Online deliberation in the broadest sense encompasses all kinds of discursive online platforms. Thus online deliberation can refer to communicative interaction via social media, in real time chats, in online forums, on blogs or comment sections.
Problems and Purpose
Online deliberation in the broadest sense encompasses all kinds of discursive online platforms that have emerged since the spread of online communication in the early 1990s. Thus online deliberation can refer to communicative interaction via social media, in real time chats, in online forums, on blogs or comment sections. In a narrower sense, online deliberation takes the principles of deliberation or of deliberative democracy to the digital public sphere. Thus, it refers to online discussion spaces facilitating democratic engagement free from domination among equal participants, which are open to learn from each other, change their opinion and are oriented towards the common good. A process ideally resulting in a consensus.
Several projects currently try to realize online deliberation like e-Deliberation, Deebase, ConsiderIt and others.
Origins and Development
Jürgen Habermas described in his influential book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1989, original 1962) how in the 18th and early 19th century a public sphere emerged in European cafés and salons, where people met and informed by newspapers engaged in political discussions oriented towards the common good. This public sphere, however, disappeared as radios and television became the dominant source for information, which confined the consumption of news to private homes.
With the advent of digital communication, however, a new public sphere emerged connecting diverse people to each other and putting them into conversation. Deliberation now seemed possible on the large scale. Digital communication even brought advantages to realize deliberation in comparison with face-to-face interactions. Through online anonymity, identity markers could be hidden, thus creating more equal and inclusive deliberative forums.
While discussions about cyberdemocracy in the early 1990s and before imagined a true democracy on the horizon, with democratic participation automatically spreading through online communication, today it is clear that the utopia of online deliberation was not realized. However, digital democratic innovations provide online spaces either sponsored by governments, NGOs and democracy activists that strive to realize the principles of deliberation.
How it Works
Online communication proves to have great effects on governments, the most prominent example being the Arab Spring, which is also referred to as "facebook revolution". Communication via facebook, twitter and other social media was crucial in organizing these upheavals, coordinating demonstrations and interaction between activists. Social media also have an effect on more stable liberal democracies, where political scandals that would usually pass without having substantive effects, now lead to online campaigns and mobilization that lead to politicians stepping down or policies being altered.
However, these mobilizations, which undoubtedly increase political participation vital for democracies, do not directly indicate a deliberative interaction among participants in the narrower sense of the term. Rather, studies have shown that social media are used to disseminate short messages and information but are not the sight of reasoned discursive interaction. On the contrary, social media are quite frequently the sight of personal attacks and defamation of marginalized groups like women and ethnic minorities. The cyberdemocratic ideal that anonymity would lead to more equality is challenged by these observations.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Social media as such only partially and on a rather limited scale fulfill the ideals of online deliberation. They are rather useful for spreading information quickly and mobilizing for engagement, but not for reasoned discussions. Moreover, online anonymity and the distance between interacting individuals proves to lower the barriers for personal insult.
Thus online deliberation can best be facilitated in the realm of democratic innovations, which pay attention to the structural design of democratic interaction. Discussion rules and online facilitation have proven to improve the deliberative surroundings on the internet
Habermas, Jürgen (1989): The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Cambridge: Polity.