Online deliberation: a literature review

Online deliberation has attracted a great deal of academic attention over the past two decades as various governments have explored its potential to contribute to public policy development. In this article, I employ a review of online deliberation literature by Dennis Friess and Professor Christiane Eilders, University of Düsseldorf, as a framework to explore a number of issues that are consistently raised across jurisdictions, scales and subjects.

Friess and Eilders’ paper is a wide-ranging review of academic literature concerning online deliberation. The authors have used a three-part analytical framework focusing on (1) institutional or platform design, (2) the quality of the communicative process, and (3) whether the results of the deliberative process aligned with expectations. The paper provides an excellent foundation for developing an understanding of deliberative theory, which it sums up in defining deliberative democracy as a “communication-centric political mode where political discourse is perceived as the source of legitimacy.” And furthermore, deliberative democracy “requires a high level of egalitarian inclusion as a normative condition“.

Design considerations for online deliberation

The researchers identify five consistent issues that need to be very carefully addressed in the design phase of any online deliberation. These can be used to inform the design and/or selection of the online platform used to support the deliberative process, along with the management regime (or institutional arrangements) for the deliberative process itself:

  • Asynchronous communications is preferred over synchronous, “chat room” style communication, as the later lives up to its name by encouraging “small talk” and “jokes”, whereas asynchronous spaces allow participants to reflect, deliberate, research and justify their contributions. In the context of the theoretical model of deliberation, asynchronous spaces encourage “rationality, civility and inclusiveness.”
  • The authors use a broad definition of moderation to cover a range of functions including censorship, facilitation, interrogation, synthesis, elevation and management. They note that post hoc moderation is far preferable to pre-moderation of participant contributions because it lowers “perceived barriers to entry”. Furthermore, well-moderated spaces are far more likely to attract diversity of participation than un-moderated spaces.
  • A number of researchers have noted that participants are far more likely to take their role seriously when they feel genuinely responsible for the policy outcomes. In theoretical terms, if the public space is “strong” and therefore “empowering“, they are more likely to enter a dialogue, whereas if the public space is “weak” or “un-empowered” (rather than necessarily dis-empowering), participants are more likely to trivialize their contribution and the space as a whole.
  • The authors found that “atomizing complex issues” into discrete questions or issues makes the dialogue space far more accessible and attractive for participants. Very broad questions tend to be both overwhelming and opaque to the lay person, whereas more specific questions about detailed policy issues are tangible and permit more concrete responses.
  • Finally, good quality, accessible information elevates both the quality and the volume of dialogue significantly.

Operating principles for online deliberation

In pre-framing dialogue participants, it is critical that they are introduced to the following dialogue principles to help guide their approach to discussion. Without these touchstones it is far too easy to fall into debate and sophistry.

  • All theorists acknowledge that rationality is a precondition for effective dialogue – whether online or offline.  Where they differ is how they define rationality and thus, how they measure it. Measures include, the coherence and consistency of an argument; whether the argument is supported by empirical evidence or sound logic; and, whether the discussion stays on topic or drifts.  Some authors have noted that these measures can inadvertently exclude some forms of knowledge and some people who have not developed the capacity to present an argument in this context. It can, therefore, favor people who are already privileged by education and access and create a barrier to participation for others, particularly for people who might be illiterate (or semi-literate) and therefore not competent in the text based context of an online forum.
  • A central tenet of the ideal dialogue space is that “arguments should not just be articulated, but rather also listened and replied to“. This requires interactivity in the form of empathetic listening – rather than mechanistic hearing – between participants. Without interactivity, participants cannot build on each other’s understanding of the issues at hand in order that they might create a broader shared understanding.
  • The third principle for effective dialogue is both practical and ethical. As Habermas noted, “Everybody who is affected by a policy should have the same opportunity to participate in deliberation.”  Equality – or better still, egality – between participants is not an irrational notion that “all arguments are equal”; it is, rather, an understanding that all voices must be brought to the table and that all “starting points” must be treated with respect. Equality necessitates that people of difference – age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, education, social standing, political views – be brought together since not to do so is to exclude entire cohorts of the population.
  • Hot on the heals of equality is the related construct, civility. In order for the dialogue to flow freely, participants must be open to being “convinced by others“. This “requires showing respect and empathy toward the other participants.” This is the antithesis of common behaviors we see in un-moderated online spaces; bullying, sarcasm, hectoring, flaming, inappropriate and offensive language, racism, homophobia, sexism and sexual innuendo, and even threatening. Civility does not, therefore, happen by accident; the conditions must be carefully cultivated and nurtured.
  • Researchers have noted that, ideally, participants should justify their positions by reference to the “common good” rather than their own personal benefit. In other words, participants are asked to consider the issues as a member of society, rather than as an individual. This isn’t as simple as saying, this solution benefits most people, therefore it is the correct solution. Rather, participants must consider impacts of their arguments and proposed solutions on society as a whole, including the degree of impact on groups of people that they might usually exclude from their thinking.
  • And finally, the dialogue must take place in a constructive atmosphere in which consensus is generally, but not always, the final goal. Participants must seek to interrogate, understand and build on the knowledge, thoughts and suggestions of the other participants; rather than instinctively resorting to sophistry and looking only for evidence to support their own fixed position.

Outcomes of effective online deliberation

As with most (I would probably argue all) public engagement, deliberation theory relies, somewhat, on faith in good process to deliver better outcomes than you might otherwise achieve with no, or poorly designed, processes. The positive outcomes derive at a personal level for the participants simply through their involvement in the process itself, and at a social level through the creation of policy that takes into consideration a broader range of views than is ever possible through desk-top research.

  • A host of researchers have found that at the level of the individual, good deliberative face-to-face processes create “better” citizens; citizens who are better connected to their emotions and their cognitive processes, are more tolerant of others, engender more social trust and are more politically knowledgeable with a stronger sense of personal efficacy. They are also more public-spirited and more willing to compromise and to transform preferences.
  • At a social level, however, theorists argue that well-framed and managed deliberative processes should generally result in decision with high “epistemic quality”; that is, they are based on the best possible range and comprehension of available knowledge. Some theorists argue that deliberation is more likely to lead to consensus, where others argue that consensus should not be the goal, and that “error avoidance” is the main goal. Either being the case, it is uncontested that transparent deliberative processes lead to more widely accepted policy choices, as participants have deep exposure to the arguments for, and merits of, the preferred policy direction.

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