Using Google Moderator to generate ideas on democracy

Launched in late 2008, Google Moderator is not well known in the domestic media community and even globally. Used during the last US Presidential election, Google Moderator is a powerful platform to generate and filter through large numbers of responses.

As with a number of other examples on Groundviews previously, I’m testing this as a means to rejuvenate an enervated debate over our democratic potential after the end of war. Since all one needs to participate is a Google Account (i.e. a Gmail account) I’m hoping that this will generate some interesting ideas and discussion.

Please pass on the link http://goo.gl/mod/rrBd to friends and colleagues with a request to participate.

First Monday features academic paper on Internet and Democracy

Perhaps it’s Obama’s Presidential campaign and interest in e-government that’s fuelling a number of academic studies and articles on the impact of the Internet on democracy.

I wrote about Evgeny Morozov’s Texting Toward Utopia: Does the Internet spread democracy? yesterday. Morozov’s article ended thus,

The problem with building public spheres from above, online or offline, is much like that of building Frankenstein’s monsters: we may not like the end product. This does not mean we should give up on the Internet as a force for democratization, only that we should ditch the blinding ideology of technological determinism and focus on practical tasks. Figuring out how the Internet could benefit existing democratic forces and organizations—very few of which have exhibited much creativity on the Web—would not be a bad place to start.

Emphasis mine.

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The Internet strengthening democracy?

Rarely does one find an article as sober and compelling as Evgeny Morozov’s Texting Toward Utopia: Does the Internet spread democracy? published in the Boston Review.

The article’s echoes Smriti Daniel’s conclusion in an article on Facebook activism in Sri Lanka published recently in Sri Lanka’s Sunday Times, which ended by suggesting that “while it has the potential to be a powerful democratic tool, Facebook simply needs many more Sri Lankans online and engaged before it can be used as such.

I have in many previous posts addressed the issue of using the Internet and web under repressive regimes, and how blogs, web based tools and services as well as mobiles and SMS are shaping new public discourses around democracy and governance. These vital interrogations aren’t new, but the manner in which they are conducted, communicated and disseminated are in many countries undergirded by developments in telecoms.

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Media Literacy and Web 2.0

Robin Good’s website features an interesting article on the democratic potential of Web 2.0. If we agree that Web 2.0 for the purposes of this article refers to a slew of new services and tools on the web that encourage peer to peer communications as well as social networking via the web, the resulting discussion that features responses from a number of well known writers is thought-provoking.

Over the past month, I’ve attended two high level meetings on (new) media development that emphasised time and again the importance of media literacy, even though its importance in strengthening independent media is contested.

As Robin Good notes,

Web 2.0 has revolutionized the panorama of the information society: users have become information producers and the new web platforms have become relationship venues where new knowledge and ideas emerge. Also the new tools of social networking, social tagging, wikis and blogs enable new forms of social interaction, participation and cooperation. But…

  • Is this participation really democratic?
  • Or is this a democracy paradox, where everyone can interact but the decision making places are all outside the net?
  • Is the horizontal leveling of internet communications really an instrument of democracy?
  • How would it be possible to transform these emotional and communication-oriented extensions in a real space connected with the physical world of true participation to decision-making?

Howard Rheingold’s answers to these questions are the best of the bunch and articulate better than the others a consensus that Web 2.0 tools alone are no guarantee of stronger democracy. Access, participation and the locale of democratic power (which may reside outside the walled gardens of social networks and the web itself) are significant challenges to the citizen participation in democratic governance, particularly in repressive regimes. Howard also notes that these technologies that are seen to empower citizens are equally if not more powerful in the hands of government that seeks to control dissent and produce propaganda in support of a parochial agenda, such as war.

Howard’s succint responses I think give us much thought for future debate:

Is this participation really democratic?
“Democratizing” means making access (to information, tools, policy-making discussions, elections, etc.) widely available. This, however, does not guarantee a healthy democracy.
What if more people vote, but their picture of political candidates and their policies are distorted by sophisticated public relations tools and strategies? What if their educations are so poor that voters are unable to think critically about partisan claims? I am wary of projecting hopes onto the tools you mention — which truly have the potential to inform and involve more people in democratic decision-making — without paying attention to the less visible parts of the system I mention.

Or is this a democracy paradox, where everyone can interact but the decision making places are all outside the net?
I am also wary of governance by instant voting. This is known as the “plebiscite” and can be very dangerous: a demagogue or a government can propagandize people into starting a war or adopting a policy without a process of deliberation. That’s why modern democracies are generally republics — citizens elect representatives who are expected to deliberate openly and transparently.

Is the horizontal leveling of internet communications really an instrument of democracy?
It CAN be. But more than the technology is required. A healthy public sphere is essential — most people need to have sufficient education, freedom to criticize, well-trained critical faculties, and ample sources of accurate information.

How would it be possible to transform these emotional and communication-oriented extensions in a real space connected with the physical world of true participation to decision-making?
Education!

Democratic governance and mobile phones

“Don’t get grandma hear it” was what US soldier Stephen Philips was reported in the Newsweek as saying when his cell phone redialled home during a fire-fight in Afghanistan and broadcast the chaos into his parent’s answering machine . Though it would have been traumatic for the parents of Stephen Philips, yet this is an example of how mobile phones connect us all to far-flung yet vital realities. From Zimbabwe and Kenya to China and Kuwait , from electoral processes and women’s suffrage to the voicing dissent against oppression, mobiles are already revolutionising our approach to and understanding of public participation in governance. Mobiles have already demonstrated in many countries around the world that in the hands of a vibrant civil society they are powerful tools that hold government and public institutions accountable, their interactions transparent and their transactions efficient. Conversations inspired, produced, stored and disseminated through mobiles are rapidly changing the manner in which we imagine the State, interact with government and participate in the mechanisms and institutions of democratic governance.

Read my full paper here

UPDATE – 13th June 2008

This essay is published in the i4D magazine June 2008 issue. Download and read the PDF as it appears in print and online here.

E-Petitions

There’s an interesting article in the politics.co.uk that debates the rise of e-petitions in England, as well as its pros and cons. As it notes,

The Hansard Society’s eDemocracy programme director, Andy Williamson, spoke passionately about their importance in Westminster last week. He talked of “closing the gap between citizens and parliament” and described e-petitions as “the start of the transformation of parliament into the digital age”. Tentative efforts from the Welsh Assembly and Scottish parliament, as with many devolution-related issues, are leading the way. According to its Audit of Political Engagement, people are more likely to sign a petition than engage in any other political act.

The e-petition site shows some interesting statistics. Till the end of October 2007:

 

  • Over 29,000 petitions have been submitted, of which over 8,500 are currently live and available for signing, over 6,000 have finished and 14,601 have been rejected outright.
  • There have been over 5.8 million signatures, originating from over 3.9 million different email addresses.

 

Read the politics.co.uk article in full here, which notes that despite these figures, there’s no real guarantee even in England that e-petitions will ultimately succeed in their essential goal of bringing government closer to citizens.

Sadly, as I noted in February 2007, “…I don’t believe that for all their hype and hoopla of e-government in Sri Lanka, ICTA is going to follow the Downing Street model anytime soon.”

New media and networked communications environments

I received advance notice of what looks like an interesting meeting organised by International Media Support in Denmark that will be held on 15 and 16 September 2008 on the opportunities and threats presented by new media and networked communications environments for press freedom and democratization.

As the IMS PR notes,

This event will bring together civil society groups and new media industry innovators, with panelists including Linus Thorvaldsen creator of Linux,  Jussi Impiö from Nokia Research and others.

The first day will be an ‘expo’ of new media and technological developments with relevance for press freedom and media development advocates, particularly those working in countries affected by conflict and press freedom repression – organized by the Kaospilots (www.kaospilots.dk).

This will include hands-on presentations on areas such as secure web-based and mobile communications‘guerilla’ broadcastinghidden audio-visual recordingsafeguarding and defending websites, and more.

The second day will be debate-style discussions based around three themes, these being:

  • Changing the way media operate
  • Building the capacity of press freedom and civil society groups
  • Deepening democracy

I’ve been associated with IMS since its establishment in 2001. In fact, one of their first projects was in Sri Lanka – a mapping exercise and comprehensive report of the media landscape in the North and East of Sri Lanka in 2003 and we’ve also done a Conflict Sensitive Journalism handbook, conducted a post-CFA media assessment and most recently, conducted citizen journalism work in Sri Lanka with their support.

The background document accompanying the conference announcement was clearly aimed at stimulating some discussion. There’s a yes / no format to key questions posed in the document that while serving well as an instigator of discussions, doesn’t mirror the realities of new media and traditional media landscapes. Traditional media isn’t going to die anytime soon. New media and citizen journalism have their own problems. What we consider media and the distinction(s) between the traditional and the new today will blur into insignificance tomorrow.

For example, the IMS conference background note avers that “the sheer amount of information available prompts many to look only at sites that support their own opinions, resulting tin the polarisation of public opinion and the fragmentation of the public sphere”. If you ask me, the public sphere is pretty fragmented in a country like Sri Lanka and new media and its long tail actually serves as a bridge between those who hitherto only had access to, or by choice only consumed, one side of the story.

The background note also mentions that “Communications technologies themselves do not have the capacity to make political systems more democratic or to change historically embedded formal and informal political institutions”. Of course they don’t per se. But the USE of communications technologies by citizens does. While it’s true that governments such as the UK are increasingly invasive and anal retentive in their approach to and understanding of new media use, it’s also the case that in many countries around the worldeven with repressive regimes – new media / citizen jouranlism and mobiles are changing the dynamics of polity and society.

These are vital discussions I hope the conference will encourage. There are no broad generalisations possible, but I hope the conference underscores that the potential of these new technologies to support and strengthen democracy and peace very much comes from the encouragement of their use by civil society committed to both.