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Best methods for undemocratic participation

9. May 2010 – 20:33 by Dan Jellinek

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


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


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.


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


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?


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.


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


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


Allow plural votes with no checking process


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.


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  1. 6 Responses to “Best methods for undemocratic participation”

  2. By Tim Bonnemann on May 10, 2010

    Great and fun list, thanks for sharing!

    One more item I’d like to add (for those cases where a consultation is tied directly to a decision making process): “Be vague about the level of influence participants can reasonably expect to have.”

    On Zilino, we ask conveners to complete a questionnaire that covers the basic project parameters (objective, scope, timeline, funders etc.). This information is exposed to all participants at the beginning of the consultation in an effort to set the right expectations from the get-go. One question addresses the “promise to the public” the convener can commit to.

  3. By Matthias Wevelsiep on May 11, 2010

    Hello there,

    Excellent! Consider those as well:
    Create your own services and websites – do not try and enter mainstream social networks. You never know what the general public might say. I rather have my little piece of land off the highway. And start from scratch, because open source cannot be trusted (if it is for free it comes with a high price).

    While emphasizing the importance of sharing, use offline documents and closed Intranets to keep most of your project information.

    Arrange it so that participants’ messages cannot be edited, and post full details including email address without asking for permission. What Facebook can do, we can do even better.

    Thanks again, Matz

  1. 4 Trackback(s)

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