Debate is not a synonym for participation. It is one form of participation, just as the selection of microgovernment policy frameworks is another.
But debate of any kind has a particular role to play in the political process – the classic case for freedom of speech – allowing the strengths and weaknesses of policies to be explored.
What kind of factors can ensure that this debate, particularly online, is as effective as it can be?
Davy Janssen and Raphaël Kies (2004) note that there are both 'cyber-optimist' and 'cyber-pessimist' positions in the discussion about the quality of online discourse.
The optimists believe that "the absence of geographical and time barriers and the multiplicity of easily accessible online discussion spaces should encourage people that are normally indifferent to politics (the young, the poor, ethnic minorities etc.) to participate in online political discussions" [i].
The impact of this is that online discussions can see a greater role for less powerful or well-established political actors. And the optimists add that free, plural and sincere debate means an improvement in the quality of the political participation. In addition, the fact that contributions are written by an author who has time to think through his arguments should mean that conversations are more rational and argumentative.
But the cyber-pessimists respond that a lack of time, technical skills and internet connection may still exclude large parts of the population, with certain sections such as the elderly particularly likely to be left out of the debate. And there is no way of being sure that simply having internet access will lead to engagement from those who have otherwise been uninterested in political participation.
In terms of the quality of debate, the pessimists argue that the lack of real identities and the ability to walk away from any discussion without explanation reduces the sincerity and respect of participants. Instead, the discussion spaces are seen as chaotic, with personal attacks and prejudices coming to the fore in place of rational debate.
There is also an argument that the freedom to engage in some debates but ignore others leads to people of like views gathering together in particular forums. The impact of this is that debate becomes fragmented and increasingly polarised, while citizens are less likely to be exposed to arguments, no matter how well thought through, which contradict their own views.
Janssen and Kies conclude:
"Both positions can be defended. It is exact that there are online discussion spaces that are open, plural and deliberative and it is nonetheless true that online discussion spaces can be chaotic, elitists and dominated by like-minded people. However, it is a mistake to generalise one or the other thesis. Online discussion spaces are a complex reality of which the democratic and deliberative consequences can not be explained by referring only to the technological characteristics of the medium and, to some largely unproven, natural inclinations of human behaviour." [ii]
They argue that three general categories could influence the quality of online deliberation: the communicative structure of the discussion space, whether or not it is a 'major' sphere, and political culture and ideology.
The first point includes both the technical setup and organisational issues such as whether there is a moderator of the discussion. The second category relates to whether the discussion is likely to result in some kind of political action, which might be more likely, for example, if it is hosted by a major newspaper or broadcaster.
And the third suggests that "the socio-political contexts in which the online discussion space is introduced is an important factor for explaining divergences observed in the deliberation quality" [iii]. This might mean that issues from geographic location to any controversy around the topic being debated will have an impact on the quality of contributions.
Janssen and Kies also hypothesise that four factors could explain the impact of these variables in relation to online deliberation [iv].
The first, identification, relates to the controversial issue of whether participants in a discussion are required to identify themselves. On one hand, anonymity can allow people greater freedom to express their thoughts, while on the other it can be harder to debate with someone when unaware of who they are and what interests they might be seeking to further.
In relation to this point, a state-sponsored discussion forum could have advantages that those on, for example, a newspaper website do not. This might include learning a lesson from Twitter and allowing people to 'verify' their identify against official databases, and comments by 'verified' people might be given more weight than those that rely on anonymity. That being the case, the 'crowd' would still be able to prioritise (by means of a 'rate this comment' mechanism) anonymous comments if they are valuable.
The next point identified by Janssen and Kies is openness and freedom of speech. This relates to any limits placed on the access to a discussion forum, and whether there are any restrictions on the number of comments and the space they can take. "From a deliberative perspective it is important to stress that these restrictions could have an impact on the plurality of ideas and opinions appearing in the debate," [v] they note.
The third issue is whether the discussion space is moderated or non-moderated. A moderator can be a censor who removes comments that are unwanted for any reason or a promoter of debate who might offer information on a subject under discussion or highlight interesting contributions.
Fourth, whether there is any agenda setting of the debate may also have an impact. Debates "can be decentralised (defined by participants), centralised (defined by organisers) or partly centralised (defined by both)" [vi].
While there is no consensus on techniques for making online debate more valuable, this research does provide a sense of the factors which should be considered.
The next issue is whether, and if so to what extent, citizens are prepared to engage in this way.