The promises of the Internet and shattered myths of the web – Part II

Digital democracy

This is maybe one of the wildest dreams nurturing the development of the web. Now that the world of politics is increasingly taking hold of the Internet as a channel to gain consensus, reality is asking questions that demand answers. The following examples will help clarify the extent of the problem.


Example 1: Obama and the answer to the Reddit community [1]

On August 2012, during the electoral campaign for the presidential elections, Barak Obama answered ten questions of as many potential electors from the Reddit community[2] in real time and achieved a brilliant result: 3.8 million page views and more than 22 thousand comments. And the opportunity to post a picture of  the President sitting in front of his laptop to answer the questions of other citizens just like any other citizen: more than 4 thousand retweets.[3]

There is no doubt that, in terms of propaganda, it has proven to be a winning move. But given the numerous cases of generic answers to specific questions, one wonders if there is a benefit for electors and not merely for ‘technological’ candidates.

Some of the President’s answers revealed a very weak informative value[4] and citizens had neither the possibility to reply nor force the candidate to be specific and thorough. According to Fabio Chiusi on his blog ilNichilista:[5]

«…it is hard to imagine that in a face-to-face debate, even with only one – albeit well-prepared – citizen, the President would have been able to avoid answering the questions: contrary to what happened on Reddit, during a live session you can insist with the interlocutor – and do so demanding all his or her attention».

In short: the political-digital debate is an extraordinary resource, provided, however, that it gives all parties involved the opportunity for  dialogue and in-depth discussion. If this balance is missing, the ‘propaganda risk’ is significantly high.

Example 2: The Italian political party Movimento Cinque Stelle and the mediocre results of the so-called parlamentarie.

As this is potentially a controversial issue, let’s start with the words and figures provided by the party’s charismatic leader, Beppe Grillo:

«There were about 95 thousand available votes for 1,400 candidates from all the constituencies, including the foreign ones» explained Grillo in a post published on his blog a couple of hours after the closing of the ‘virtual polling booths’.[6]

He continued: «…all at no cost. [It is] the first time worldwide that a party has done something like this and what’s more at no cost. I am really pleased with this».[7]

Despite the party leader’s satisfaction, the critics had their say. The twenty questions which Grillo was asked by the newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano concerning the way the leadership of the M5S managed the parlamentarie deserve precise and complete answers. And those provided by Grillo do not seem to be entirely persuasive.

In answer to the question “How would you guarantee the transparency of [digital] voting?” he said: “I don’t know, I simply trust those who have always told it like it is…”.[8] Is this a case of naivety, arrogance or lack of understanding of the problem?

The two examples above, whilst very different, seem to have one thing in common: the absence of clear rules. Any form of democracy, whether traditional or digital, requires that the rules of the game are fair for all participants (electors, candidates and elected officials), all participants know the rules before the competition starts and can verify the correct application of these rules at any time.

The lack of the right of reply in the Obama case and the impossibility to control the management of preferences in the case of the M5S party are examples of a democracy that seems more imperfect than digital.

– To be continued –

[1] ]  is a news and entertainment social network. Founded in 2006 and now controlled by Conde Nast, it allows registered users to post links or original texts.