Democracy goes digital


Politics has always been an arena for disagreement and heated arguments, and this sometimes results in insults directed at elected officials – but over the last couple of years this has become magnified following the advent of social media. Indeed, in July this year an hour-long debate was held in Parliament about the issue of online abuse of MPs. Several MPs reported vast amounts of abuse and personal insults directed at them on platforms such as Twitter, and the Prime Minister asked the committee on standards in public life to carry out an inquiry into the issue, which is ongoing.

How citizens communicate with our elected representatives is a vital issue – it goes to the very heart of democracy. Social media platforms have become our new political coffee houses – the common areas where politics is discussed. And the fears and worries about how people are using these new platforms to attack our elected representatives is part of a much bigger issue: how might such new tools of communication alter the functioning of our democracy?

As political parties and individual MPs have logged on we are presented with never previously imagined opportunities to engage with, and have an input in, the work of our elected officials. We can direct tweets or Facebook posts to our MP about issues that are important to us, we can share our thoughts and musings in online discussions with other voters, and we can do it all whenever we want.

These online political commons could serve as tools to improve our democracy, helping out elected officials to understand and represent their electorate’s views. But at present this is far from what is happening.  We are instead finding ourselves in a situation where MPs struggle to make sense of the vast volume of messages sent to them on forums such as Twitter. They do not have capacity to read, less so respond to, even a fraction of it, and the volumes of abuse doubtlessly make the task even less appealing. Equally, they cannot afford to ignore their voters via these forums – especially so in a time when trust in politicians is at an all-time low and there is real concern that politicians aren’t engaging with the real-world issues affecting voters.

Earlier this summer Demos presented the report Signal and Noise: Measuring and improving MPs’ engagement with social media, with the aim of creating a platform through which MPs could make better sense of the vast amounts of tweets sent to them over Twitter – to filter out the ‘signals’ from the ‘noise’. By using techniques such as natural language processing and machine learning (applications of artificial intelligence where algorithms can be taught, through manually coded examples, to classify texts into categories in a way which mimics human decisions), filters were created to categorise the information in the tweets, and structure and display them according to chosen topics.

The idea was to determine if these technologies could help MPs actually engage with their electorate in a more comprehensive and rigorous way. Such a platform could be used to gauge the key-issues important to the electorate over a longer period as well as in close to real-time, and enable the MPs to answer these concerns in a coherent and timely manner. This could – if done well – likely lead to decreasing the amount of people who feel like they are not being listened to by politicians, and especially so among the young – the most active group on social media platforms, who also feel the least listened to.

Returning to the issue of abuse – could this approach somehow help with that aspect of social media usage as well? And the answer is yes, it probably could. By creating classifiers that filter or flag abusive messages it could be a way to decrease the amount of abuse MPs receive and make the experience of using social media a lot more positive and constructive for them. There is however a difficult balance to strike between what should be counted as abuse and as reasonable, although perhaps forceful, criticism, as abuse can be very subjective. There is always a risk of either under- or overestimating the abusiveness of messages, especially when you are using automated technology. Even so, such filtering could make a big difference for those MPs that receive the largest proportion of abuse.

Technical solutions such as the Demos’ digital dashboard carry vast potential in today’s online society. There is doubtlessly still some way to go – this is work in progress. But online activity in regards to politics show every sign of continuing to increase as new websites for digital democracy, online political movements and the like appear globally, and it will likely play a large role in shaping the way politics is conducted. It is of high importance that our current representatives keep up to date with the changes that are happening in society, in order to continue to be actual representatives of the demos. Technology is not a panacea for societal issues, but it can certainly help.

You can access Signal and Noise here.