Deliberative democracy and the media

Deliberative democracy is based on the principle that politics should be inclusive, deliberative and consequential. This means that there need to be mechanisms to ensure that all those affected by collective decisions should be able to influence the outcome and that this should involve a process of reason and reflection.

Reflection on important issues cannot occur in an information vacuum. We need inputs into our decision making and the better the quality of that information, the better the capacity for us to reflect on what outcomes we think should be aimed for. Certainly there is a tendency to overplay the role of information alone in considering our positions. The common refrain from those concerned about inaction on climate change, for example, is that the public needs to be better informed. But information alone isn’t enough. There is plenty of that out there already. The problem lies in the way that it is put together, the context in which it is presented, and the level of trust in sources of information that reflect the complexity and nuances of the issue, while still being accessible.

In other words, we also need to consider the need for information to be provided in ways that enable us to side-step fallibility in modes of reasoning, such as the tendency to only seek information the reinforces our pre-existing positions (referred to as motivated reasoning, or commitment bias) or to draw intuitive conclusions that sometimes poorly reflect the substance of the issue (referred to as type 1 reasoning, or peripheral processing; as opposed to type 2 reasoning or cognitive processing). These are motivational issues that I’ll write about another time.

But no matter how well intentioned the motivations behind our political reasoning, it will be fallible to the extent that the information available is poor either in the way it is synthesised, balanced or if it attempts to misdirect or deceive. Not all forms of information are equal, nor trustworthy, if the intention of those providing the information is strategic (i.e. seeks to achieve a particular outcome beyond providing information, especially one that is in their direct interest) as opposed to communicative. Indeed, when it comes to climate change there are many sources of information that are provided strategically, but working out who to trust is difficult, especially when the issue, such as climate change, is so complex. Trust in scientists themselves has been undermined from some sectors. Some scholars, such as Ainslie Kellow (a former mentor of mine) argue that, no matter how well founded climate change is per se, the science has been over-egged in some instances — a perception that has not been helped by the famous ‘climate-gate’ emails. In a world where everybody communicates strategically, no matter how well intentioned, the overall effect is a decrease in trust.

So the question becomes, who can we trust to provide trustworthy information? It is well established that the news media (or fourth estate) has traditionally been important to the functioning of a healthy democratic system. Quality journalism (ideally) identifies issues and synthesises information for public consumption, providing a range of views that permit members of the public to develop well-informed positions, which are, in turn, ideally expressed through the political system via formal and informal mechanisms such as voting, public opinion etc. Ideally there is a kind of self-regulation in operation where there is an incentive for news media to provide considered and trustworthy information to consumers, who should be in a position to judge the quality of the information and whether they are willing to pay for it, or simply spend the time to digest it.

However, this assumption appears to be increasingly challenged, with traditional modes of journalism apparently under threat — both for better and for worse. There are a number of reasons why this appears to be happening, not least in the face of technological innovations delivering vast amounts of freely accessible information, undermining the ability of news outlets to fund what we refer to as ‘quality journalism’ — an issue that is identified by Michelle Grattan in her piece in the Conversation. This is a kind of supply side problem where the cost structure is affecting the ability to afford good quality journalism. Another supply side problem involves the concentration of media ownership (partly due to cost pressures) and the potential for the strategic use information going hand in hand with increasing political power, should the motivations of media proprietors switch from mere information provision and profit to activism — a charge that has been levelled a more than one proprietor in recent times.

But there is also related a demand side problem in which information overload and freely available information at that, undermines the appetite of citizens, as consumers of that information, to seek out and fund quality journalism, or to make discerning judgements about what they are reading. And there are longer-term effects that appear to in play as well. The news companies, who are under such tight constraints, need to find ways to attract readers. And in some cases there is a tendency to ‘dumb’ down content, seeking to titillate rather than inform. Or there can be increasing Balkanisation of news outlets who increasingly cater to the specific beliefs of their audience, stroking their sensitivities for profit. The effect is to entrench perspectives even further and produce information enclaves where whole sections of society get their information from entirely different sources, each supporting different conclusions. The result is a spiral into partisanship, and refusal to take into account competing perspectives, with the market catering for the demand for information that provides a firewall against any perspective that doesn’t accord with a consumers’ worldview. The same thing occurs in online groups, who can more easily find others with their own, sometimes extreme views, facilitated by technology.

Good democratic process requires that we, the citizens open our minds to competing perspectives, even if we ultimately reject opposing arguments. We need sources of information that digest these views and present them in ways that are trustworthy. It is the ultimate expression of freedom of choice, to actively choose among alternative, rather than blindly ignore them.

The ideal model of journalism that seeks to illuminate these alternatives seems increasingly under threat. Although there are alternative models to traditional media that do seem to provide ‘quality journalism’, they seem to be outcompeted by fragmented, biased information sources or even outright propaganda.

Good political deliberation involves listening and empathy, a rare beast it seems

There is a good commentary piece in the Age today about the perils of political communication and the tendency for people (and I mean all of us) to interpret what we are reading or listening to from our own particular perspective, rather than trying to understand what it is that the other person is actually trying to communicate. This happens all the time, particularly it seems, when it comes to online interactions, which, according to the American scholar Cass Sunstein, is particularly prone to ‘enclave thinking’. This involves people not only looking at information using a very narrow lens, but also a tendency to seek out information that supports our pre-existing view.

Even more problematic is the tendency for people to harden their positions, particularly as the evidence stacks up against it, particularly where views are relatively extreme. (This particularly seems to be the case for climate change.)

Apart from a few exceptions, our experience with small group deliberation is that these tendencies seem to disspate as the process moves on. But not always. The key seems to be  taking the time to establish relationships within the group so that they see their task as finding a solution to a common problem together, rather than arguing their particular view (this is not to say that they should end up agreeing, but that’s for another post). The American scholar Shaun Rosenberg refers to something similar to this phenomenon in identifying the importance of emotion and empathy in deliberation. Deliberation doesn’t just involve dealing with facts, it also involves dealing with emotions. The ends we should be striving to meet, the impact of our decisions on affected others etc are all important considerations that come to play. And unless there is identification with the needs of others, then there is effectively no deliberation, there is merely a market of ideas.

When this kind of group identity occurs participants usually express considerable satisfaction, if not genuine joy, in respect to their experience. And this is despite the enormous effort that they have put into working through the issue over the space of a number of days. Those who do not engage in this mode tend not express satisfaction — to say the least, in some cases.

Just why, when and how the formation of group identity and willingness to properly engage with other perspectives in deliberation occurs is something we are currently researching. An important question concerns whether it is possible to achieve this kind of outcome in the wider public. That’s something we will be working on over the new few years.

Simon Niemeyer is a research fellow with the Political Science Program, RSSS, with research interests spanning deliberative democracy (preference transformation, institutionalisation), environmental governance, and adaptation to and mitigation of climate change. He was one of the first in the field of deliberative democracy to systematically examine the processes of preference transformation of individuals participating in democratic discourse. His research findings challenge a number of assumptions regarding how deliberation works in practice, which have significantly contributed to deliberative theory.

You’re feeling very sleepy…now vote for me!

In one of the more creative attacks in contemporary Australian politics, Bob Carr (former NSW premier and newly installed into the Australian Senate) accused the leader of the opposition of hypnotising the electorate, repetitively using sound bites in order to sway public opinion.

The reality is that simple, catchy phrases do have a strong influence with some voters. Why is this so? Well, because the world is complex, but life is short, many of us feel that we have limited time and mental energy to apply to political issues and, well, we’re an impressionable bunch with short attention spans.

Advertisers use some of less sophisticated tendencies to convince us to buy their goods all the time. Make it look appealing and sell it using a simple, catchy message. But if we really reflect on whether we need that particular item, cooler heads sometimes prevail. Psychologists refer to these two different approaches that we have to making decisions as peripheral versus cognitive processing. When we think peripherally, we tend to quickly draw intuitively appealing conclusions, even on potentially complex issues. Cognitive processing involves a deeper, more systematic effort to think through things. The point is that most of us are capable of engaging in both modes of thinking, at least to some extent.

But is this really an issue from a democratic point of view? Well, yes it is. If there is a difference in what we might choose if we engage in peripheral thinking compared to cognitive thinking then there are some important issues at stake. The use catchy sound bites to draw us in using emotionally appealing language can ultimately be manipulative and effectively trick us into making choices that we may not have gone for if we had sat back and had a chance to work through the issues. When this happens in commerce and we buy something through misrepresentation, there are consumer laws to protect us. When this happens in politics it is possible to throw the government out after 4 years, but only after they have implemented a legislative agenda. What’s more, where the electorate is largely switched off, this kind of politics by sound bite can simply go on and on.

So there is a real problem here. And it’s not just politicians’ fault. The way that issues is portrayed in a media geared toward entertainment rather than edification also contributes. But, then again, the response to this criticism usually follows the line that it’s simply a matter of what the public want. But I do rather think that this is a cute way of looking at the problem, because we know it’s quite possible (if not likely) that the public would want something quite different if they were given the chance to reflect on what is going on in politics. If this is true, the question is, how can we find a way out of this vicious circle?

Research that we are doing here in the Centre is trying to address this very question. We are looking at how this deeper form of reflection on political issues can be facilitated among the public, as well as how information that covers all facets of important issues, from all perspectives, can be presented to help make an informed decision. For more information see our website.

Simon Niemeyer is a research fellow with the Political Science Program, RSSS, with research interests spanning deliberative democracy (preference transformation, institutionalisation), environmental governance, and adaptation to and mitigation of climate change. He was one of the first in the field of deliberative democracy to systematically examine the processes of preference transformation of individuals participating in democratic discourse. His research findings challenge a number of assumptions regarding how deliberation works in practice, which have significantly contributed to deliberative theory.

Billionaires, Politics and Deliberative Democracy: Who should get a say?

The Australian Federal Treasurer has recently identified Australia’s emerging caste of mega rich mining magnates as a threat to Australian democracy. The argument is that they are exerting undue influence on politics because of their ability to mobilise resources to get what they want, which may or may not coincide with the public interest.

From a deliberative democracy point of view there is nothing intrinsically wrong with citizens’ expressing their opinion in the public sphere. In fact, that’s precisely what should be happening in a contestation of ideas. But it’s the disparity in the level of power that certain individuals have to push their point of view that’s the main objection. They reality is that the ability to tailor and widely publicise a message that suits a particular interest is influential (for reasons that I’ll have to explain another time). An important question then concerns whether counterarguments get an equal hearing.

But the question of equality becomes problematic. There’s been a lot of concern raised about the attempt to ‘balance’ arguments highlighting the threat of climate change with arguments from so called climate sceptics, and the potential effect that this has on public opinion where one of these positions is potentially less well founded (which for many, is a matter of opinion anyway).

And then there’s the problem of hypocrisy. There’s been more than a few people highlighting the inconsistency where the treasurer is pointing the finger at mining magnates (who in some respects are soft targets) while ignoring the influence of unions, or even clubs when it comes to the issue of gambling machine reform.

The implicit appeal for wider democratic discourse than sound bites from a few interests is a very worthy from a deliberative democratic point of view. But talk needs to be backed up with action, and consistency. For our part, we as deliberative democrats are working on ways in which the kind of ideals that the treasurer is appealing to should work in practice. There’s a little way to go on this front, but there are some clear approaches that could be adopted. Ironically, approaches such as the proposed Citizens’ Assembly might have helped in the context of the climate change issue might have helped, if conducted many years prior to when it was proposed, and under very different circumstances to an election campaign. Exactly how and why? That’s the subject of the next blog.