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The Ideal Online platform for political debate

Analysis. In order to find out what cures a disease, one has to first figure what are its causes. My thesis’ first part was concerned with putting the diagnose – What kills democracy when political debate happens online, on Facebook? I summed up the findings in a previous article. I will be describing next how I envision an online platform that respects the ideal democratic debate mechanism. This article is about my proposed cure to the death of democratic debate and action when Facebook is used as a sphere of deliberation. Among other suggestions, differentiation between social, economical and political spheres, opt-in-by-default privacy settings, lack of algorithms that group like-minded users, community driven technological and procedural decision – making, transparency and encouragement for offline democratic action.

Opinions on Facebook’s influence of politics are varied. Some praise its design for bringing people together and help organize, while others criticize it for deteriorating democratic deliberation. Part of my masters’ thesis’ conclusion was aligned with critics’ choice. But my thesis went further into suggesting how could a social network be designed in such a way that respects the democratic debate mechanism. Contrary to the belief that citizens should fight the political power of bad – intentioned politicians using social media for their evil political agendas, I argue that the virus killing online political debate on Facebook is strategic use of social power. The following suggestions are therefore aimed at reducing this particular aspect of the disease. The solutions are proposed mainly in regard to the design of the platform without going too deep into the technical aspects, a very important complementary area that also needs to be looked into.

Not a Socio-Politico-Economical Melting Pot

First and foremost, the ideal platform suitable for political deliberation should have a clear differentiation between social, economical and political purposes it is used for. This could be done by having different microsites: one to stay in contact with friends and share fun content with them, one to engage in political discussions and share opinions in this respect and finally, one that could work as an advertising sphere where users go to simply be shown ads.

The differentiation between microsites is not to say that the political debate should reflect a limited variety of interest. Out of the contrary, the online dialogue should be driven by diverse interests, and not by algorithms that promote homogeneity of opinions.

In this way, users would have to learn to interact with opposite ideas and value the quality of the debate, regardless of whether they win or not the argument.

A Community Driven Platform/Discussion

Secondly, the debate should be held in a frame set and scrutinized by the community of users, both in procedural but also technical aspects.

From a procedural point of view, an online platform should have a structure that allows for democratic decision-making of conversation rules and for implementation of these rules. A good example in this respect is Debian community that developed communication rules in its Community Guidelines. Even though different communities might have different rules of debate and enforcement, the online platform ideal for political debate should have a system through which the community gives feedback to one’s argument. This is a way in which one’s opinion can be judged in respect to the community’s pre-set rules. Such a mechanism helps with improving one’s argumentation skills, recognizing and eliminating different biases and developing clear logical lines of thought. On top, it sets a higher standard for politicians’ ability to argument for their policies in front of a knowledgeable public.

Technically speaking, the community should have its structure open for assessment to all who wish to do so and contribute with improvements once the rest of the members have agreed of the proposed changes. The Open-source movement is an example of how platforms can be built through knowledge sharing and solution – optimization. Openness also feeds into a increased level of transparency and builds trust among a community that self – regulates.

Opt-In-By-Default Privacy Settings

Thirdly, the platform should be based on users’ informed consent to shape their online experience. This is also a requirement in the upcoming GDPR EU legal framework where Art. 4(11) requires consent of the data subject to be “ freely given, specific, informed and unambiguous“. Therefore, my suggestion is a privacy-by-default approach.

OpenTable Privacy Updates

On the left is an example of opt-out by default privacy settings, in which consent is assumed, rather than asked for. Privacy settings of the ideal platform for political deliberation should have to be opt-in rather than opt-out by default. Using this principle, the users’ autonomy of choosing which data gets shared with who and when will be respected and even enhanced.

For example, when search result are displayed, algorithms should not set the order of the results. It is the user that should have the option to choose whether they want results based on/independent of already-collected data, ordered by date, popularity, rating and so on. Increasing the autonomy of users in online decision making would also raise awareness of the way big data influences their online experience, hence the online political debate.

Clicks are not enough

In order for a citizen to exercise its democratic power, opinion has to go hand in hand with action. Democratic action influences dialogue and dialogue influences democratic action. Faulty political debate mechanisms on Facebook  promoted the idea that democratic action is an online process (online petitions, letters to governmental representatives, sharing for awareness etc). The superficiality of such ideas has been criticized by many, a good example being Morozov’s book “To Save Everything, Click Here” .

For this reason, the ideal democratic online platform that aims at respecting debate and action will not suffice to the online sphere. While the online sphere is a great space for organization, democracy can not function without active involvement in the offline world such as participation in public debates, voting outside online platforms and other types of offline collective action. Meetup is a great example in promoting offline engagement of its online community members. For the public to have real impact in political decision-making, they should have access to the implementation of laws, not only the voting process. By encouraging offline action, citizens can better understand the practicalities of implementing politics, rather than having a mere theoretical understanding.

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Eliminating strategic exercise of social power for political purposes on online platforms is a complex process. My recommendations are the start of a conversation, not its conclusion. Addressing the cure of a complex disease from a variety of perspectives is the key to a realistic solution. Therefore, these findings can be equally relevant for business professionals, academic scholars and non-governmental organizations.