Can deliberation renew democracy in a digital world?

Sally Hussey

In an era of fake news, social media and public discussions among the like-minded, can deliberation renew democracy?

Democracy is, seemingly, under threat the world over. Diversely labelled “democratic recession” and the “death of democracy” in the extreme, this has also given rise to “post democracy,” where parameters determining people’s living conditions are set by entities out of reach of national policy making. Add to this the waning number of recognised democratic countries while some apparent democratic countries are undermining rights and liberties that ensure a working democracy. What’s more, public discontent furthers the gap between citizens and political decision makers, themselves widely distrusted by citizens who, in turn, fuel narrow populism and polarised thinking.

With the rapid loss of trust in political decision makers, disillusioned citizens are fatigued by fake news, its threat to public participation, and a loss of confidence in processes of electoral representative democracy. Just look to the UK’s Brexit referendum or the 2016 US presidential election to name the most prominent. Indeed, a recent poll in Canada suggests that public disconnection from democracy creates a wider risk of unhealthy populism that undermines the values and principles of democracy.

But the legitimacy of democracy depends on a real – and tangible – link between the public and public policies. Enter deliberative democracy. Ideally, this might respond to legitimate ways governments can engage people so they feel more engaged in public decision making beyond voting. But, is this possible in an era of fake news, social media and public discussions among the like-minded? That is, how can we make deliberative democracy practical in the cacophony of self-sorting, information bubbles on social media? But first we need to unpack deliberation.

What is deliberation?

“The goal of deliberation is for citizens to determine reflectively not only preferences, but also the reasons that support them.” Nicole Curato et al

At its core, deliberation requires weighing up competing arguments around policies and public decisions in a context of mutually civil – and diverse – discussion. In this way, people themselves can decide on the merit of policy decisions through the provision of solid information. This is essential to democracy. For deliberative processes allow for facilitated social learning. For instance, in mini-publics like citizen’s juries, people are recruited by random sampling to reflect the broader population in terms of age, gender, ethnicity and social class. Here, small groups deliberate with elected representatives in an organised setting. Equally, citizen’s assemblies and deliberative polling bring together random samples of citizens in moderated groups. Where numbers vary from a dozen to one hundred – demonstrated in recent citizens’ assemblies by the Irish parliament to address abortion laws – in these mini-publics, people are given access to balanced information and competing experts who field questions from differing points of view in order to arrive at a considered and agreed-upon recommendation. By exposing participants to information which is wide-reaching and deeply informed, deliberation enables citizens to better engage with policy issues at hand. Citizens affected by a decision, then, have the capacity – and opportunity – to deliberate in a public sphere.

Deliberation supports democratic decision making by incorporating a wide range of views and opinions into a focussed discussion. To enable diverse opinion, however, requires both a reflective and respective environment where participants consider the merits arguments of others. As Crispin Butteris put it, “The core objective of deliberation allows for participants to potentially transform their values and preferences to allow for collective decision making outcome.”

Indeed, a recent commentary in the Financial Times suggests that there’s a “case for making democracy more deliberative…among citizens at large”. For deliberation holds a promise to revive the legitimacy found wanting in current democracies, providing a middle ground between the wide mistrust of governments and narrow populist voices borne out of this mistrust.

How deliberation responds to challenges in an increasingly digital world

 Better connections, better governance

 Through the reliance on electoral processes to determine policy, it’s well received that current democracies provide weak connections between decision makers and citizens. Deliberative democracy, on the other hand, through reflective processes, envisions better connections between the public’s real concerns and how they are governed. This is a far cry from elections interpreting the public preferences where votes are made equivalent to public preferences. Applying deliberative approach to decisions could make better connections between the public’s real concerns and how they are governed.

Responsive to citizens’ hopes and values

Deliberation helps fill the gap between distrusted political elites and short circuits polarised thinking that arises from angry populism that fuels polarised thinking. Governments and public decision makers are distrusted, in part, when they seem unresponsive to the public’s concerns. Populism stirs up angry “nondeliberative” voices that can be mobilised in plebiscitary campaigns (i.e. Brexit, 2016 US presidential election). Apathy and other forms of non-participation and political alienation are the reverse side of angry populism. With more responsiveness, deliberation works in concert with public values and aspirations.

Grounded in public concerns

Methods of deliberative democracy are evidence-based which means it is grounded in the values and concerns of citizens. While its practical uptake can be evidenced in deliberative forms of community engagement, deliberation is more evidence-based where recommendations or statements arrived at through a deliberative process are reflective and representative of the wider population. That is, they do not magnify a singular, ‘top down’ voice, on the one hand, or like-minded voices that loop information bubbles on social media. This ensures citizens receive balanced information and don’t rely on election promises to transmit policy into action.

Renews faith in democracy

Deliberative democracy cuts through group homogeneity and unhealthy polarisation arising from social media, where opinions are formed in a single direction (importantly, this is different to enclave deliberation, where like-minded voices can enable marginalised groups struggling to find a voice.) Deliberative groups, like citizens assemblies, where members are made up to represent electorate as a whole, highlight a diversity of views, experiences and knowledge, essential to a healthy democracy.

Intimately linked to community engagement

Like deliberative democracy, community engagement envisions a society in which citizens affected by a decision have both the capacity and opportunity to deliberate in a public sphere. That is, citizens can affect political processes on issues they care about.

Community-based deliberation, moreover, enables social cohesion and resilience. Taking communities diverse voices, deliberation can short circuit the discussion among like-minded people on social media that fuels polarised and divisive thinking.

Positively responds to digital technology

It’s no surprise that digital technology has changed the way democracy works – to both negative and positive effect. Social media, in part, has negatively shaped public debate, especially where it encourages polarisation and undermines trust in democracy and democratic institutions. Amongst the myriad benefits of online engagement, digital engagement targets misinformation and reduces its risks. Through accessibility and transcending geographical limitations, it also promotes participation and democratic literacy. When facing online deliberative processes, software selection is crucial, however. Digital engagement platforms provide a forum for people to deliberate, including space for sharing stories, ideas and dialogue. It promotes online communities where, in safe spaces, people are invited to weigh up competing arguments and consider the issues at hand through a reflective process, as technologies contribute positively to democratic processes.

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