The Internet and Democratic Discourse, Lincoln Dahlberg, 2001.

 

Lincoln Dahlberg (2001) The Internet and Democratic Discourse: Exploring The Prospects of Online Deliberative Forums Extending the Public Sphere, Information, Communication & Society, 4:4, 615-633, DOI: 10.1080/13691180110097030

 
In his article, The Internet and Democratic Discourse: Exploring The Prospects of Online Deliberative Forums Extending the Public Sphere, Lincoln Dahlberg explores through a case study how a deliberative model of democracy can overcome economic, structural, and social challenges in order to extend the public sphere using a criteria established by Jurgen Habermas. Lincoln begins by contrasting a deliberative model of democracy with communitarian and liberal individualist models and concludes that the latter two fail to earnestly work towards establishing a dialogue which bridge the differences of a pluralist society. He then goes on to evaluate and critique real world instances of deliberative forums concluding that nurturing a culture of respect and reflexive practice, offline and on, will more effectively strengthen democratic practices.  1Lincoln Dahlberg (2001) The Internet and Democratic Discourse: Exploring The Prospects of Online Deliberative Forums Extending the Public Sphere, Information, Communication & Society, 4:4, 630.

…many of these communities follow the same development trajectory where like minded individuals seek out one another reinforcing existing beliefs and encouraging the growth of fragmented “ideologically homogenous ‘communities of interest’” creating communitarian, ethically integrated silos.

Establishing that online communities cannot operate free from coercive political and economic influence, Lincoln begins by describing how those influences manifest themselves through existing corporate, government, and mass media channels. Lincoln explains how the majority of the of the tens of thousands of smaller online forum might appear independent but are actually part of larger networks whose structure, policies, and economic interests shape what discussion take place and how they unfold. Furthermore, he argues that many of these communities follow the same development trajectory where like minded individuals seek out one another reinforcing existing beliefs and encouraging the growth of fragmented “ideologically homogenous ‘communities of interest’” creating communitarian, ethically integrated silos. Lincoln Dahlberg (2001) The Internet and Democratic Discourse: Exploring The Prospects of Online Deliberative Forums Extending the Public Sphere, Information, Communication & Society, 4:4, 618.

Lincoln goes on to describe liberal individualist communities who seek to establish direct links between their members and primary sources. Projects like The California Online Voter Guide’s ‘citizen-to-candidate’ approach enables voters, through online communities and the technologies, to communicate directly with politicians and subject matter experts.Lincoln Dahlberg (2001) The Internet and Democratic Discourse: Exploring The Prospects of Online Deliberative Forums Extending the Public Sphere, Information, Communication & Society, 4:4, 618. Lincoln explains that much like communitarian efforts, liberal individualist initiatives must also compete with privately funded companies and emerging government services resulting in narratives malleable to both economic and political interests compromising their ability to conscientiously further democratic processes.

…information alone is not enough and a deliberative model emphasizing a reflexive process is necessary to transform “self-seeking individuals” into “publicly-orientated citizens” capable of shaping a robust participatory democracies.

Lincoln believes that either model, communitarian or liberal individualist, both wrongly assume that individuals require only information to make a well informed choice. He argues that information alone is not enough and a deliberative model emphasizing a reflexive process is necessary to transform “self-seeking individuals” into “publicly-orientated citizens” capable of shaping a robust participatory democracies.Lincoln Dahlberg (2001) The Internet and Democratic Discourse: Exploring The Prospects of Online Deliberative Forums Extending the Public Sphere, Information, Communication & Society, 4:4, 620.

To support his case for a deliberative model Lincoln employs the requirements Habermas established as necessary for the expansion of the public sphere and applies them to Minnesota’s E-Democracy project. According to Lincoln, the success enjoyed by Minnesota’s E-Democracy project can be attributed to its structure which stimulates reflexivity, respectful listening, participation, commitment, and dialogue resulting in an “open and honest exchange” enabling an inclusive dialogue independent from “state and corporate interests”.Lincoln Dahlberg (2001) The Internet and Democratic Discourse: Exploring The Prospects of Online Deliberative Forums Extending the Public Sphere, Information, Communication & Society, 4:4, 628.

Despite the success of Minnesota’s E-Democracy project, Lincoln believes that interest in deliberative forums is declining, in large part due to commercialized and government projects which compete for the limited attention span of individuals often drawn to easier forms of political engagement. He also discusses inequalities which discourage participation in online deliberative forums such as access to “social resources, including telecommunications infrastructures, money to pay Internet costs, computing skills, cultural expectations, free time and community support”.Lincoln Dahlberg (2001) The Internet and Democratic Discourse: Exploring The Prospects of Online Deliberative Forums Extending the Public Sphere, Information, Communication & Society, 4:4, 628. Consequently, Lincoln asserts that to overcome these challenges the sustained support from motivated individuals and increased funding from government and public interest groups will be necessary.

Although technology can provide access to information and enable individuals to participate in online forums with relative ease, a deliberative, reflexive, and respectful culture which seeks out differences to establish a continued and informative dialogue will require continued support from social and economic resources in addition to the freedom from corporate and government influence to employ them is necessary.

To conclude, Lincoln states that “People must be drawn into rational-critical discourse before new technologies can be successfully be employed to extend the public sphere”.Lincoln Dahlberg (2001) The Internet and Democratic Discourse: Exploring The Prospects of Online Deliberative Forums Extending the Public Sphere, Information, Communication & Society, 4:4, 630. Although technology can provide access to information and enable individuals to participate in online forums with relative ease, a deliberative, reflexive, and respectful culture which seeks out differences to establish a continued and informative dialogue will require continued support from social and economic resources in addition to the freedom from corporate and government influence to employ them is necessary. Lincoln ends by calling on additional research how deliberative forums and be nurtured while avoiding commercialization, fragmentation, and individualist patterns of online discourse.



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