Participation At Scale Can Repair The Public Square

Digital platforms for deliberation and consensus show the way.

Jonathan Zawada for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

The participatory power of social networks has cast out the gatekeepers, leveling the playing field among amateurs, professionals, experts, citizens and elected representatives. As a platform open to all, peer-to-peer connectivity challenges the custodianship of elites and intrinsically bolsters the popular preference for direct democracy over delegated authority.

Since this new distribution of power has drawn more players into the political fray than ever before, never has the need been greater for the counterbalance of impartial practices and institutions to sort out the cacophony of voices, the welter of conflicting interests and the deluge of contested information.

The extent to which direct-access technology has stoked polarization, hate speech and the spread of untrustworthy information is a result of the absence of mediating platforms that encourage and enable civil discourse and consensus formation at scale. If configured in this way and integrated into governance, the same tools that have so corroded the public square can help repair it.

As the experience of democracies with social networks matures, a continuum of capacities has emerged to do just this. They range from visualized concurrence in a gaming format to deliberative polls, policy juries, citizens’ ballot initiative reviews and citizens’ assemblies — all of which can now be scaled virtually.

Consensus Formation Through Polis

Polis is a tool for listening to the public at scale to locate the area of rough consensus on a given issue. It is a real-time system for gathering, analyzing and understanding what large groups of people think in their own words, enabled by advanced statistics and machine learning.

On the platform, which has been widely used in Taiwan to determine where the public stands on issues ranging from regulating ride-hailing services to same-sex marriage, a topic is mooted for discussion. Anyone can comment — they just have to create an account.

As explained in a comprehensive article in the Guardian, Polis has two key features that differentiate it from a simple online forum. First, no one can reply to comments. “If people can propose their ideas and comments but they cannot reply to each other, then it drastically reduces the motivation for trolls to troll,” Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s digital minister, observes. The second feature is a map of upvotes and downvotes that shows participants in the conversation, and people who vote similarly are grouped together.

The map displays like-minded groups and consensus even when there is a diversity of voices. This gamifying format incentivizes people to win votes from different sides of a divide. In the process, divisive statements migrate to the margins and are out of the game, so to speak.

“The visualization is very, very helpful,” Tang emphasizes in an interview with MIT Technology Review. “If you show people the face of the crowd, and if you take away the reply button, then people stop wasting time on the divisive statements.”

“People spend far more time discovering their commonalities rather than going down a rabbit hole on a particular issue,” she concludes. “Invariably, within three weeks or four, we always find a shape where most people agree on most of the statements.”

Deliberative Polling

Recently, I participated in an online deliberative poll conducted by Stanford’s Center for Deliberative Democracy and Crowdsourced Democracy Team. This platform enables an unlimited number of participants, randomly selected to represent the general public, who convene to deliberate an issue together in small groups simultaneously. All participants are provided with a five-minute video presentation with statements of alternative policy propositions and pro and con arguments. An automated moderator allows participants to form speaking queues with equal access, discuss the statements with timed agendas and rank conclusions formulated in their own words or pose key unanswered concerns. A prevention feature cuts off any intervention that is off-topic, goes on too long or is abusive of others.

The next step involves an interactive panel of experts in the relevant topic who assess the ranked conclusions and respond to concerns so that the implications are clearly drawn. Participants then reconvene, taking that advice into account, and once again discuss and collectively rank their findings. The top rankings indicate where there is the most consensus.

In my case, the topic was “fact-checking content” on social media. The consensus that emerged considered oversight by an independent citizens’ body a better option than self-regulation by digital companies or regulation imposed by government.

Policy Juries

The Stanford tools could also be used for “policy juries,” involving thousands of citizens in judging whether the public interest is served through proposed policies. Like a trial jury, participants are randomly chosen by lot and weighted for inclusion across gender, race, region etc., so they are indicative of the body politic as a whole.

They would then be presented with a proposition noting the pro and con cases. Expert “witnesses” are called to weigh in on the evidence presented. The jury then deliberates on all the information they have received and reaches a conclusion for or against. Instead of reporting to a judge, the verdict is communicated to legislators with the expectation it would be heeded.

Citizens’ Initiative Review

This is essentially a policy jury that deliberates on an initiative or referendum to determine whether it is in the public interest. In-person CIRs have been conducted for years in Oregon, which has a population of only 4 million. In a place like California, with a population of nearly 40 million, the ability to scale participation and deliberation is critical to the legitimacy of the practice. Enlarging the mini-public of a randomly selected body of citizens gathered in person to a much larger virtual group would foster a more diverse and inclusive representation of the whole public.

Ideally, the CIR in a large polity like California would be housed in the office of the secretary of state, as it is in Oregon, since that office is responsible for the integrity of the direct democracy system that is too often captured by organized special interests with the time and resources to disproportionately sway public opinion or hijacked by partisan agendas. It would be up to the secretary of state to collaborate with various media to ensure the widest possible circulation of the CIR findings, including in official voter’s guides, before the public vote.

In a bicameral legislative system, a “second reading” of proposed legislation takes place in the other house in order to eliminate unintended consequences, blunt bad ideas or amend proposals. In the present direct democracy system, ballot measures go directly to the public without any deliberative filter once the qualified signatures are gathered. Conceivably, a CIR could also be convened during the qualification stage to suggest amendments to a proposition before it is presented to the public for signatures. The CIR would, in effect, institutionalize a second reading of select propositions by fellow citizens.

While all these deliberative platforms are a way to broadly muster and integrate considered consent of the governed into policymaking, they are advisory and not binding.

Citizens’ Assemblies

These could be conducted at scale with the same methods described above and chosen in the same way as policy juries and CIRs, which would close that loop. They themselves could propose policies after a process of deliberation and put them directly to the public for a binding vote at the ballot box.

The greatest challenge for democracy in the digital age is how to bring the wired activation of civil society into governance by combining connectivity with common platforms for deliberation, thus recreating a public sphere fractured by siloed social networks which no longer talk to each other.

Technological innovations that enable this to happen are already here. We just need to use them.