Algorithms have shaped the contemporary public political discourse in a manner we have only witnessed with the invention of printing. Logically operating systems and Social Media enabled us to witness the world unfiltered, and are key reasons for arising military conflicts and social division. So how can it be the internet and digitization is still underestimated by policy-makers and not utilized in democratic processes?
Karel Boele is not a traditional inventor, of all things. Still, the well-traveled Australian put together a mind-boggling resume of entrepreneurship: A Master’s in Strategic Affairs, a Bachelor’s in Mechatronic Engineering and he lived in the Australian wilderness for over a year. But for most of his lifetime, Boele has been dedicated to connecting communities and developing IT systems to enable people to participate. His initial idea was that the Internet has more to offer than kitten videos: A change in politics, and ultimately the world we live in.
It is changing, indeed: We’re witnessing a shift in geopolitics only comparable with the end of the Cold War. A great deal of influence on these developments, commentators claim, comes from unprecedented levels of human interconnectivity. Its effects are wide-ranging: From influence on business decisions to policy shifts and political revolutions, the Internet has played a large role, without a doubt.
Currently, we’re seeing political usage of the digital world mostly through seemingly autocratic movements. Of all people, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a loud critic of social networks who as recently as 2014 talked about social media as the “robot lobby” of the opposition and tried to ban them in Turkey, took advantage of Facetime and Twitter to secure his powers in an eventually failed military coup in 2016, propelling the democracy eradication process.
The incident shows the digital reality we’re living in: It is not only on display what voters are thinking, also getting into conversation with a great number of them is rather easy. Opportunistic powers occupying radical positions on the political gamut use the circumstances to their advantage, creating a great deal of outrage as well as conformity. Ultimately, this leads to far more interaction than “ordinary” opinions, shaping the conversation into the desired direction of opportunists to convince a majority of citizens.
Without the filter exerted by the media before, political messages can be sent out without intermediate stages, creating dialogue in a framework drawn from political goals. Validation becomes elusive, because it is not only about an argument upholds in discussion reflects its validity, but the quantity of confirmations. Slowly, politicians realize Tech & Environment what a gatekeeper-less communication with their audience means: Less influence on the message they are sending.
We The People
Autocrats accentuating their demands through the Internet are only one model how to go ahead with the new opportunities digital networks present. Karel Boele is the living example for that. He is the founder of “People Decide”, a project that raised attention all over Australia. “The people in this country want to have a say”, Boele says. The initial idea that a website could be used to bring transparency and real popular will into policy decisions was received as godsend in a state where many feel the mining industry is the legislating organ. “My system reunites politics with its sovereign body: The people.”
People registered on his page can cast their vote on all major proposals, except on decisions entering warfare. One can contribute by liking or disliking the summaries of the bills on the website. MP’s agreeing to the formula are bound by contract by the popular vote on the bills. The initiative has found some success: Boele received over 5,000 mayoral votes in the Brisbane elections this year, a respectable number given his entire campaign was funded by small donations. Reflecting the circumstances, it is stunning that politicians around the globe have reacted to these developments accordingly. Isn’t this the truest form of liberalism, when all people have a say? Any individual who can afford an electronic device with internet access and who is willing to participate in political discourse can easily become participant, opinion leader or even role model, like today’s new superstars, the bloggers. Comments, like and shares are not only things we do for leisure, but are complement acts of free speech. “The participatory element f the Internet is clearly underestimated by decision-takers and policy-makers. The muscle the network has already flexed confirms that”, Boele is convinced.
“The Internet is the voice of the weak, the revenge of the suppressed”, Boele thinks. Indeed, technological progress enables citizens to act as a counterpart against the policies of political heavyweights such as municipalities, nation states and international organisations. Easy yes/no decisions can instantly break ground for a political issue. Boele is persuaded that his model is the future of democracy. “It is hard to understand why only right-wing populists and autocrats are utilizing the Internet for their purposes.
”Asked how satisfied he is with the project in general, however, Boele responds “It’s not working as intended.” What does that mean? Were 5,000 mayoral votes of a world city like Brisbane – as a newcomer with barely any support – not enough?
Indeed, looking more closely on the bills proposed on the website since 2015, the number of votes on the proposed bills in total is: Zero. “What is a participatory democracy worth, when nobody participates?”, Boele asks himself, followed by his very own explanation: “They may think: ‘The others will take action.” In Boele’s logic, as a consequence, contracted MP’s have to abstain from votes, resulting in even lesser participation. How can this abstinence be explained?
Abstaining from Democracy
“Nobody takes the time to read through a bill, evaluate it, and discuss it”, Boele says. The European Commission recently complained similarly in a press release about the lack of participation on the Internet. As early as 2003, it allowed European citizens to forward their opinion on certain legislative acts, which was so rarely used that the Commission now doesn’t recognize the remarks as part of the decision process. So, does Boele think that politics belongs to social institutions instead of desktops? “Not at all, ‘People Decide’ is a model of the future, no doubt. But people in the Net sometimes think all they need to do is write something thoughtful on Facebook and the world will change.”
When Boele says that, I feel nabbed. I remember commenting several times on election results which overthrew my world views. When I share my experience, he gives me advice that I should go out and raise a sign instead, which is much more visible and not counting into algorithms. “We have to be careful that we don’t establish a “wellness democracy” with echo chambers, my model only supports transparency of legislation. If we don’t counteract, it could mean that we have no democracy at all anymore.”
So even a great idea moving forward with democracy can unfold its virtue only with the acceptance by others, as do political systems themselves. When our interview is over, I shut down my Skype and check Facebook for the latest news of my friends. The first thing coming up: A kitten video. And I look if the Internet has more to offer.