New Democracy through New Media?

Democracy, the Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised : Democracy, the Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything

Sometime ago on Moju, a group blog in Sri Lanka set up by InfoShare, there was an open discussion on whether the moderators should take a more hand-on approach to ensuring the quality of discussions on the forum. As Vajra points out, the interest of InfoShare was to have the community define & moderate itself:

One is that you don’t need to resort to threatening the ‘admins’ with the loss of Moju’s good name, if it has one, in order to feel safe enough to speak your opinion. Our policy of intervention is as minimal as we can make it, and is not designed to favour any group over another. So don’t worry.

The other point: I think I have less influence over what anyone “thinks of Moju” than you do. People who are active in a community define that community. If political argument becomes the norm on Moju, then that’s what people will “think of Moju”. If flame wars become the norm, then ditto. The people who show up here regularly and participate regularly -you are the people who get to decide what everyone thinks of Moju.

Frightening experiment, isn’t it?

Frightening it may well be in the larger sense as well – whether New Media (referred to here as a wide spectrum of content production and dissemination frameworks that use the internet & web) is actually able to make any impression upon democracy, governance and in a country such as Sri Lanka, peacebuilding.

There are those who think not. Reading through the sequential detrioration of debate the 130+ responses to the original post that in turn gave rise to the discussin on moderating Moju, one can be forgiven for looking at the well-springs of peace elsewhere given the abundance of inanity online.

Reading through the larger blog on a regular basis however paints a different picture, where those who are vitriolic in one post can be largely progressive in another. The challenge, as in real life, seems to be the establishment of a lowest common denominator of what peace means. Of course, there’s never one definition of peace and it’s the very process of contestation online (and in the real world) on issues such as peace that characterise a vibrant democratic tradition.

A new publication titled New Democracies; New Media; What’s New? : A study of e-participation projects in third-wave democracies is a rigorous academic study of how new media and the new processes of activism both online and in the real world are shaping the democracies we live in today and the socio-economic and political processes therein.

Stating that effective moderation is a cornerstone of powerful online fora, it lays out five main fuctions for online moderators:

i. set out clear and transparent rules for participants, e.g. maximum length of messages; maximum frequency of messages; attitudes to offensive language and defamation;

ii. regulate the discussion, both by implementing agreed rules and adhering to ethical principles, such as data privacy, political neutrality and non-coercion;

iii. moderate discussion messages, ensuring that any participant with a point to make receives a fair hearing and that the discussion is conducted on a fair and friendly basis;

iv. help discussion participants to reach conclusions (not necessarily shared ones) rather than incessantly rehashing old arguments;

v. summarise the deliberation so that key points of evidence and main conclusions are set out in a balanced and accessible form

vi. seek to ensure that there is feedback to the participants, so that they do not feel that they have contributed to the policy process without any response from the policy-makers.

The report also addresses the impact of online activism on processes in the real world – a question asked by bloggers themselves and even by those organising meetings for those who want to transcend the comfort of keyboard activism to those that are perceived to be more powerful.

As the authors note:

The most difficult aspect of impact to judge from our case studies is the effect upon policy itself. Although most of the projects in our case studies claimed to be opening up the policy process, it was hard to find specific examples of policies, agendas or legislation which changed as a result of online input from citizens.

Does that mean that for all the ranting and raving in our blogs, we aren’t contributing to progressive social change? As noted earlier in this blog, the central problem of many e-gov initiatives is that while they expand access to the internet they not resulted in the much promised improvements in governance and service delivery based on public / user feedback.

But as the report states:

Measuring political impact is a complex matter. It might seem at first that a project involving information transparency, as in Argentina and Mongolia, has little effect upon government behaviour, or that online policy discussions, as in Armenia or Estonia, are an empty exercise. But the same could be said for most acts of political participation, from voting to demonstrating to attending a party meeting. It is very rare to find a direct line of causation between political participation and outcomes, but few would doubt that all of these have indirect impact upon a range of consequences. It would be a mistake, therefore, to judge the success of e-participation projects simply in terms of measurable and unambiguous direct outcomes. Instead, it makes sense to consider the effects of e-participation upon policy-makers (Do they listen? Do they respond? Do they learn?); participants (Do they become more informed or tolerant citizens? Do they feel that they are being heard? Is collective action made easier for them?) and policy itself (Does it reflect public experience more than it would have done? Does it contain new ideas that did not come from politicians or officials? Is its quality improved?) These are complex, multi-dimensional questions which go beyond simple, instrumental accounts of who gets what or who does what to whom.

I make the point in Thoughts on democracy, peace, the internet and new media, a paper I wrote for Communication Technology and Social Policy in the Digital Age: Expanding Access, Redefining Control, organized by Annenberg Schools for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California on 10th March 2006 in Palm Springs, California, that:

The emphasis of new media is on information produced by citizens for the benefit of the commons. While many e-government initiatives seek to open up information within government to citizens, new media works the other way, promoting citizen driven content to a larger audience that includes government. In this paradigm, control of information rests with the citizens themselves, with the technologies of access almost impossible to control. With the introduction of vernacular language capable mobile phone handsets and the increasing affordability of multimedia mobile devices, it is increasingly difficult for governments to stifle voices from the ground giving a picture radically different to that which the government seeks to promote.

Vajra was right. A community defines what it is online, for better or for worse. New media is no guarantee that the rotting fabric of democracy in countries such as Sri Lanka are resurrected, or that citizens hitherto marginalised suddenly gain access to ways through which they are given direct access to the hearts and minds of policy makers.

With effective moderation and a small set of committed individuals, as New Democracies; New Media; What’s New? : A study of e-participation projects in third-wave democracies points out, “new media might contribute to an atmosphere of democratic openness”.

3 thoughts on “New Democracy through New Media?

  1. moju may be may things. open it is not.
    btw why not be honest about your own contribution to ‘the sequential detrioration of debate the 130+ responses to the original post’. in the referred thread ‘mr vanila ice’. 🙂

  2. LIRNEasia has a 400+ comments thread running on our website dealing with all aspects of Sri Lanka IT policy, with emphasis on standards for languages.

    As this started gathering momentum, we debated whether we would actively moderate it. Decided not to, luckily in retrospect. Main advantage is that we cannot be held liable for content. Main reason we did not moderate and will not moderate is that we don’t have the time.

    So far (over three months I think) we have had to delete a comment only once. This was a cute but problematic hoax announcement re a public hearing at ICTA that some people were beginning to believe.

    Not all of the discussion is pretty, but it has now settled down and real progress is being made; different parties beginning to understand (if not agree with) the viewpoints of the others.

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