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That's So Meta: To Test Digital Democracy, Crowdsourcing Comments on Digital Democracy

BY Jessica McKenzie | Monday, July 7 2014

Balanced facts on sensitive subjects, but could a community like Wikipedia come to a consensus on fraught policy decisions?

For more than a month now, Wikimedia Meta-Wiki, the global Wikimedia community site, has hosted a little experiment in digital democracy. Carl Miller, co-founder of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the think tank Demos-UK, and Wikimedia UK's Stevie Benton wanted to see whether the mechanisms that govern Wikipedia could be applied to political policy. The opportunity to do so arose when the House of Commons Speaker John Bercow announced the Commission on Digital Democracy, an investigation into how digital technology can be used to improve democratic processes, and solicited comments from the public.

Miller decided it was a good time to test his theory that “Wikipedia is a masterclass in digital democracy,” so he reached out to Benton at Wikimedia and together they created a wiki to crowdsource evidence for the Commission on the theme of 'digital scrutiny.' At the end of June they reviewed the material generated and decided it was of high enough quality to submit to the Commission, which they will do by the end of the week. However, the experiment will continue at meta.wikimedia.org, as there are still three themes left for the Commission to investigate this year: 'representation,' 'engagement (between citizens and Parliament)' and 'facilitating dialogue amongst citizens.'

At Demos-UK, Miller works to bring people closer to politics, and vice versa. Digital technology seemed to promise a wealth of ways to do just that, and yet a functional digital democracy remains solidly in the realm of fantasy.

As Miller wrote in Wired-UK:

I may now be able to look at a tweeted picture of [MP] George Osborne as he signs off the budget, or sign an e-petition that may (no promises) be debated in the House of Commons, but the basic ways that I can express my consent, pick and influence my representatives would be familiar to generations of Brits who have never heard of Facebook.

Miller points out to techPresident that while the Internet has given us platforms to express ourselves as unique individuals, there are few technologies that allow us “to come together as a collective...to bring us into consensus.”

The exception to this, he says, is Wikipedia, where the encyclopedia content is crowdsourced, and even the community standards are arrived at through consensus.

Miller wanted to know whether that same “social and technical cooperation” could work when applied to policy.

Engagement with the wiki page and the corresponding talk page (where editors can discuss the finer points of the wiki) was modest, but Benton told techPresident that the quality was greater than the quantity.

All told, on the content page there were a total of 50 changes by 14 editors. On the discussion page there were 36 changes by 11 people.

One suggestion is to use a system of links (much like the one use by Wikipedia) to link Acts of Parliament to secondary legislation, associated debates and related websites; another is to use a wiki-like page to comment on draft bills. There is also a call for accessible and machine-readable data.

Increasing participation

Benton and Miller emailed the global and UK Wikipedia mailing lists about their experiment (non-Brits can contribute), and they promoted it on social media. However, in spite of arousing interest and drawing eyes to the page (1775 views), few actually made the effort to participate.

This is not unusual for the Internet, where it is generally assumed that less than one percent of a website's user base actively creates content, while the rest lurks, but Benton and Miller are still interested in figuring out ways to increase participation.

“There has been quite a lot of support for the idea,” Benton told techPresident. “People in touch via Twitter or email, and sharing over social media, but that interest hasn't led directly to the level of direct participation.”

Benton says that could be because the platform isn't ideal. “For people who haven't edited Wikipedia, the use of wiki markup [the editing platform] can seem confusing or arcane,” he told techPresident.

“It still feels very 1990s,” said Miller.

Making better use of the visual editor—an easier editing platform still in beta on Wikipedia but not yet in use on the community site where the experiment is taking place—could reduce that barrier to participating.

Benton shied away from pushing the experiment on Wikipedia (the encyclopedia) in addition to the community wiki. “We didn't want to disrupt the norms or values...of the people contributing to the encyclopedia,” he said.

Many Wikipedians objected when, earlier this year, it was suggested that they participate in the online protest against surveillance, The Day We Fight Back. At least one user expressed the opinion that they should not get involved (and shouldn't have protested the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) in 2012) because it goes against Wikipedia's neutral point of view ethos.

Benton and Miller, however, are not looking to turn Wikipedia into a political platform.

“What we're really trying to do with this project is a proof of concept,” explained Benton. “The work that we're doing will not affect Wikipedia. It's not a political statement.”

“One of the reasons that we're hosting the discussion on meta wiki is so it's not seen as disruptive to the encyclopedia,” he added. “That has led to a smaller number of participants in the conversation, [but we can still see] how Wikipedia can inform digital democracy.”

Even so, skepticism cropped up in the talk page. One user wrote:

My impression is that neither Bercos nor Miller have spent so much as a day editing WP. At its best WP is a reasonably smooth running example of anarcho-communism, at its worst it is a dictatorship of the obnoxious subverted by crytpo-spammers. The one thing it is not, and by design never will be, is a democracy.

To this Benton replied:

Hello there, I just wanted to pick up on the initial point in this section that Wikipedia isn't a democracy. We're aware of this, and aren't trying to pitch it as such. What is of interest to us here is the way that content and policy are arrived at by consensus. We're looking at whether those principles can be applied to digital engagement with the democratic and legislative process. If we find that it cannot, that's still a valid finding. But we're hoping that enough people engage with the process to offer something a bit more interesting as a conclusion.

Next steps

Benton and Miller will submit the content of the wiki and the discussion page to the Commission by the end of the week. Once the Commission has collected and reviewed all the comments from organizations, academics and other experts, they will submit their recommendations to the UK Parliament in January 2015.

Benton and Miller plan on tweaking their approach when they tackle the last three themes, but are still a bit vague on the details. Benton has reached out to people who contributed in the past month to ask what changes or improvements they would like to see, or if they have suggestions for increasing participation.

When the process is over, Benton and Miller will publish a paper on their findings.

One thing of which Benton and Miller are very much aware is the lack of diversity in the Wikipedia community. Benton tells techPresident that between 86 and 92 percent of editors are male.

They stress that this experiment is, as noted before, a proof of concept. Moving forward, Benton said, “diversity would be a really important issue that we would need to address” on any digital democracy platform.

He added: "One of the challenges would be to make sure that a variety of voices are heard. . . [when] crowdsourcing policy there is always a risk that a strongly opinionated group could skew the content accordingly."

The real stress test, says Miller, “is pushing this experiment into the political domain, so where it is not just a question of right or wrong.” He gives several examples, including immigration policy and tax law.

The question, for Miller, is “can Wikipedia manage diverse views that are really political?”

Benton points out that there are plenty of Wikipedia entries on “controversial or emotive” subjects, like climate change, that are “quite balanced.” Editors try to write in a neutral point of view, and if some skew left and some skew right, they tend to balance each other out and come to a comfortable middle ground.

The question is, would that still be the case if the subject at hand was climate change solutions?

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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