Notes | Digital Democracy: Episode IV — A New Hope: How a Coproration for Public Software Could Transform Digital Engagement for Government and Civil Society

Posted on Sep 26, 2021

Source:… | Author(s): John Gastil, Todd Davies | Date: January 2020


The authors divide the stages of online deliberations into four eras. They then note that while the current era, Social Media, has, on its face, the most potential for democratic engagement the system is held captive by the power of these platforms and that they are for profit institutions that have no regard for their impact on democracy. Their solution suggests we take from the history of broadcasting and making something like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for software, a Corporation for Public Software.

Quotes and Observations

The authors divide online deliberation into four stages.

  1. Early Visions of Electronic Democracy (~19070s - 1980s)
  2. Public Internet (~1990s - early 2000s)
  3. Social Media (~mid 2000s - present)
  4. Public Software Stage (2)

The fourth stage is where they layout their vision for a future of technology & digital democracy

Theorists of this more advanced era of digital technology have hoped that it might restore our depleted social capital by expanding social networks and rebuilding citizens’ trust in each other and their shared institutions [Wells 2015]” (2)

Is there any evidence that social media has done anything to build or rebuild trust in shared institutions? Definitely optimistic but is it rooted in reality?

“The social media platforms most widely used in Stage 3, however, are commercial services built and maintained by private corporations under a profit motive that is often at odds with users’ desires for privacy. At best, commercial social media tools such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are built neither to help nor harm democratic engagement. Instead, a need for continuous advertising revenue drives their design—irrespective of what that means for democracy [McNamee 2019; Wu 2017].” (2)

The authors also point out after this quote that the data dominance and the software patents held by these platforms prevents the entry of new tools, including non-commercial options.

In part 2 of the paper the authors assess the present social media landscape.

“Market forces brought this reality into existence [O’Neil 2017], but deeper problems in American democracy made our system vulnerable to manipulation and degradation long before the era of Social Media. “ (4)

“There is halting movement toward building a more deliberative and democratic digital commons [Noveck 2018], but these efforts lack coordination and push against powerful obstacles [Howard 2015]. “ (4)

It seems that better anti-harassments tools, reigning in recommendation algorithms, and introducing friction that encourages critical engagement would be a top priority for creating a democratic digital commons.

“The world ended up using Facebook not because Zuckerberg decided users should do so but because users decided, collectively and one by one, to use Zuckerberg’s platform rather than dozens of alternatives. If Zuckerberg is guilty of crimes against democracy, then he has had 2.5 billion accomplices—the people around the globe who accepted Facebook’s terms of service and posted their data on its site. ” (5)

Ignores the aggressive advertising and getting people to sign up and the difficulty of leaving Facebook due to a lack of interoperability and lock-in effects generated by much of civic life consolidating onto platforms that Facebook either built or purchased. But sure 2.5 billion people who accepted a contract of adherence are also responsible for the genocide in Myanmar, January 6th, and the nefarious ad surveillance technology they created simply because they were offered a service to use with their friends.

The authors are not opposed to regulation nor anti-trust enforcement but they believe the biggest issue is the lack of ambition in the scope and design of civic reforms (5).

“To those doubtful of the prospects for digital democratic reform, we point toward the example of Spain [Noveck 2018; Peña-López 2017; Smith 2018]. Barcelona and other municipalities adopted the open source software Consul (developed by a distributed team of programmers led by the San Francisco–headquartered firm HashiCorp) to create civic engagement opportunities. “ (6)

Should democratic tech orgs for other countries be situated in the US? I need to go read about HashiCorp now.

They examine a tool called the Platform for Online Deliberation that was eventually renamed to Deme. It had the four following design principles:

  • Supportiveness. The platform should support the group overall so that there is either an improvement or no decline in the ability of the group to meet the needs of its members or stakeholders.
  • Comprehensiveness. The platform should allow the group to accomplish, in an online environment, all of the usual deliberative tasks associated with face-to-face meetings.
  • Participation. The platform should maximize the number of desired participants in the group’s deliberations and minimize barriers to their participation.
  • Quality. The platform should facilitate a subjective quality of interaction and decision making that meets or exceeds what the group achieves in face-to-face meetings. (8)

“The Web environment has become very complex, with security threats and patent infringement high on the list of challenges that were off the radar 16 years ago. One option is to throw up our hands and leave it to the commercial market to create what we need. If we do that, we are likely to get something more useful for asynchronous online deliberation than we have today, and in fact there are now widely used tools that do at least part of what Deme envisioned in 2003 (e.g., Google Docs, Discord, Loomio, and Nextdoor—all but Loomio are proprietary) ” (9)

The market hasn’t created what we need yet. Also, are we really going to throw in Nextdoor as a positive example. It’s a system that preys on the fears of people and has a documented problem with its users being racist.

References to Read


Works Cited

Makena Kelly, “Inside Nextdoor’s ‘Karen Problem,’” The Verge, last modified June 8, 2020, accessed September 26, 2021,…

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