Strengthening Civil Society through Online Consensus

By Tim Hardy

The internet is like Germany

(Image by Miriam Christensen. Source: Mark Poster (2001) in Debating Civil Society: On the Fear for Civic Decline and Hope for the Internet Alternative, by Peter Ester and Henk Vinken,International Sociology, vol. 18, no. 4. )

The effects of the internet, says Mark Poster

are more like those of Germany than those of hammers: the effect of Germany upon the people within it is not to make them Germans (at least for the most part); the effect of hammers is not to make people hammers… but to force metal spikes into wood. As long as we understand the internet as a hammer, we fail to discern the way it is like Germany.

In an Economist debate with Evgeny Morozov, John Palfrey states:

The optimistic premise is that we can bend the arc of the internet towards democracy. It is not the technology itself, but the way we use it and build it, that matters. The way that skilful activists are using the internet and digital media today, especially mobile technologies, favours those who are seeking to express themselves and to organise their peers, not those who are seeking to close down debate and to prevent crowds from gathering in the streets.

Virtual architectures, like physical ones, shape discourse although the possibility of subversion is always present. In One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse warned of the danger of automation in that a technical elite might simply reproduce the status quo through the tools they build. When we build online platforms, we need to remember this: we are not making hammers but engaged in virtual nation-building.

Too often online debate degenerates into hate speech with the worst abusers usually the first to hide behind hypocritical claims to “freedom of speech” as they attack those who genuinely defend such freedoms.

Real world debate is little better. David Cameron’s insincerity when he claimed he wanted an end to “Punch and Judy politics” is painfully clear from the way in which this bully handles Prime Minister’s Questions, using casual transphobia and other ad hominem attacks to humiliate those who disagree with him. Perhaps our online structures for discussion have already reproduced the status quo. It is undeniable that they often resemble the bucks-locking-antlers aggression that passes for political debate in parliament.

Marketing has a role to play in this too. I find Morozov tiresome because he has many brilliant ideas yet squanders them by courting controversy, presumably to generate publicity and drive book sales. Discourse, particularly online, is tainted by advertising. Micah M. White of Adbusters goes as far as to express deep cynicism about online activism because he fears that the structures of marketing are too deeply embedded.

Clicktivism is the pollution of activism with the logic of consumerism. Activism is debased with advertising and computer science. What defines clicktivism is an obsession with metrics. Each link clicked and email opened is meticulously monitored. Subject lines are A/B tested and talking points focus-grouped. Clicktivists dilute their messages for mass appeal and make calls to action that are easy, insignificant and impotent. Their sole campaign objective is to inflate participation percentages, not to overthrow the status quo. In the end, social change is marketed like a brand of toilet paper.

The fundamental problem with this technocratic approach is that metrics value only what is measurable. Clicktivism neglects the vital, immeasurable inner events and personal epiphanies that great social ruptures are actually made of. The history of revolutions attests that upheaval is always improbable, unpredictable and risky.

This is, however, a cynicism that identifies a problem without looking for solutions.

One needs only to watch this nauseating video about marketing to see the kind of ways in which the web is infected by the industry for the manufacture of artificial desire.

What would the late, great Bill Hicks have said to this?

Hicks is extremely funny but no poster boy for calm discussion.

Compare all this to the gentler consensus model of debate where assent is won through sincere, respectful conversation involving all participants and not by the biggest thug enforcing their will on the group. Now ask yourself if we can do better online. I think we can.

If we can build structures into the internet that guide participants into less antagonistic discourse then we can help build a stronger, more inclusive, civil society worldwide.

After 26 March, Beyond Clicktivism will be looking at ways in which to create platforms for online discussion that more closely resemble the consensus decision-making process. Thinkers, non-technical and otherwise, are all invited.

5 thoughts on “Strengthening Civil Society through Online Consensus

  1. To be fair to Micah, although he does not believe that websites as campaigning tools can be fixed he does instead consider more radical uses of technology.

    The latest print edition of Adbusters contains a tactical essay by him “To The Barricades!” which he was kind enough to send me. In it, he suggests that the best response to the recent police tactics of aggressive pre-emptive arrests, containment and infiltration lies in technological solutions similar to those we have with Sukey. He sees flashmobs as giving birth the barricades of the 21st century. It’s an excellent read to which I intend to respond in depth when I have a little more time.

    • This recent article by George Monbiot is particularly relevant:

      Astroturf roots movements(ostensibly grass roots movements that are in fact carried out by governments and businesses to imitate public vocal support for some unpleasant new policy or product) are almost certainly happening and are going to become more sophisticated and influential.

      What really concerns me is that given the unaccountability of social media and the unbalanced weighting given to it by the traditional press in its reporting how easy it is becoming to push through an agenda. No longer do you need an angry mob, now you can mobilise a hundred thousand imagined internet personae and…

      • Hi Brian. Thanks, I’ve read the Monbiot piece and the orginal article it refers to and while I am convinced that the people engaged in astroturfing are a pretty low form of life, I’m not convinced that they actually represent any real danger.

        Tricks like using anti-Tory hashtags in ukuncut public meetings have kept trolls away and can be applied to stop this kind of quasi-automated trolling.

        Moreover, while it’s trivially easy to use services like lastpass to manage dozens of different logins, creating dozens of convincing personae is far, far harder. You could imagine someone running a couple of virtual Mark Stones, but not a legion of them.

        Nice find though. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Gavin, that’s a fantastic response! Thank you so much.

    The Highlight Project looks really interesting. Next time I see you we should definitely discuss this further.

    I think we need to arrange another session at the free school soon after 26 March – or maybe an unconference.

  3. Recently, there’s been alot of criticism aimed at ‘clicktivism’, but I confess that the gross crime of measurement is something I hadnt considered. But this is good. It’s healthy to challenge everything, and I want to explain why I reject Micah M. White’s critique.

    Whatever campaign I’m involved in, or any issue I’m fighting on, I want the largest number of people possible to hear about it, to register their agreement, and to take it further. Things like analytics and metrics help me to do this.
    Finding out what words, phrases, images and stories will most compel people to get involved – this is really valuable stuff. Organisations like Avaaz and 38 Degrees use metrics extensively and, as a result, they have a firm grip on how to appeal to people, how to get them on board, how to convince them their own opinions are valuable, and how to give them the confidence to take it offline and attend meetings and start their own local group. Measuring the success they have in engaging with people is just part of improving, and reaching more yet more people and having a bigger impacting on more issues.

    Yes, true, these are tactics developed by advertisers, but to avoid them purely for this reason is stubbornly ideological and petulant.
    And by the way, capitalists have been stealing ideas, songs and iconography from activists for decades (if not centuries) and using them to sell more stuff. I’m glad we have a chance to take stuff back.

    But there’s a key disconnect here – Micah White is looking to use the internet for nothing less than ‘social revolution’. That’s why he doesn’t want to employ any aspect of capitalist strategy in the process. Fair enough. But I’m keen to use it to address every issue, however small.
    This might be emblematic of the infancy of discussions around internet activism – to him it means smashing the whole system; to me it can mean defending your local library. There’s room for it all, but we probably need a bigger vocabulary.

    Sorry, that was a bit of a ramble. And, unfortunately, I still haven’t finished.

    I think part of the success behind groups like Avaaz is the extent to which people feel they’re left behind by the political process. Many of us have a low opinion of most politicians, we don’t see our views reflected in mainstream media and most online discussions proves futile and aggravating.

    The greatest indictment of online debate is that the comment function I’m using here isn’t too different from the one you can use on the Guardian website, on YouTube or on Coca-Cola’s fan page on Facebook.
    The Times could only use the slogan, ‘Join the Debate’ because they could be sure the resultant debate would be unproductive and easy to control.
    When we’re having discussions using a system that companies are reluctant to place on their own sites, we’ll know we’re getting somewhere.

    This is where Micah White and I overlap – tools for online discussion need to be changed, and the proof is that the our enemies encourage us to usem. But, if we needed any more proof, we also know that it’s unproductive. This differs from the ‘clicktivism metrics’ argument because we know using metrics have helped us succeed, win campaigns and change things. We need to be choosy in what we take from the capitalists.

    That’s my point of view. Apologies for the length of it. Concision seems hard to come by at the moment. Below, I’ve added some more stuff on the nature of comments functions, if you’re interested. Cheers.

    My main bugbear with comments is the constraints of the chronological. In other words, the first comment left below an article/video will get read by the most users. 2nd comment = 2nd most read, and so on. There’s loads of functionality around driving people to the site – send to a friend, share, post on twitter, ‘like’ on Facebook etc – but very little functionality of viewing the actual comments. You cant, for example, change the order in which comments appear from ‘chronological’ to ‘perceptive’.

    Typical comments boards have a huge amount of repetition because people (understandably) don’t want to trawl through the unordered noise to see if their point of view has been put forward. But more than that, most comments read as if the writer is aware of the futility of the system – hence the descent into ‘hate speech’. If writers thought there their contribution would be read by everyone who read the original article, I think we’d start to see some productive, respectful, creative discussions.

    Me and some pals are trying to come up with a better way. Based around the idea that, if a genius summarises the whole topic on page 8 of the comments, there’s no way to ‘highlight’ it, our idea is called The Highlight Project and you can read more here. It’s in its infancy.

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