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Interview with Helen Margetts: Towards a connected democracy

Interview with Helen MARGETTS

Professor of sociology and internet at the Oxford Internet Institute.
Interview by Izadora XAVIER

"Social media are apocalyptic machines [...] As a result, our social, civil and political ties are dissolving. These were the defeatist words of Jason Potin in Wired when it was time to take stock of 2018. For him, as for many others, the latest scandals have done away with his ideals of freedom of expression and the promises of technological progress. Even Tom Cook, Apple's CEO, is reported to have confessed in a private conference in Brussels that platforms and algorithms only give free rein to the worst of humanity, instead of the best. After every outrage, after every buzz, there are hot reactions. For example, there was Cambridge Analytica, for example, to name but one. Yet not everyone left Facebook after the debacle. How can this be explained? Prof. Helen Margetts, a political scientist specialising in governance in the digital age, offers us her vision more of the situation. Rest assured, all hope is not lost, far from it!

"I have not failed. I simply found 10,000 ways not to." (Thomas Edison)

Usually, when people are quick and stubborn to see the negative in new trends, it is good to remind people that it is too early to make up your mind. The issue has not yet been decided.Instead of trying the social networks, steer them in the right direction, introduce laws, educate people and encourage them to positive changes, rather than focusing on everything that goes wrong (without denying it, of course). It is a fact, there is a lot of negativity around the internet. In turn, this negativity has negative repercussions, as it hinders initiatives. But the internet has also made it possible to expose and engage people like never before previously to politics. The question now is how we will creatively and intelligently exploit this potential to create solutions for political participation, and the institutions that go with it. Our efforts should focus on how to help these new trends take shape. This is a much more stimulating and fruitful reflection than the exercise of taking stock of positive actions, and negative.

Ask a technology expert today, and his or her answer will be without appeal: an internet completely free is impossible. This is the very principle of freedom, it stops where other people's freedom begins, and for this freedom to be guaranteed, it needs to be guaranteed regulated and controlled.

However, we believed in it, in this internet that guarantees freedom of expression, even in the most repressive countries authoritarian. The Internet would have offered a voice and valued the most vulnerable. Democracy would have won by its only strength. Until about the end of 2010, we saw the internet as "the technology of the freedom". Nowadays, opinions are mixed, hopes for the future are the internet has become a tool for control, surveillance, disinformation, and a new field for war. The Internet and social networks are not inherently good or bad, pro or antidemocratic. It is a tool that intersects with politics. But it is important to realise how much of it is they converge. If digital platforms occupy more and more space in politics, the reverse is not true.Only a small part of the platforms is dedicated to politics. Think about how many interfaces you currently have connected. Take a moment to become aware of your smartphone, your Skype, your mailbox, your messaging, and maybe Amazon, which has remained connected since your last visit. About ten, twenty or so interfaces, probably all of them almost all updated instantly.From professional to entertainment, little of the content generated there is actually political. The framework being set, we can be more interested in the in detail to political life in the digital sphere.


Social networks are an integral part of politics on a daily basis. Anyone who interacts with a digital platform will see its modified behaviour. This applies to both citizens and politicians. Take DonaldTrump for example, which announces policy decisions foreigners on Twitter for the first time. This act will have the process, its consequences on the course of the process, its and how people are going to talk about it.

Admittedly, we are not all presidents, the importance of our tweets does not have the same ramifications. But the fact remains that, because of their exposure to the media ordinary citizens in most countries will be invited to participate in the policy. This invitation can help to change them. It can change them to encourage greater participation. Some will do so from passively by taking an interest in current events, others are in a more active way, even if this is transcribed by modest political actions. This is called the possibility of doing "mini-politics" (ang. tiny politics). Historically, political participation is seen as inconvenient. It is necessary to put some of one's own to demonstrate, to get involved in a political party, and to hope to make things happen. All this required a lot of resources. Internet, at on the contrary, breaks down these barriers. The Internet opens the opportunity for political participation at lower cost, whether in terms of money, time or effort. Even for donors, their financial contributions can be modest and still make a difference. In the past, at least the sum had to be at least more significant than the transaction price, such as the price of the postal consignment for example. Now, a simple message allows you to make a donation. You can make a lot of little things, at his level, to participate in political life. Follow a politician on his news feed, sign a petition inline, express your opinion, make a donation, etc.

The spectrum of small policy actions to accumulate is wide. Potentially, they can generate a snowball effect. We have already experienced it with signatures to block Trump's state visit in Great Britain in 2017. The petition took scale. Numerous major events began with small actions that took time to implement scale. Even a revolution can begin in this way, as was the case with the Arab Spring. The impact made possible by digital technology is exciting. Everyone wants to be able to make a difference. In the United States, children have campaigned for arms control. InRomania, the people has organised itself to denounce corruption by taking their government for being responsible. It is useful to underline, in this case, that a major role was played by ofRomanians outside the country. This new element of globalisation was unthinkable before the internet. It was the same goes for the Arab Spring, or for the Brazilian protests. In almost every country, actors organise themselves in one way or another against injustice, and the internet play sa role in this. We can see the diverse nature of these modest political acts amplified by technology: sharing a photo of a refugee child, or spreading a disinformation article, such as rumours about the EU organising its own army. Their importance individual level can, to a large extent, be scale, alter a political scenario. Two examples illustrate these unexpected turns. First, there is Jeremy Corbyn, a British politician with an atypical background elected as leader of theLabour Party in 2015, whose wave of support for declaring him a favourite came as a surprise. It was largely due to social networks. As for Barack Obama, he is the first to have mobilise a campaign for the general public, so as to that a large portion of his campaign funds were small donations.

The idea that it is possible to make politics at lower cost is sometimes criticized. For some, it is insignificant. It lacks commitment. Mini-politics is denigrated as slack activism. And yet, this practice is nevertheless important, as it involves two significant changes.

1/ Firstly, this practice brings visibility. The actor as well as the supported cause and its audience are made relatively public. A citizen who would discuss in a bar would only affect two or three customers. So than a like, a tweet or a share launched on the Net is likely to be more extensive.

2/ Secondly, this practice brings amplitude. Each like, each sharing, however small and insignificant at first sight, has the potential to be amplified by dint of being relayed and copied by others.

What seems to be just a bottle in the sea of online activities can grow into a wave of reactions.However, there is no distinction between the good or bad content as long as they are both good and bad can grow in size. Hate speech, misogynistic or racist may also progress. This does not happen, in most cases, but it is a possibility which, moreover, would be detrimental to political equality.

The real problem: uncertainty

A third significant change should be added, and not the least. This practice leads to uncertainty, and this is very worrying. In itself, the acts of mini-politics can be positive or negative. They often lead nowhere. You see, the majority of disinformation articles have no effect at all on large scale. Acts that have led to large-scale events lead us to believe that it is easy to succeed. But this is not true. Moreover, we do not know how to manage it, we cannot yet explain easily why a particular campaign is successful and like another an outcry. For the time being, we do not know which factors are generating a wave of digital media. There is a random and unstable character. It is a criticisms of the mini-policy, much more its association with laziness and inefficiency.Uncertainty is, almost by definition, a factor negative. We have this image of political institutions as having a stabilising effect, they are there to iron out difficulties and doubts. If these institutions and their regulation of technology continue to raise doubts, instability is likely to arise transform the political system into chaos. In addition to this popular mobilisations on a large scale at the same time, the system is also destabilised by the role of the growing number of large social network companies in political life and its lobbies.

"The best way to predict the future is to invent it. » (Alan Kay)

It is therefore difficult to predict future trends. What we can do, what we must do is improving infrastructure through rules, design and education.

Rules, design and education

The interface and platform designers are the first to make a difference. The design has the impact on users, their behaviour and choices. Thaler has been awarded the Nobel Prize in 2017 for demonstrating this with his analysis nudging. The architecture of the choices, while offering a certain freedom, can lead to a more positive result favourable than another. This is not to be understood as that the design of the platform makes it possible to manipulate user opinion.In the case of elections, for example, the Internet does not change the people's vote per se, but the decision itself of certain persons to vote or not to vote, de facto because of their easier access to political life. This factor explains in part the results of the elections. Facebook had tested its algorithm to find out which parameters led people to publish about their vote. Visibility granted to actions by users, or those who have the same is true of the political life. It is the case of Facebook or Twitter. Conversely, Snapchat does not let this kind of activity show through. In general, people tend to have a sensitivity variable according to the number of similar affected or no. This technique has been used for a long time in marketing, known in psychology as"normative influence", is the social tendency to conform in order to confirm his choices. We are only at the beginnings of use in the political sphere, it is why we still have time to institutionalise it, to lay down design rules.

It's not just the responsibility of the designers, the user can make a difference. Citizens could learn to better understand new technologies and their use, such as benefits would extend beyond the political arena. In Sweden, an initiative invites the entire population to learn the basics of artificial intelligence. Not to mention the prospects of employability, citizens would be equipped to better understand the society around them, to better distinguish between the issues at stake during the votes, in short, at to take a better part in democracy. Where education can make a difference is for distinguishing misinformation, knowing how to look for the origin information, and develop a healthy scepticism. We can also educate people about their rights and the tools to keep control over technology. Thus, for the case of Russian digital propaganda, in how much do people really understand about what are they talking about? There is still a lot of ground to cover in this sense, but this does not mean that the democracy is a lost cause in the digital age.

The digital hell is also paved with good intentions

A point often blamed on growing dependency social networks rather than traditional media information, is that the personalised flow of information reinforces the individual in his or her opinions. We often talk about social networks that are constantly testing their algorithms to find the right balance between interests and new perspectives. Their vision is to connect people together, their goal is to be lucrative. They never intended to be political actors or to change democracy.

The new political role taken on by force of the things has in fact damaged their business model. In fact, it's a godsend for us. The damage caused will force social networks to cooperate to preserve democracy. To catch up with Facebook, for example, has hired a team to clean and control the contents of its platform. Finally, it has done so mainly in English, for the countries the majority of Westerners, while it is in the small and medium countries that the dangers may be more significant. The case of Burma has made us understand that this is not a dynamic.

This platform has learned the hard way about the importance of not to lock the internet user in abubble. The popular information was initially non-hierarchical, as it was created by humans, and it was not appropriate. So these are robots that are are in charge of their organisation, but this posed also a problem. People felt manipulated by the company via its algorithm. Once the functionality was disabled, exposure to diversity ceased. The situation is not ideal. It seems important to encourage social networks to develop functionalities of appropriate topicality.

But demonising social networks is useless, the force it to close either. People could end up using a worse application. Imposing a platform that the user does not want seems unviable. We need to demand improvements from the actors private, but to what extent can one really expect these companies to be the arbiters of the good or bad content? These are not media in the traditional sense of the word. Donald Trump accused social networks of being biased against him. The companies remain responsible for the content, i.e. it should not be about the content of the disinformation. This should not come from a Russian robot or a computer troll factory. And it should not be hate speech either. How far can they determine what is on the information register and what is no longer? What will be perceived as censorship by the Chinese regime will be normal in Germany, a country with a history that encourages the regulation of hate speech.

A New Art of Governing: Equality, Equity and quality

Our aim is a call for creativity. Let's think about all the new forms that would allow us to interact with digital platforms at a lower cost. Just with a mobile phone, a political life takes place. In their flight, the refugees Syrians prefer to keep their telephones rather than the food, a blanket or anything else, because they are know that this will give them more autonomy. They will be able to contact their families, connect with people, record their travels and the situations they encounter.In a completely different mindset, the countries where the system is based on small electoral districts, who would theoretically be close to the people in order to link with those who represent them, could take advantage of the internet to make this proximity real at last. In Great Britain, for example, it is rarely the case. People are not very committed, not very contact with their elected representatives. The Internet makes it possible to rethink our electoral system to create and improve our electoral representative democracy.

Although the Internet invites the greatest number to participate in political life, it does not lead to direct democracy. We dreamed of it when the internet came along, certainly. A theoretically feasible system thanks to the digital does not necessarily make it desirable.

Reinventing representative democracy in the era of the digital seems more promising. This is the moment to be creative to engage the State in dialogue with these citizens, so that proximity feeds the confidence in governance. Citizens do not count no more about the State than they rely on Facebook. The first signs are rather positive, we must take advantage of them and continue to improve communication and political commitment. Whether it is for politics, health, the development, education or any kind of sustainable development public services, the internet opens up a field of possibilities to be exploited. The digital transitions of the state must be done with sensitivity. People must be identified mastering the technologies that require solutions and those who want to continue with their work at a distance, the current method, out of necessity or comfort. Expanding opportunities means treating people differently according to their needs, include disadvantaged people, and not treat everyone the same. This is not easy to apply for aState based on the idea that all citizens are equal. How should the state engage with its citizens?

What means should be used to do so? How to manage public-private partnerships? We need to think about a different and more frequent interaction, as well as a different and more means of letting citizens express themselves through digital platforms. In addition to understanding this that they think, the government could also reap data on policy measures, their design and day-to-day implementation. By listening of the population, we would be able to identify more rapidly failing services, such as schools or hospitals. Data collection, linked to the fear of surveillance, is a controversial practice.

Governments need to ask people what they think and what they can! That they become PlatformStates, responsive and oriented customer services, as their commercial counterpart.Except that the customer here is the citizen, and we are the have much more to gain from such changes. Seek the public's opinion, try to understand how the changes are felt, all this is now possible thanks to the fantastic opportunity the internet offers. The global malaise of the latest scandals should not stop us to move forward. Instead, we should learn from the mistakes of both the private and the public sector to constantly improve ourselves.

The recent dynamics around the digital world are at both exciting and disturbing. It is still too earlyto find out which way the balance is leaning. In all these cases, technologies must remain between the human's hands, it is up to us to shape them for the future that we disinterpret, must develop tolerance to enable our company to function despite our differences.

Offering freedom of expression to everyone without supervision does not equate to democracy.For good this tolerance also needs to be made to work legislative framework. The current platforms are not truth machines. It may not even be what the users want, knowing the importance of given to entertainment. The small part dedicated to Political life is not the least, even mini-politics has demonstrated the favourable impact it is capable of making things happen.This future, with a freedom of expression, which has found a new place on the internet, must develop tolerance to allow our company to function despite our differences.

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