The following is a dissertation proposal for a research project to be carried out over the coming months.
Guillermo Pablos Murphy will be conducting empirical research on a poll system for digital network governance, with the potential to enhance user participation, perceived democratic quality, and consensus-building. It addresses critical challenges in contemporary democratic governance and offers practical insights for digital networks and policymakers.
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This dissertation’s research is informed by the following question: What does a democratic poll suitable for digital network governance look like?
The digital poll’s purpose is to generate user participation in seeking a solution to an established problem and coming to a resolution through a vote. To fulfill this purpose, a poll must be easy to use, must facilitate user participation, must be perceived by its participants as amenable to change, and facilitate a consensus that will translate itself into a voted resolution. The dissertation’s aims are to test a new digital poll design for ease of use, user participation, perceived quality of democracy, and for consensus-building. Ease of use is pursued by prioritizing the clarity of the participants’ objectives, a transparent process, and the traceability of results. Participation is framed as both the level and quality of participation in the process, and the voter turnout. Perceptions on the process’ democratic quality, how democratic the exercise seems to users, is recorded through feedback. Consensus-building capacity is whether the poll design process can lead to an outcome where the participants are content with the process and the result, and feel their peers are similarly pleased.
The digital poll being tested has been designed for Tela Network, a digital messaging network. To test this digital poll system, the research will run three empirical tests with three groups of volunteer participants – the exercise. The exercise will be subject to observation by the researcher, to collect data to evaluate the level and quality of user participation within the poll process, as well as the voter turnout.
The dissertation will analyze collected data from the observation stage and post-exercise feedback to evaluate the poll design’s success in achieving in its aims as an easy-to-use design, that enables user participation, is perceived as democratic, and whose process enables a consensus to emerge. This dissertation will include a discussion on the results and propose further avenues of research.
context and background
Half of the world’s population owns a smartphone. (Mawston, 2021) In 2019, around one third of the world's population was using social media. There were 3.5 billion internet users, Facebook registered 2 billion users on its platform, and YouTube and WhatsApp both registered around 1 billion users each. (Oriz-Ospina, 2019) By April 2023, this had grown to 5.18 billion internet users, of which 4.8 billion used social media. (Statista, 2023) By these measures, in 2023, when estimates place the world population at just above 8 billion, 6 out of 10 people use some form of social media. (Worldometer, 2023) (Statista, 2023) There are a myriad of consequences to this hyper-connectivity. In contrast to early optimism about the potential for digital political participation, growth of the social media population has been accompanied by the creeping but constant fall in political participation in democratic countries. (Holmes and McNeal, 2018) The global average voter turnout has fallen significantly, being most visible in Europe, even as world population has grown. The likely consequence of this decline, if it continues, is the loss of all the appeal of elections as legitimate tools of democratic governance. (Solijonov, 2016).
In the context of an increasingly digitalized humanity, and a downward trend in a crucial marker in the health of democratic systems, digital models of decentralized governance have sprung up, especially since the advent of Bitcoin in 2009 and the explosion of blockchain technology. Even with the potential of new blockchain-backed technologies, some digital networks continue to operate on a corporate model, maximizing profits and achieving business objectives, optimized to allocate resources and deliver products or services – see Meta, Twitter. Some blockchain networks rely on informal governance that exists based on coordinated action after a slow process of consensus-making deliberation – see the Ethereum community. Others have built on-chain governance structures – see the DFINITY ‘Blockchain Nervous System’. In these systems, due to a lack of a formalized off-governance structure, it can take several weeks for the community to agree to a coordinated course of action. Even then, as has occurred in the Ethereum user base when it split onto two blockchains, it can leave behind a fractured community. De-centralized initiatives need to incorporate off-chain governance structures to promote a vision, as current on-chain models can easily be co-opted or lead to dissensus. (De Filippi et al., 2020)
"Ultimately, whether or not blockchain technology will lead to the rise of a new economic order is not—solely—a technical matter; it is, first and foremost, a political question." (De Filippi et al., 2020)
Existing research on digital democratic participation focuses on informative polling, political mobilization on social media, and how to migrate our current system of ballot voting onto a digital system. It is of theoretical importance to further research into making a voting system appropriate for a digital network. Furthermore, this exercise can add to research on how different voting system designs affect participation, how they are perceived in terms of democratic quality, and how they invite or dissuade polarization.
It is of practical importance for Tela Network and digital networks at large. An effective poll system would provide a digital network with adaptability and legitimacy. If the polling exercise can fulfil its purpose under short time periods, as this dissertation intends to test, it will constitute an advantage over informal governance structures that require longer to decide on policy. Additionally, by testing consensus-building capacity, it can pursue a design that does not polarise a network of users because of the decision-making process.
It is of human importance to consider how modern technologies and networks may offer an alternative solution to the issue of the democratic deficits of representative democracies. The danger posed to democratic systems by falling participation is dramatic. This dissertation will test an alternative and discuss the results. This dissertation aims to provide empirical evidence into an area of crucial importance for democratic politics.
some relevant literature
The literature on digital political participation identifies several dimensions that determine a person’s interest in participating. These are 'distrust of the political institutions', 'an aversion to online participation', 'passive interest in the discussion' (lack of desire to actively participate), and the 'perception that there is no problem left to solve'. Furthermore, the relevance of the topic to the person is directly correlated with the degree that they are willing to participate. The most important motive for not participating is holding doubts in the effectiveness of a digital participation process and its goals. (Rottinghaus & Escher, 2020) Pina and Torres identify key factors in the failures of citizen participation, two of these can be placed on several of Rottinghaus and Escher’s dimensions of analysis. A ‘lack of interest’ can be placed on the ‘passive interest’, ‘aversion to online’, and ‘no problem’ dimensions. ‘Limited political will or drive’ can be understood as gradients of ‘distrust’, ‘passive interest’, and ‘no problem’ spectrums. Pina and Torres additionally consider the ‘same (already known) participants as always’, ‘lack of personnel’, and ‘lack of financial resources’ as key elements in explaining participatory failures. (Pina & Torres, 2016)
The key conditions for success are identified as follows: 'transparency of results,' which is achieved through the traceability of results and the transparency of the process; 'support of citizens,' when properly advertised and assisted by moderated support, etc.; 'the clarity of the objectives'; and the 'channels used to mobilize participants.' (Pina & Torres, 2016) Studies about ‘internal political self-efficacy’ and the measurement of such, understood by Vecchione et al. as "personal beliefs regarding the ability to have an impact in the political process", regard it as a necessary predisposition to political involvement at any level. People lacking the capacity to express their political opinions and preferences, to support a movement, and to monitor representatives are likely to feel alienated and withdraw from political engagement. (Vecchione et al, 2014)
Voter turnout is a good indicator of citizens’ interest in political participation, and low rates of participation are signs of democratic ‘ill-health’ (Diamond, 2015). Starting with socio-economic causes, larger population sizes disincentivize participation, as a singular vote becomes less decisive. This is matches the pattern that as voting populations have grown in countries holding direct national parliamentary elections, the voter turnout rates for free, partly free, and not free elections have all decreased. Population stability is favorable to stable voter turnout. (Solijonov, 2016) To this point, democratic communities with significant outward migration see their voter turnout rates diminish. (Goodman & Hiskey, 2008) Economic adversity generates apathy and reinforces downward trends in participation. Political fragmentation, the multiplying of choices and confusion arising in regard to what is at stake, further harms political participation. Clearing up that apathy requires a clear perception of the political issues at stake, a belief that of the options up for vote some could result in consequences, and perception of electoral fairness. (Solijonov, 2016) These components reflect a definition of external political efficacy, where people believe that the political system is amenable to change through individual influence. (Groskurth et al. 2021) (Vecchione et al, 2014) Low political efficacy, both internal and external as understood by Vecchione et al., negatively correlate with political participation. The capacity to express one’s political beliefs and act in their consequence, and the perception of a political system as capable of change through individual action are positively correlated to voter turnout.
David Easton’s ‘political system’ to informs this study’s understanding of digital networks. Easton uses interactions as the basic unit for analysing political life, not structures. Easton distinguishes political interactions from all other kinds of social interactions is that they are predominantly oriented toward the authoritative allocation of values for a society. These value allocations are distinguished from other allocations as political because they are considered binding. Specifically, Easton would consider a digital network a para-political system. Para-political systems are concerned only with the problems of authoritative allocations within the group. A digital network like Tela, in seeking to incorporate democratic polls, is concerned with the allocation of values for the members of its network. (Easton, 1979)
A governance structure that incorporates the poll design being tested would match Kitsing’s definition of ‘networked governance’, a scenario they describe as combining “generous budget constraint with de-centralised and calculative decision-making processes”. Digital polls would be the system by which citizens would get involved in policymaking. It would represent a visible and actual ability to shape public governance. The proposed poll design would offer more opportunities for active citizens than passive. Governance would be focused on increasing legitimacy and satisfaction among its citizens. It is a model with multiple stakeholders, a community with strong social capital, and a de-centralised, but calculative government. (Kitsing, 2020) The dissertation’s design is to test a poll system that simulates a ‘networked governance’ scenario for users to get involved in decision-making.
Tela Network’s trajectory mirrors the description of the path to decentralised governance of digital governance by De Filippi et al. Initially stewarded by a one or more leaders who establish vision and modus operandi, along with a small group of core contributors responsible for bootstrapping the project. Once a larger community has grown around the initiative, a more formalized and inclusive structure of governance is constructed to maintain and develop the commons-based project in a large and distributed network of peers. (De Filippi et al., 2020) The dissertation is study on a potential poll design appropriate for this sort of network. It is likely just one element of the structure of governance needed.
overview of the research design and methods
A two-round proposal and voting system to test empirically with participants.
Volunteers will engage in a simulated poll process using Reddit's private subreddit tool lasting 7 days, and concluding with a 24 hour poll. Tela Network has offered to incentivize volunteer participation with network shares, this will aid in finding a suitably sized cohort of volunteers. The poll design assumes Kitsing’s assertion that a poll working within a network governance structure offers more to active users. By incentivizing participation, the study hopes to motivate active participation. Multiple instances of the poll will be carried out with different challenges being posed for discussion – to vary the topic. An initial survey will collect socio-demographic data, familiarity with using the internet, previous instances of political participation, and informed consent. Data on participation will be collected by observing the poll process and result. Post-experiment, a feedback questionnaire will be distributed to measure ease of use, consensus, participant satisfaction, criticisms, and the perceived quality of democracy. One participant from each exercise will engage in a semi-structured interview to deepen feedback of ease of use, the user experience, and satisfaction.
A stratified purposive sampling method will be used to select the participants (Selecting specific groups of people on purpose to make sure to get a good mix of different characteristics or viewpoints in the study). Once ethical approval has been granted and subsequently approval from the Clerk of the Senate has been obtained, the researcher will list and contact students in three Schools at the University of Glasgow: The School of Social and Political Sciences, The School of Computing Science, and the School of Law. Students who agree to participate will be placed in participant groups A, B, and C. These three groups, aimed at comprising around 20 students each, will each be made up of students from one of the three schools. The sampling from the final qualitative interview will be a simple random selection from those who wish to be interviewed, resulting in one participant from each of the three exercises.
This sampling methods allows the study to correct for different charateristics in its subjects. Ease of us may differ among students with different professional environments. Level and quality of participation likewise. The poll’s perceived democratic quality may vary among students with different educational backdrops. Most importantly, different student populations allow the researcher to pose multiple challenges. Students from the School of Law will be presented with a legal problem-solving challenge, likewise Computer Science students will be posed a technical problem to deliberate on, while Social and Political Science students will discuss a political issue. This removes the risk of a problem-solving challenge that poses to much or too little possibility of discussion or motivates a group to engage to a lesser or greater extent. In short, it allows analysis to focus on the forum and not on the question being discussed in it by participants.
Step 1) Initial Survey
At the outset of the study, participants are asked to complete a brief online survey providing information about their socio-demographic background, familiarity with internet use, previous instances of political participation, and informed consent.
Step 2) Simulated Digital Poll
Three groups of participants will take part in a simulated digital poll process on a private subreddit lasting 8 days. The groups of participants will each be given a different 'Challenge' to which they must propose solutions to. On the 8th day, they will vote on the most popular solutions their group has come up with.
a) The researcher will send participants a randomly generated Reddit account along with a link to the private subreddit where they and their participant group will engage in discussions.
b) Participants will be informed of the problem their group will be tasked with coming up with a solution to (called the Challenge).
c) The researcher will inform participants of starting and closing dates for the discussion (called the Proposal Stage), which will last 7 days, and the final vote (called the Voting Stage) on the 8th day.
d) Once the Proposal Stage has begun, the researcher will routinely remind participants to participate in discussions. Participants are asked to engage with the forum for at least 5 minutes each day of the study week. Their task as participants is to:
i. Write up a proposal as a Post in the subreddit.
ii. Answer any questions about their proposal in the comments of their Post.
iii. Edit their proposal accordingly if any discussion in the comments has made them reconsider the details of their proposed solution.
iv. Upvote other participants’ proposals when they consider them to be a serious solution to the Challenge.
v. Comment under other participants’ proposals to ask any questions they might have about their proposals.
e) At the end of the Proposal Stage, the THREE most upvoted posts (the three most popular proposed solutions) will be selected for the Voting Stage. The Voting Stage is a poll where participants and other participants will vote on the THREE solutions that the Proposal Stage produced. This poll will be hosted on the same subreddit as the Proposal Stage and will be open for 24 hours. The most voted-for option, in a networked governance structure, would be made network policy on the issue being discussed.
Step 3) Feedback
Following participants' participation in the digital poll, they will be asked to complete an online feedback questionnaire. This questionnaire will seek their input on various aspects of the poll, including its ease of use, consensus-building, their satisfaction, any criticisms they may have, and their perception of the quality of democracy in the process. Participants will also be able to opt-in to the selection process for the Interview.
Step 4) (Optional) Interview
If participants are randomly selected, they will be invited to engage in an online semi-structured interview. This interview will provide an opportunity for them to offer more in-depth feedback on their experience, focusing on ease of use, user experience, and overall satisfaction.
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