobody with a disability or a slow internet connection is going to take part anyway.
Or… spend all your budget on accessibility
If designing for a different generation, make your own mind up what they will need or like
Always give your supplier a vague, loose specification
Use technology that only runs in one type of browser; require a plug-in; and does not view properly on mobile devices.
3 – USER INFORMATION PROVISION
Do not be transparent about who is hosting the project, and why
Do not be clear about how people can part, and the expected/desired outcomes of your project: one good way of doing this is to present all information in extremely complex ways
Have a hidden agenda
4 – LAUNCH/PROMOTION
Do not connect your online activity with any other existing offline political or social activity.
Or if you do… don’t tell people how the two (online and offline) are related
Choose a few people to form the initial core of the project from among your immediate associates, contacts and buddies.
Allow the rest of the participants to be self-selected from among the usual democracy geeks with the technology, skills and education to find your project, understand it and engage easily.
As for everybody else – just create the website and wait for users to find you. The web’s not that big, is it?
5 – PARTICIPATION PROCESS
During the registration process, ask every participant for at least 10 pieces of personal data
Allow people to easily assume multiple identities
Make the whole site hard to use, with at least 5 or 6 clicks required just to post a message
Ignore all other needs of the user: communication, motivation, abilities.
6 – MODERATION
Never use any form of moderation – after all, it’s more democratic that way, however unpleasant or dominant some of the voices may become.
Or if you do…
Pre-moderate, but make sure your moderators only work 9-5 on week days.
Conceal the identity and method of moderation
Ensure moderators remain anonymous
Do not give any commitment to the length of time moderation will take
Take ages to moderate anything
Let the only recourse for people who feel they have been unfairly moderated be the law courts
7 – POLITICIANS
Do not involve any elected politicians – they won’t understand the technology.
Or if you do promise participation or replies from politicians, don’t deliver on the promise
8 – VOTES/POLLS
Allow plural votes with no checking process
9 – RESULTS/OUTCOME
Shut down the website shortly after the activity has finished
Turn the results of your project into a report more than six months after it has finished, and then secretly publish it in a pdf in an obscure part of your website.