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The Flight of Deliberative Democracy

2023-12-05T13:56:58.292Z

Highlights: Never has deliberative democracy been so bad as it has been since it began to be named. Public deliberation, once concentrated in a few actors – the media, parliaments and elites – has now fled to other spaces. There is more deliberation in networks than in political institutions. The algorithms that govern social media should be discussed by political societies and democratically elected by them. Every democratic country should be able to have a frank and open discussion about how algorithms show us information, messages first.


The democratic regulation of algorithms is the first need for institutional reform of our time


Never has deliberative democracy been so bad as it has been since it began to be named. This does not speak ill of the model: deliberative democracy appeared in the 1980s as a cry of protest, which is still valid.

This movement, which grew in the theoretical world in the 1990s at the hands of some of the best thinkers of our time, such as Mansbridge and Cohen, could not have foreseen the irruption in this century of the greatest deliberative transformation of recent times: the emergence of social networks and their consolidation as the essential nucleus of the arena of public debate.

It is no coincidence that the great philosopher of communication and democratic deliberation has had to write a new book, entitled "A New Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere", six decades after his "History and Critique of Public Opinion". Now, Habermas warns us about a current shake-up of the public sphere spurred by the power of social media to exert an unchecked influence on our thinking and democratic deliberation.

Let's go back. In his remarks on representative government, John Stuart Mill said of parliament as the arena of public opinion. Public deliberation, once concentrated in a few actors – the media, parliaments and elites – has now fled to other spaces; There is more deliberation in networks than in political institutions. Deliberation also escaped in part from the media, which had the predominance of the deliberative space during the twentieth century. Nor will this be solved by the creation of new and interesting institutional designs that encapsulate deliberation, such as random citizens' assemblies, even though today they are the main promise of democratic innovation.

Simply put, things will never go back to the way they were before. And even if we sometimes look back on that past world with nostalgia – the "great" minds, the sophisticated writings, the "enlightened" opinion – we don't forget that the price of all this was exclusion. At the same time that we have lost democracy with the networks, we have gained it in other ways: the price we pay for having to endure a precarious public debate may be the possibility of obtaining new leaderships, being able to dispute the previously hegemonic voices, to control them, to introduce new themes and arguments and to counteract the dominant ones.

Parliaments tried to improve with quotas, with electoral rules, but all this, of course, has limits. With two hundred people, or even with a thousand, you cannot include, nor probably represent, the full diversity of the political world. The networks, on the other hand, have allowed for a social openness and a diversification of the debate that only a parliament could have achieved if, like Borges's imaginary congress, it included everyone.

For this reason, stopping political deliberation will no longer be possible or desirable. It is imperative to change our approach: instead of trying to bring deliberation to democracy, we must bring democracy to deliberation. And today the deliberation is on the networks.

Never have the rules of deliberation been so far beyond the control of the people as they are now. There is a certain naivety on our part: we are in no way facing a regulatory vacuum: social networks are already regulated: someone decides, only that it is not us. Networks are neither neutral nor "free". Its rules are chosen by individuals, without even criteria of corporate governance, established social ethics, or transparency.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world naively continues to think that the political fate of countries depends on their traditional constitutional aspects. Far from it.

The point is that, if social media affects deliberation and our own democracies in such a way, they must be the object of institutional design and cannot continue to be dominated by the savage law that represents the absence of democratic regulation.

It's either Elon Musk or us.

The algorithms that govern social media should be discussed by political societies and democratically elected by them.

How? As we do everything in a democracy, through laws. Every democratic country should be able to have a frank and open discussion about how algorithms that show us information first, messages first, reaction possibilities first should be regulated.

Two arguments against: the classic freedoms of expression, and freedom of enterprise.

Freedom of speech? Freedom of expression also has a social dimension: this consists in the freedom of peoples and political communities to express themselves publicly in a deliberative environment that is the product of their own organization and not of external domination. Freedom of expression, understood in this way, is not only my freedom to be able to express my opinion; It is also our freedom to rely on the institutional presuppositions to debate public affairs. An exaggerated gain of the former should not be obtained at the expense of a defeat of the latter.

The other argument tells us that networks are global goods that cannot be restricted by national provisions. But don't multinational telecommunications or service companies have to comply with a package of measures to enter a market? Why couldn't Twitter or X or whatever it's called be asked to do the same? Companies that provide these services, like any other company in any other market, should be able to comply with these regulations.

The democratic regulation of algorithms is the first need for institutional reform of our time. It is more pressing than any other political or electoral reform on a national scale. All the electoral rules can be changed, aspects can be introduced into the parliamentary design, innovative modifications can be introduced at the institutional level, but as long as social networks are governed from California we will have this precarious and undemocratic public deliberation. It's as if we allow Zuckerberg to regulate the way we vote, or our parliaments.

Felipe Rey Salamanca is a professor at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Colombia; he received his PhD from Pompeu Fabra University and was a visiting researcher at Princeton University. He is the author of The Representative System (Gedisa, 2023) and co-founder of the democratic innovation laboratory iDeemos.

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Source: elparis

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