Can crowd-sourced discussions be democratic? 1

This is a response to a critique of (a platform to discuss the future of Egypt’s constitution) in Meta-Activism Project. The article entitled “the revolution is not a branding opportunity” points out that the name of the commercial platform is visible prominently and takes an objection to it. She also discusses the limitations of such platforms to which I would like to respond.  The author points out that online discussions reach a very small proportion of the population, that they are not representative, and that they are easy to manipulate by well organised groups. I agree with the critique whole-heartedly, and I guess most people will do so as well. The question I wish to ask here is, given the problems, do such platforms have a democratic role at all?

If one were to examine any single dialogue process, I am sure we can find a thousand reasons to call it unrepresentative. Most active dialogues tend to involve small numbers of people. This can be said not just of a process, but also of any organisation, political party, social movement, or any forum. For that matter established electoral processes in the most advanced democracies too suffer from some of these limitations, in the strict sense of the word. For example, despite its formal representation of all US citizens, one could say that elected bodies could be hijacked by organized groups, and that the number of people who participate in electoral process is low, not to talk of effective participation.

To take a different example, social movements that have radically deepened democracy have been criticised for leaving out significant social groups. For example, the civil rights movement in the USA has been justly criticized for ignoring the voices of women; prominent women’s movements have been criticised for being unrepresentative of the voices of lower class women. The examples can go on and on.

My argument is that no single process, forum or organisation can perfectly satisfy all democratic principles. Democracy is an endless conversation that necessarily has to happen in multiple spaces. Wathiqah is one such forum that is mediating a few conversations. Its democratic role lies in the fact that it is engaging thousands of citizens in thinking about the constitution.  It enables a lot of individuals to voice their opinion about political issues. I believe that forming and articulating political positions is not an easy task, and that by making that process simple, the platform assists a lot of people to develop their political persona, which is critical for good citizenship.

Further, when a large group engages in a conversation, new ideas tend to emerge. The design of online discussion platforms help us identify some widely shared ideas. Such identification in itself is an important democratic act.  Enabling large numbers of people to engage with political issues, providing a space for people to voice their opinions, providing a forum for the exchange of ideas and the possibility of identifying a few widely shared ideas are the critical democratic functions that such a platform performs.

While these are democratic functions, we should acknowledge that online discussions are accessible only by a limited population, and that they remain vulnerable to hijacking by organized groups. Given these limitations, it would be a grievous mistake to interpret the “outcome” of the conversation as THE voice of a society.  If we understand the process with its limitations, and if online platforms are one among many other forums of conversation, then one could say that they serve an important democratic purpose. The critique at Meta Activism and others will ensure that we remember the partial nature of the conversation, and such reminders play an important democratic role as well. That said, we should not forget that partiality is the nature of any democratic conversation. Online platforms provide an avenue for large scale engagement and are especially good at reaching a lot of young people who are otherwise left out of political dialogue. I guess that is a goal that those of us committed to democracy can cherish.

About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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One thought on “Can crowd-sourced discussions be democratic?

  • Martín

    Hello Vivek.
    It was nice for me to find your article, since I constantly have this argument with people in Argentina. Yesterday I asked opinions in twitter about a “wiki for writing laws” and most of them were discouraging, one said that the project is that of a “savior elite” and that it does take in to account the needs of working-class offline people.
    So I reached the same conclusion that a really democratic process cannot be online-only but I still think that online solutions are useful, even if they are not representative of the whole.
    The risk is not that they are hijacked by organized groups, it’s that the interest groups that use the platform could gain a lot of power if politicians start to look the platform and ignoring offline pressure.
    I think one problem your post does not cover is how to properly frame communications about the outcome of online democratic processes as not to compete with other democratic processes that are not mediated by a computer.