Digital Democracy: Panacea or Problem?

Posted on November 25th, 2014 by Charles Pattie

In January 2015 the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy will report its recommendations for how to improve British democracy through new new digital technologies. In the first of a series of four posts this week, Professor Charles Pattie at the University of Sheffield Department of Geography considers the potential pitfalls of digital democracy.

Like many other polities, Britain faces a real problem of public engagement with politics. Take just a few indicators. Turnout in elections has generally been substantially below post-war averages for much of the last 15 years. Trust in elected politicians is low. And support for (and membership of) the mainstream political parties which dominated the Twentieth Century and the early years of the millennium is in serious decline.

But this does not mean people are politically apathetic. They continue to care deeply about the direction in which society is heading. This was dramatically expressed very recently in the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, which saw a post-war record turnout of 85% on an unusually complete electoral register. Not only was turnout at the actual referendum high, but public engagement in the debate was extraordinary. (An anecdote: I was in Edinburgh on the last weekend of the campaign, and everywhere I went in the city, people were talking about the referendum, even in causally overheard conversations in the street. In 30 years of studying UK elections, I have never before encountered anything remotely like this ubiquity or intensity of public political debate, and I am sure I am not alone in that.)

Clearly, the Scottish vote was in many respects sui generis, not least as it involved a much more fundamental – and potentially irreversible – decision than almost any other British vote of modern times (it doesn’t get much more existential than the future of the entire state). It would be wrong to expect similarly high levels of engagement on more normal forms of political event. Even so, the experience of the referendum does highlight the dislocation at the heart of UK – and other states’ – democracy: high levels of public concern coupled with a strong sense that current arrangements do not work and (critically) do not represent public interests or views and a widespread disengagement from ‘politics as usual’.

FEMA - 44808 - FEMA Mobile home page on a smart phone screen
By Bill Koplitz (This image is from the FEMA Photo Library.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Digital technologies (the web, new social media etc. etc.) do offer a number of potential means of addressing that dislocation. They have the potential to further democratise and widen the dissemination of information, to provide new and more flexible platforms for people to campaign, to organise, to lobby, and to provide fora within which more deliberative and open forms of decision-making can happen. The possibilities are substantial. However, there is also a serious risk of over-playing the hype. To listen to some advocates, one might think that digital democracy offers the answer to all our political ills, re-inventing a modern version of the ancient Athenian agora in which all citizens could be fully and actively engaged in the political life of their community, but in the context of a modern mass democracy. It is important, therefore, that we be realistic about our expectations. No technology in human history has ever proved to be a universal good: all have had their pros and their cons. There is no reason to think the digital turn will be any different. Panaceas do not exist in the real world: it is not the technology we adopt that matters: it is what we do with it. We need to be clear-sighted about the possible down- as well as the up-side of digital democracy. In the following, therefore, I focus on several potential pitfalls.

A good starting point is to articulate a vision of the sort of democracy we might ideally want. Given the massive volume of debate on the nature of democracy, there are many different models available. However, a strong contender can be found in the work of Robert Dahl, probably the leading political thinker on democracy in the last 50 years. For him, the core requirements for a healthy democracy are:

  1. Effective participation;
  2. Equality in voting;
  3. Gaining enlightened understanding;
  4. Exercising control over the agenda; and
  5. Inclusion of all adults.

Points 2 and 5 are largely concerned with the nature of the franchise. At present in the UK, both are broadly achieved, at least in principle (there are important questions around the extent to which some groups are under-registered and around who does and who does not take up the opportunity to vote, but for the sake of argument, I put them to one side here). The remaining three desiderata are the foci of my thoughts this week. How might digital democracy affect them? Will it make it more or less likely that those who have a view will be able to express that view (effective participation)? Will it make it easier or harder for people to deliberate together, to understand each other’s viewpoints, and to persuade each other (gaining enlightened understanding)? And will it enable people to shape the course of political debate (exercising control over the agenda)?


Charles Pattie

Charles Pattie is Professor of Geography at the University of Sheffield. His research specialism is in elections, political campaigning and public participation in politics, on which he has written extensively.

Note: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series. For more follow our twitter discussion #understandingpolitics.

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