A Global Village
Issue 11 » E-Democracy

Liquid Democracy

New Politics in a Connected World

Dr. Marc Rea, Imperial College London

Over the past five years we have seen several examples of people engaging in mass protests under the auspices of social justice. Demonstrations such as those in Egypt, Brazil and Syria have clearly expressed a large-scale dissatisfaction with current government, and illustrated the huge potential power of digital, internet-based communication.

Leading to some parallels with the global socio-political revolution seen during the Sixties, the digital technology available to today’s youth provides both a means to co-ordinate action, but also a non-violent means of protest and a platform to drive social change.

What forms the technological basis of this emerging form of liquid democracy, and how might it be used to bring about a new political revolution?

The ancient Greeks played a key role in developing the form of government which we refer to as ‘democracy’ today. The word itself originates from the Greek term demokratia, consisting of the two words demos (people) and kratos (power), meaning ‘power of the people’. The founding principles of Greek civilisation were such that in each city, or region, men of a certain age would gather to raise issues and vote on resolutions. This system was seen as the fairest way to set policies which affected all, and was successful in its time. A system such as this is known today as a ‘pure democracy’, where each person receives one vote and the majority prevails.

Over the ages, as societies and economies have become more complex and individuals have specialised in particular fields, the most common form of democracy that has emerged is referred to as a ‘representative democracy’. In this case, individual voters elect politicians to govern for periods normally lasting 4-5 years. However, this system, which many of us consider as the only truly democratic approach, has failed at various times due to a combination of factors.

In response to [...]
media oppression,
armed with weapons of
mass communication,
emerging groups
are proposing to re-
introduce aspects of
pure democracy into
the political spectrum

One such factor is the lack of feedback or sustained communication between politicians and voters in certain parts of the world. In these cases the media is often state-controlled and is hence distrusted by voters. Italy is a prime example of media failure in terms of democracy, with MP (and former prime minister) Silvio Berlusconi owning, either directly or indirectly, five out of the six most influential TV channels (and a number of newspapers) in the region.

In response to such media oppression, armed with weapons of mass communication, emerging groups are proposing to re-introduce aspects of pure democracy into the political spectrum, aiming to level the field of democratic expression. They hope to provide new meaning to the process of political participation and change the rules for legitimacy, accountability and transparency.

The Power of Decentralisation

The internet provides us with a decentralised, accessible meeting point where information can be distributed, arguments can be presented, and most importantly votes can be counted, all in a highly customisable environment. Exploiting these features to rethink the way democracy operates, it is possible to move political processes online. In this manner policy proposals are available to be considered and analysed by all, and evidence can be presented in an open framework that enables extensive discussion and voting.

Moreover, many alternative ways of counting votes can be devised. One favoured implementation uses the concept of  liquid democracy, a hybrid system which retains the individual power of a pure democracy, but uses representation to remove the necessity for constant participation. This is the system used by free2vote, a recently formed non-profit organisation based in London which is focusing initially on the UK general elections to be held in 2015.

The idea of a practical e-democracy is still in its infancy, though it has already garnered support in Northern Europe, particularly in Sweden, The Netherlands, and in Germany, where in the last general election candidates of the Pirate Party (who propose a direct e-democracy) collected 2% of the vote. While not enough to get a seat in parliament, this vote was largely obtained from young voters. Shifting demographics mean this early result could signal the possibility of more mainstream support for direct democracy in the future.

In Italy, the political movement M5S (Movimento 5 Stelle) is another example of an attempt to construct a coherent political movement based on ‘pure’ democracy through the internet. Launched in 2009, the movement has consistently grown, obtaining an impressive 25.55% of the vote in the 2013 Italian general elections. An alternative approach has been to use social media, such as was demonstrated recently in Brazil, to both influence and measure public opinion in real time. By-passing the traditional sampling strategies of data and media organisations, it was possible to gauge the ‘pulse of the nation’ as events changed on the ground, and provide a direct line of communication between protesters and the world-at-large.

Co-founder of the Italian Five Star Movement (M5S) which advocates a form of ‘pure’ democracy, Beppe Grillo is a comedian and political activist. (Credits: Niccolo' Caranti/Wikicommons)

Design Hurdles

Arguably, the technological basis for implementing this form of democracy already exists. Various websites, some of which are open source, have sprung up to handle and compile or assimilate opinion data. Most systems, on a fundamental level, consist of databases containing current Polls, Opinions and Votes which may be filled in by users. However, similar to issues surrounding the management of online forums, some curation will be required in the long run to deal with issues such as the simultaneous creation of an unmanageable number of closely overlapping poll topics – thus raising inevitable issues of wider representation.

Security issues are also paramount since they are understandably a major worry of most people, and it is accepted that major attacks would have an adverse effect on public perception. There is a growing movement towards login systems incorporating face-recognition and other advanced methods of identification.

Several other important issues remain, such as how to design the process of curating accurate information, and how to encourage the expression of a representative spectrum of opinions required to produce a balanced vote. Research into these areas will likely have to proceed on a trial and error basis.

Despite some
opposition,
the voice of
the people
is becoming
louder than
before

Power and Influence

Politics is about power and governance, and often those who have power set the rules to govern. It is only through open, and independent, traditional and new forms of media that emerging models of democracy can hope to gain exposure and support. While some politicians have been quick to see the potential of social media to garner a youth following, some have been slow to realise its power and others outright hostile.  For example, the embattled Prime Minister of Turkey, Mayor Erdoğan, reacted angrily to online pressure during the occupation of Taksin Square in Istanbul by citizens protesting against government action: "There is now a menace which is called Twitter. The best example of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society".

However, despite some opposition, the voice of the people is becoming louder than before, and public opinion can be influenced and gauged in new ways such as through social media. If groups like free2vote can make use of this fact, by tying the power of public opinion to individuals who are committed to act only upon the consensus at the expense of their own judgements, then public opinion may take a seat in Parliament (similar to what is actually happening in Italy with the M5S movement). This new approach  may be called a ‘digital democracy’, and aims to take the people to Westminster.

Dr. Marc Rea is an MRI Physicist working at Imperial on Interventional MR Systems. He is the joint founder of free2vote and a proud new dad.

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