Pete Woodcock: The digital debating chamber is vital to our democracy

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THE looming general election is set to be a central feature in all our lives as we enter the final months of the current coalition.

However, the increased presence of the web in the parties’ campaigns means that the run-up to this election will be different to those in the past.

Politicians of all hues have realised the role that email, web pages and social media can play in getting them elected to parliament. Via the web politicians can contact us directly, circumventing the media and ending the need to rely on leaflets, telephones or canvassing.

John Bercow, the Commons Speaker, recently suggested that by 2020 there could be the potential to vote online in general elections. Young voters, often the most technologically savvy, are also the least likely to vote. Allowing them to cast an eBallot might improve overall turnout.

Online voting, however, is not the start of eDemocracy as there are already uses and abuses of technology in our current system of politics. Increasingly, the web is so central to democracy that discussions on online voting do not go far enough in assessing the impact the web already has – and could have – on UK politics.

This is the election of the “millennials”, that generation who are used to the web being central in all aspects of their lives. To use the American writer Marc Prensky’s phrase, they are “digital natives” – a generation for whom the web is not even regarded as technology as they haven’t experienced life in a world without it.

This has more far reaching connotations for society than the fact that young people are used to chatting and sharing their opinions online and are incessantly on their phones. It might not just be the case that there is a growing appetite from millennials for projects such as online voting to be instigated but rather a general sense of bemusement from them that we are not there already.

So much of their lives is lived online – their learning, shopping, entertainment and socialising. So why should politics be any different? Crucially, millennials also use the web as their primary source of information gathering – reading articles shared on Facebook, Googling subjects that interest them and reading news stories online rather than on paper. It is understandable why, then, there is a push for more politics to be conducted online.

And indeed the web provides immense democratic opportunities for all voters and we should celebrate it. We can instantly tweet our opinion, write a piece on a blog, comment online on a column in a newspaper or discuss current social or political issues on Facebook. Campaigns can be started online, demonstrations organised and perhaps even regimes brought down.

But there are problems with eDemocracy that we should not ignore in a rush to praise it. There is more to democracy and our role as citizens within it than us merely presenting our views and holding our representatives to account. Democracy entails us listening to and debating a variety of opinions, while also respecting the rights of individual participants to express their views and participate in discussions. The web is not quite as good at fostering this spirit of democratic egalitarianism as we might hope.  

Firstly social media works by us following (Twitter) or being friends with (Facebook) people whose comments we might then interact with; often the people in these networks are people with opinions much like our own. Therefore we don’t encounter a wide variety of opinions online and this can promote enclave deliberation, discussion between people with similar views that often results in us becoming more extreme in those views.

Secondly, the trolling and abuse faced by some participants of discussion on the web – particularly that aimed at women – threatens the democratic spirit of web 2.0 applications.

Indeed, as Charles Leadbeater points out in his A Better Web, highlighting the treatment Mary Beard, Beth Tweddle and Caroline Criado-Perez have received, “the web cannot be called a civic space if women are routinely harassed”.

For the web to be a vehicle for democracy, all citizens need to respect their fellow citizens’ equal right to participate in democratic deliberation.

This does not mean to say 
that we will agree, or that 
we should not criticise one another’s views, but it must always be the opinions that are attacked, not the people promoting them.

There are responsibilities, therefore, that we all must all shoulder if the web is to provide an effective democratic civic space for the discussion in the run up to May’s election. Democracy is too important to leave to the politicians, so these are things we should all own.

We must try to seek out information and opinions which might involve us going out of our comfort zone, and we should treat all participants in debates as our democratic equals.

Dr Pete Woodcock is a lecturer in politics at the University of Huddersfield. @petewoodcock