What does Brexit mean for digital democracy?

Democracy Club was asked by a journalist where it would go post-referendum. I attempted to write a quick response…which turned into a not-so-quick response. Unsurprisingly, the journo ditched it — but I think it’s still worth publishing here. These are my personal thoughts.

In short:

Some digital democracy enthusiasts have long hoped that the internet would help realise a direct democracy, where everyone would vote on everything, all the time. We’re all Ancient Greeks now. (But this time with women voting too please. And without the slaves.)

Perhaps, say a few commentators, after the fibs, bent truths and ill-informed debate, the Brexit referendum experience has shown the merits of our aged representative democracy.

But people are still pissed. Representative democracy has clear problems; and we know these better than we think. If it’s true that a chunk of the Leave vote came from wanting to give the system a kicking, wanting to reject the ‘elite’s’ idea of what is good for the UK, and — of course — of desiring in some way to ‘take back control’ (Ed: why couldn’t Remain find a call to action for their slogan?) — then the system we have is already failing people. And let’s not just pretend it’s about Europe. Feeling out of control; feeling disempowered; feeling that you’re at the whim of HyperMegaGloboCorp is not fun – and is a result of the policies of Westminster as much as Brussels.

We must make our representative democracy better — and part of the way we do that, part of the way we should respond to Brexit — is by pushing forward with the tools and services that make democracy more understandable, more interactive, more user-friendly, more fun. Democracy Club can help do that

In not-short (whoops):

The journalist asked us to explain how digital technology had affected the referendum. In truth – we don’t yet understand. There are probably academics and facebook data scientists pouring over it, and we’ll get a better picture over time. 

One take is that the result (or at least the shock of the result) was a powerful example of the ‘filter bubble’ in action. This is the idea, popularised by Eli Pariser, that social media becomes an echo chamber of similar views. In our filter bubble, our Facebook newsfeeds, for example, are only filled with the ideas, news and opinions that the algorithms decide we are likely to want to read, like or comment on. Reflect on your own experience: how many people did you hear from on Facebook who voted the opposite way to you? Did we really see opposing stories and arguments? How were stories and ‘facts’ shared? Tom Steinberg has written a must-read article about this issue — and we should keep the pressure up on Facebook for a response.

Second, the referendum question was simple, but the issue is incredibly complex. It was a top-down referendum: its existence, question and timing were set by parliament led by the Prime Minister. Compare this to the Swiss experience of referenda: it is the people that start the referendum process, not political leaders trying to save their parties. Swiss referenda happen often – perhaps every quarter – which means they are less a tool for a protest vote toward the government of the day. We were sold a bad referendum experience. Lessons from good digital design say make your experiments small, make failure inexpensive, don’t go all out on a big-bang and hope for the best. This was democratic design at its worst.

Third, the referendum also highlighted a lack of publicly-funded, non-partisan, balanced information, as is provided in countries such as Germany and Switzerland. In Swiss referenda, citizens receive a booklet outlining the factual arguments and likely results of voters’ decisions. In Germany, there’s a publicly funded institution dedicated to civic education, helping people to understand the democratic process and what they are voting on. In the UK, there was nowhere the public felt they could go for clear, impartial advice as to what would result from their vote. (I think this may be a particular failure of the BBC to innovate and use its power (resource, trusted brand) to proper effect; Foreign Policy have a good quick read on this here.) Digital media makes it easier to get this information to people where they are, in a way they want, at a time they want. It wouldn’t take much. This is a significant gap in UK public services.

Fourth — zooming out — digital democracy is often associated with the idea of direct democracy. Since the early days of the internet people have dreamt up new governance systems based on the idea that there’s now basically no cost to talking to anyone, anywhere on the planet; that theoretically everyone could vote on everything — but no such idea has ever caught on. Because it’s not the technology gap that matters here. It’s knowledge, willingness and shared interests. Brexit is a helpful reminder of the value of a representative democracy. It shows that single issue, yes/no referenda are a brutally blunt tool. Perhaps, as suggested in this beautiful article by David Van Reybrouk, author of ‘Against Elections: The Case For Democracy’, Brexit will inspire the UK to experiment more with deliberative democracy (decisions by lot – like jury service) on some of the big questions. Ireland’s use of “mini publics” as a response to their political-economic crisis that followed economic meltdown of 2008 — helped lead to a positive result (in a referendum!) on equal marriage, and there are several other constitutional reforms being debated as a result of those deliberative forums. But until such fora make it across to the UK, we are, and for the vast majority of questions we will remain, a representative democracy — so let’s make it work better.

For Democracy Club, we’re aware that our deadline of brilliant digital services for the 2020 General Election may suddenly have moved a lot closer. While the new PM has insisted an early election won’t happen, bookmakers disagree. We must raise our fundraising game to ensure that we are adequately resourced and well-prepared for the moment an election is announced. This entails doing everything we can to ensure that voters get clear, trustworthy information on who their candidates are and where they stand. And that they get that information in a way that suits them. Our data will power voter-quizzes, advice services, search widgets, email campaigns, online hustings and ultimately a better informed, better served — and hopefully more trusting — electorate.

Image credit: GF Peck

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