Best Practices for Digital Democracy

Digital democracy is not a utopia. It is merely a more perfect organization of citizens within the field of new media.  In its first meaning, digital democracy references the actual practice of democratic politics in digital spaces, for example, discussions of Presidential debates on Twitter. In its second, digital democracy references the democratization of content production and distribution. The first, political meaning points to what is said, the second, to how it is said. Despite an obvious distinction between these two layers of democratic practice, the second is implicated in the first. In order to be political online, the citizen must be able to create a political statement and disseminate it. Unfortunately, both social networks and legacy media outlets have failed to democratize the digital world, at least to a sufficiently comprehensive extent. There are six best practices for getting from the status quo, which possesses a veneer of democratic freedom, to a digital democracy.

1. Access to the Forum: In order to write or read anything at all, the citizen needs access to the material forums in which writing and reading happen. That is, if you don’t have a computer or Internet, it is awfully hard to participate in a digital democracy. It remains difficult for disadvantaged or otherwise impoverished communities to access hardware and software. In April 2012, the Pew Research Center reported that 62 percent of Americans making less than $30,000 a year are online. Among those without high school diplomas, that figure is 43 percent. The divide between high-speed Internet and more restricted Internet access has created an invisible second class within those who do have access. Improving the availability and affordability of computer and Internet services should be a priority. Lack of computer and Internet access is a human rights issue, both in America and on a global scale. When official government information, political news, and public discourse are increasingly confined to digital spaces, those without computer or Internet access become disenfranchised.

2. Equal Authority: We need to stand against an emerging technocracy. The status of professional journalists as information gatekeepers has created a clique of political trendsetters. Although Twitter and Facebook have devolved more control to consumers, social media has been colonized by old media. Who are the most influential voices on social networks? Authority emanates from the media powers that be, not the media powers that are becoming. Admittedly, Reddit and DIY journalism projects have destabilized an old media orthodoxy. But we must always be wary of new, ascendant orthodoxies. Does one person, one vote entail one person, one voice? We do not need to prevent coalitions and interest groups from forming organically. Rather, we should remain aware of who credentials digital political messages.  

3. Accountability of Representatives and Citizens: There is no room for anonymity in digital political discourse.   Elected representatives and the citizens who elect them must be held accountable for their digital political statements. The Internet has the capacity to bring strangers together in public forums. Consensus and reasoned disagreement are impossible unless those strangers can trust each other: trust that each speaks the truth to his or her best ability, does not deceive for personal gain, and respects the worth of all conversation partners.  

4. Question the Usefulness of Nation as Political Category: Just as the Internet brings together strangers of the same national citizenship, it builds a common forum across national lines. That forum remains imperfect due to censorship and asymmetrical access to computers and Internet. Nevertheless, the constant border crossing of Internet conversation discloses the limited usefulness of national identifications. There is no place for jingoism in a digital democracy. Instead, digital democracies ought to allow citizens to imagine a world where sovereignty is an individual and communal but not a national right.

5. Freedom of Information: News is not a commodity. Access to political news is a human right. Denying citizens access to political news affects a kind of disenfranchisement. For how are citizens to make political decisions and to contribute to political discourse without the relevant facts? Moving towards a true freedom of information will require entirely new revenue models for legacy media companies. Paywalls are not an acceptable solution, as revealed by the response of media outlets during the Hurricane Sandy disaster. News does not toggle between commodity and basic right according to a relative state of emergency. Withholding news from the public is not sometimes ethical and sometimes not.

6. Cybernetic Politics: Digital democracy should infiltrate real political forums and vice versa. The borders between a digital political life and real political action are permeable. Digital democracy will only be realized once digital conversations are given equal exchange and use values to real conversations; once the face-to-face becomes equivalent to the tweet-to-tweet; once digital political interaction and real political action are indistinguishable.