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Democratic Futures and the Web

13th ACM Web Science Conference 2021

WebSci’21 Workshop ‘Democratic Futures and the Web’

It was our great pleasure to convene the workshop “Democracy and the Web” on 22 June 2021.

Advances in information technologies do not alone determine democratic futures, but their novel affordances have catalysed movements for both democratic goods and ills. Historically the availability of new and different media has played a significant role in democratization struggles. The evolution of newspapers and their discussion in coffee houses and salons played a central role in the emergence of the bourgeois civil society. Nevertheless, their emancipatory potential was limited in exclusions of women and other marginalized groups. Elsewhere, modernizing media technologies were used for propaganda, contributing to overthrow of democratic regimes. More recently the emergence of new information and communication technologies since the1990s provided insurgent groups like the Zapatistas the opportunity to mobilize transnational solidarity networks and helped the alter-globalization movement to coordinate transnational protest events like the ‘Battle of Seattle’ in 1999. In the first decades of the millennium, social media have also been used to mobilize social movements (the twitter revolutions of the Arab Spring, Occupy, #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo are some examples). Yet novel social media have been used by populist, extreme authoritarian, and dogmatic anti-gender movements, to incite violence against minorities and in efforts to manipulate plebiscites and suppress votes. Debate has also arisen as to whether social media undermines political involvement by facilitating “lazy” forms of clicktivism.

Inter-disciplinary perspectives provide advantages in anticipating potential for disruptive change, allowing us to truly appreciate the affordances of the web for political actions that would promote democratic futures and those that would hinder them. Our work ultimately aims to seek intelligent design of sociotechnical systems to benefit a politics that steers societies away from harm and violence. A future without the web is unthinkable, but whether the web threatens or strengthens democratic futures remains highly con-tested. This workshop aimed at understanding and imagining how the web can be shaped to enhance rather than reduce rights and values of equality, liberty, solidarity, and freedom.

Six papers addressed these themes.

Masood Gheasi (based at the University of Southampton) examined gender differences in deliberation. Masood presented results of a quantitative meta study including 13 studies and 207-point estimates. Findings indicate that women are disadvantaged in deliberative politics.

Bindi Shah (University of Southampton) and Anirudh Shah (AIScientist and Independent Researcher) analysed non-elite Twitter users’ discourse on migration. Based on an analysis of nearly 50,000 tweets posted between October 2013 and March 2014, they focused on the response to the lifting of transitional controls on Romanian and eBulgarian migrants in the UK. Their findings revealad highly polarized attitudes towards immigration including pro-and anti-immigrant views. While both sides drew on similar sources of knowledge those who held pro-immigrant views drew on a wider range of sources.

Nina Schuller (University of Southampton) investigated the difficulties for Wikipedia in supporting universal models of knowledge generation. She showed how the politics of language and translation played a critical role for the generation of global knowledge which shapes economic and military relationships. She explored alternative strategies, that would allow and promote dialogues through equality of participation (including those without access to the Web, education or written resources) over issues of international justice– from climate change to poverty.

Gefion Thuermer (King’s College London) used a mixed methods approach to investigate the expectations of Green Party members in Germany. The Party has a strong commitment to grassroots participation and gender equality. While COVID-19 has accelerated the shift to online communication and decision making, The Green Party in Germany introduced new online decision-making processes years before the current pandemic. The results of Thuermer’s study revealed that few of the expected effects of online participation occurred, while new inequalities emerged.

Michele Zadra (University of Southampton) presented findings of an evaluation of e-participation tools which is based on web content analysis (WCA) of 340 English council’s websites. He also intro-duces a Citizen Engagement Index which is based on the analysis of qualitative data. His preliminary findings suggested that only a small number of websites fully implement participatory principles and current levels of engagement are unlikely to enhance political participation.

A final presentation by Rafa Mestre, (University of Southampton) surveyed research and policy responses to wicked problems of governance linked to increased polarization of politics, the spread of misinformation, and decreased trust in democratic institutions. His presentation showed that responses are shaped by disciplinary and sectoral perspectives. While computer scientists and philosophers of linguistics seek to understand how the quality of arguments can be assessed, mapped, and improved, theories of deliberative and participatory democracy have focused on institutional engineering to increase inclusion and capacity of citizen voices.

The six papers in this workshop concerned strategies and technologies that overcome, perpetuate, or introduce inequality. Together, they provided a multidimensional map of inclusion and exclusion. Buttressing democracy in the digital age requires a careful assessment of how digital inequality intersects with other forms of inequality.

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