Opinions and Evidence from Bang the Table for the UK Parliament’s Select Committee On Democracy and Digital Technologies

In October 2019 I was delighted to submit evidence to the Lords Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies on behalf of Bang the Table. Now I’m even more delighted that the evidence has been published and we can share it with you! The original article can be found here together with other submissions from the likes of Facebook, Microsoft, The Royal Statistical Society, LSE and many more organisations with opinions on this defining issue of our time. A copy* is provided below. We hope you can take some time out of your busy schedule to get involved in this important subject and share your opinions on the submissions and oral evidence.

Here at Bang the Table we believe robust democracy requires real public participation. Our mission is to enable this participation as a fundamental pillar of well-functioning 21st century democracies by forging constructive relationships between communities and the institutions of government. Given our experience in this area we are delighted to have this opportunity to provide evidence to the Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies.

Should democracies embrace or fear digital technologies? New committee seeks your views

Whilst we have opinions and evidence on all of the questions asked by the Committee, we have focused our contribution on those areas we understand the best and which relate to our experience and expertise. That is, questions 13 and 14 in the call for evidence.

Q13. How can elected representatives use technology to engage with the public in local and national decision making? What can Parliament and Government do to better use technology to support democratic engagement and ensure the efficacy of the democratic process? 

13.1 There are several factors disrupting the ability of people to engage in rational public discourse, these will probably be well evidenced in other submissions, but in summary we would say these are:

  1. Social media algorithms promoting propaganda bubbles, echo chambers and supporting confirmation bias amongst the people.
  2. Propagation of fake news via social media, enabling people to dismiss facts out of hand as “fake news!”
  3. A general tendency to disrupt rational public discourse, that is, discussion oriented toward some reasonable understanding of the common good.
  4. Drift towards “thin” engagement as opposed to deeper deliberation a.k.a “thick” engagement.
  5. Promoting the attention deficit generation which discourages informed debate.

13.1.2 Parliament and Government can better use technology to support democratic engagement and ensure the efficacy of the democratic process by creating safe and engaging places for public dialogue that address the problems outlined in 13.1.1 These are outlined below.

13.2 Safe Places for Online Participation – Town Hall 2.0

13.2.1 Prior to the ubiquitous take-up of new media, social media and smartphones, people’s opportunity to participate in a public debate would have mainly taken place in established meeting places, like pubs, social clubs, sports clubs, churches, post offices and so forth. In these places, it is likely that people would have heard from many different opinions, peer-to-peer. Over the years, this type of face-to-face engagement has been taken over by more digital forms of participation via social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. Whilst this has made it easier for people to participate, it has come with many well-documented downsides, especially the tendency for people to huddle with like-minded people in propaganda bubbles, or echo chambers, where they are sheltered from differences of opinion and, even worse, where extreme views are validated and appear acceptable to everyday folk. In addition, social media does not take kindly to dissenting voices. It promotes unproductive debates vis a vis beneficial public deliberation, and discourages people from coming forward with alternative views for fear of so-called trolling or being harassed. So, quite simply, social media does not tend to offer a safe or engaging place for complex public debate.

13.2.2 Our argument is that Parliament and Government should be encouraging public bodies (especially those parts like local government, the NHS, social housing providers and planning departments who often undertake community engagement and/or have a statutory obligation to consult) to provide an online environment where people can deliberate. For want of a better name these virtual town halls or online communities should be civic spaces where people:

  • Ought to register to participate (providing some kind of polite introduction).
  • Would have access to “fact-checked” information in contemporary formats e.g. video, infographics, playbooks, photos, and podcasts so that they can participate in an informed discussion.
  • Could deliberate rather than debate the issues at hand by taking part in online forums, using ideas boards and a full range of online dialogue methods (see 13.5)
  • Can use online storytelling to build respect for alternative points of view.
  • Can be certain that their commentary would be captured and presented for analysis by officials, rather than be lost with other electronic graffiti in the Bermuda Triangle of social media commentary.
  • Can be confident that an independent third party (a.k.a an online moderator) has got their back and will intervene if people are aggressive, insulting, racist, sexist, homophobic and so forth.
  • Can be certain of feedback from their hosts concerning the outcome, following their contributions and how collectively this has informed public policy.

13.3 Thick Engagement Not Just Thin

13.3.1 Parliament and the Government should introduce policies which ensure public bodies undertake online engagement which is both thick and thin.

13.3.2 In Rewiring Democracy: Subconscious Technologies, Conscious Engagement, and the Future of Politics, Matt Leighninger and Quixada Moore-Vissing describe thick engagement as being more intensive, informed, and deliberative. With thick engagement:

[M]ost of the action happens in small group discussion [although we could argue this is not compulsory]. Organizers assemble large and diverse numbers of people; give participants a chance to share their experiences; present them with a range of views or policy options, and encourage action and change at multiple levels (2018, p.15).

13.3.3 Conversely, thin engagement is faster, easier, and more convenient and, “includes a range of activities that allow people to express their opinions, make choices, or affiliate themselves with a particular group or cause. It is less likely to build personal or community connections” (Leighninger & Moore-Vissing, p.15 emphasis added).

13.3.4 Our argument for the Committee to consider is that too much emphasis has been placed by public bodies on democratic engagement which is thin and more needs to be done to bring the thin and thick types of online engagement together. We believe this can be done by promoting online communities like that described in 13.2.2, where social media is only one part of the equation of technology’s contribution to democratic engagement and the efficacy of the democratic process.

13.4 Deliberation not Debate

13.4.1 In an article in The Guardian, Stephen Poole derides contemporary debate arguing that it, “has a structural bias in favour of demagoguery and disinformation. It inherently favours liars. There is no cost to, and much potential advantage in, taking the low road and indulging in bullying and personal attack” (2019). A problem which, the committee may well hear, has largely been exacerbated by social media, technology and fast news. Our argument is that to counter this we need more deliberative engagement, where, as per The Economist, we bring “ordinary citizens [together] using structured processes of exploration and debate through which they get to hear and discuss a full range of opinions on a given subject” (Taylor, 2019).

13.4.2 The benefits of deliberative engagement are well documented and recently featured in an op-ed piece in The Financial Times, stating that:

The idea that democracy is about more than voting has an illustrious pedigree. The core of the deliberative democracy tradition — a respectable academic research programme as well as a reform movement — is that democratic citizens better fulfil their role as the ultimate source of sovereignty when they inform themselves and elaborate their views in the presence of their peers. (2019).

13.4.3 Our argument for the Committee to consider is that too much emphasis has been placed by public bodies on debate and opinion capturing (often uninformed) without the prerequisite of informing, sharing ideas and thereby deliberating different problems and solutions. We believe this can be done by promoting online communities like that described in 13.2.2, where people are invited into safe online environments where the objective is not to be right or wrong, is not to win the argument but instead is to agree to take time to consider the issues at hand, share thoughts and ideas, consider the opinion of others and only after a period of reflection share preferences or make up minds concerning the best way forward. In this way civic technologies have much to contribute to democratic engagement and the efficacy of the democratic process – especially by orienting discussion toward some reasonable understanding of the common good.

13.5 Multiple Dialogue methods 

13.5.1 Parliament and the Government should introduce policies which ensure public bodies undertake online engagement which uses a range of dialogue methods.

13.5.2 Too many invitations to participate in citizen engagement say all the right things and are well presented, but when you look in detail at their online engagement there is little to demonstrate that they truly want to involve people in a meaningful dialogue. This is best demonstrated by the over reliance on online surveys for public consultation in the United Kingdom, where invitations like #HaveYourSay or #GetInvolved supported by strong narratives concerning the importance of the conversation are not supported by any mechanism to have a two-way dialogue. Instead participants are just presented with an online survey. This is why so many people turn to social media to vent their views and opinions because they are offered nothing but this very closed tool for participating.

13.5.3 Despite the short sightedness of many public bodies, the civic tech industry has been very busy creating tools for people to have a more meaningful dialogue online. For example, using Bang the Table’s engagement platform, amongst many other engagement tools, participants can be invited to use tools such as storytelling to better understand issues, empathise and relate to others; forums which creates a space for discussion, dialogue and debate; and, ideas which can help public bodies better understand what matters most to the community. These tools can be used in an information rich environment (where participants have access to videos, infographics, podcasts, document libraries to find out more about the issue at hand).

13.5.4 Our argument for the Committee to consider is that this reliance on online surveys is a poor excuse for proper digital public discourse. We believe this can be addressed by educating public servants about the benefits of alternative tools, which permit people to participate in a true two way conversation. In this way civic technologies have much to contribute to democratic engagement and the efficacy of the democratic process.

13.6 Peer-to-peer discussions

13.6.1 Recent evidence (Curato, Dryzek, Ercan, Hendriks & Niemeyer, 2017) provides a strong argument that when we bring people together to hear and discuss a full range of opinions on a given subject, that is to deliberate, they better fulfil their role as the ultimate source of sovereignty. Furthermore, it seems people are also more likely to move from an intransigent, extreme position, when their opinions are challenged by “people like me” in a structured and moderated environment. They are certainly less likely to give proper consideration to opinion provided by figures of authority. This is why we believe it is so important that Parliament and Government take steps to ensure that more deliberative environments are created online, which encourage this type of “shared space for discussion.” At the moment it seems that for too many the only alternative is to join like minded people on Twitter and Facebook, where they merely reinforce their initial starting position and point of view. Indeed it seems that on social media people tend not to have an open mind and the algorithms discourage them “meeting” anyone who might encourage them to have one.

13.6.2 Incidentally, Bang The Table’s own data also shows that when you invite people into these types of online spaces they tend to be civil to one another and play by the rules of engagement. For example, in the 2018/19 time period, 240,798 thousand comments were accepted by our moderation team in our online communities with only 779 deleted because they breached our moderation policy, less than 1% of comments. In addition just 1,376 comments were reported by participants to our moderators for review.

13.6.3 Our argument for the Committee to consider is that public bodies need to do more to create online places for people to hear and discuss a full range of opinions on a given subject . In this way, online participation has much to contribute to democratic engagement and the efficacy of the democratic process.

13.7 Moderated spaces for citizen engagement

13.7.1 As noted in 13.6.2, of 240,798 comments seen by our moderation team less than 1% have been rejected because they breached our moderation policy. What we have found is that when invited to take part in a Town Hall 2.0 [see 13.2] people are prepared to be polite, to play by the rules and to allow space for meaningful public discourse. We believe that more needs to be done to encourage public bodies to invest in these moderated spaces for citizen engagement, where people feel safe to get involved and have their say without fear of harassment or trolling from those who may disagree with their opinion.

13.7.2 Our argument for the Committee to consider is that public bodies need to do more to create safe places for people to hear and discuss a full range of opinions on a given subject, away from the vitriol, populism and electronic graffiti of much of social media discourse. In this way, online participation has much to contribute to democratic engagement and the efficacy of the democratic process.

13.8 Information “fact checked” environment

13.8.1 One of the problems with online public policy debate is that people are weary of fake news, or they can dismiss any strong evidence as being fake, or even worse, merely the view of just another expert! To counter this people need to be invited into a place to hear and discuss a range of opinions which is supported by information they can trust. We believe that this is a key ingredient or linchpin of safe places for online participation which will encourage more informed contributions to democratic engagement and the efficacy of the democratic debate.

13.8.2 When participating in any public consultation, on both national and local issues, we believe people should be furnished with video, infographics, podcasts and other digital media which can help them to give the matter intelligent consideration. In this way the decision maker can be more certain that they have captured informed opinion and the participant can rest assured that they have been given the honest and balanced facts on the matter. Indeed there is a good argument that decision makers could place more weight on the opinion of those people who have taken the time to become more informed and/or more educated about the issue at hand.

13.8.3 Our argument for the Committee to consider is that Parliament and Government need to do more to provide people with the information they need (online) so that they can hear and discuss a full range of opinions on a given subject, shielded from fake news and disinformation, which many people believe infiltrates social media discourse. In this way, online participation has much to contribute to democratic engagement and the efficacy of the democratic process.

13.9 Statutory Duty for Government and Public Bodies to Provide Safe Places for Online Participation 

13.9.1 Our argument is that there is too little incentive for government and other public bodies to create Safe Places for Online Participation (as summarised in 13.2.2). There are some who are leading the way, but legislation may be needed to force the kind of paradigm shift we require. Otherwise, the problems with democratic engagement and the efficacy of the democratic process (as detailed in our submission and no doubt in that of others) will remain unchecked and probably worsen in the near future, as trust in citizen engagement diminishes and people opt out of public participation all together.

13.9.2 Robust democracy requires real public participation. Bang the Table’s mission is to enable this participation as a fundamental pillar of well-functioning 21st century democracies by forging constructive relationships between communities and the institutions of government. Our latest quarterly mission statement report provides evidence that citizens are willing to engage with government in safe places for online dialogue. For example, globally 639,159 participants have been informed of issues through our sites, with 217,943 responses being made across multiple dialogue tools.

14. What positive examples are there of technology being used to enhance democracy?

14.1 Our own data is testimony to the fact that working with government bodies, technology can be used to enhance democracy. We have reached hundreds of thousands of citizens and received hundreds of thousands of contributions across Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA and the United Kingdom. As evidenced by 14.1.2 showing, in the last 3 months alone, from April to June 2019, the percentage of the population globally whose local government use Bang the Table engagement platform to offer people to get involved.

14.1.2

Percentage of population that live in a local authority using Bang the Table’s digital platform EHQ

Percentage of population that live in a local authority using Bang the Table’s digital platform EHQ

14.1.3 Indeed, with over 230,000 globally registered participants utilising our digital engagement platform, this demonstrates that, provided the opportunity with engagement tools creating safe places for public dialogue, people what to get involved – online – in a meaningful way. (To elucidate, Australia currently has 122,306 registered participants and ten thousand monthly active users and our newest territory, the UK, starting in Autumn 2018 now has 4,538 registered participants, indicating over time, it also should achieve this level.)

14.1.4 One final observation we would like to make is that the Committee’s process for receiving this evidence is also like many government engagement processes – only accessible to those who have the time, motivation and education to participate. This excludes the vast majority of the community who often have an important contribution to make and would do so if the barriers to participation were not so great. Perhaps, some food for thought?

References

Curato, Nicole & Dryzek, John & Ercan, Selen & Hendriks, Carolyn & Niemeyer, Simon. (2017). Twelve Key Findings in Deliberative Democracy Research. Daedalus. 146. 28-38. 10.1162/DAED_a_00444.

Editorial Board. (2019, 11 Aug). Deliberative democracy is just what politics needs. Financial Times. Retrieved from www.ft.com.

Leighninger, Matt & Quixada Moore-Vissing (2018). Rewiring Democracy: Subconscious Technologies, Conscious Engagement, and the Future of Politics. Public Agenda.

Poole, Stephen. (2019, May 3). Who wins from public debate? Liars, bullies and trolls. The Guardian. Retrieved from www.theguardian.com.

Taylor, Matthew. (2019, Mar 11). Citizen Deliberation is the Gateway to a Better Politics. The Economist. Retrieved from www.economist.com.

Published Date: 5 November 2019

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