Democracy Café meeting 10 March 2018

Is the digital age killing off democracy as we know it? was the title of the topic which won the opening ballot and this stimulated an interesting discussion.   A day or so later Tim Berners Lee wrote a piece in the Guardian entitled It’s not too late to rein in the web giants which only goes to show that where Salisbury Democracy Café leads, others follow – well perhaps not.

It is fair to say the opinions were evenly divided: there were some who expressed concerns at the continuing dominance of the web

Domocracy, Cafe, Salisbury., Compass
Coffee break

giants – now being called the FANGS, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google – and others who thought these platforms were of ultimate benefit to ordinary people.  So starting with the naysayers who thought:

  • the digital media giants were controlled by big businesses based in Silicon Valley.  As such they were subject to few controls either in their home country or in the UK
  • there was the issue of fake news and stories being passed on at lightening speed when they may be untrue
  • news media were subject to some kind of control and a requirement, in the case of the TV, for balance.  There was a means to complain to a media watchdog even though it was fairly toothless.  This was not the case with web based firms
  • the worry that governments were complicit in false information being disseminated although this was not limited to the internet
  • the algorithms used meant viewers were only being shown things they were likely to agree with and this was creating a self-perpetuating bubble
  • a recent problem was the belief that countries like Russia were able to use these platforms to influence elections in the West.  This was clearly damaging to the operation of democracy in countries like ours.

There were those who thought that the internet was a good idea and good for democracy.  On the question of dominance, there was Schumpeter’s theory of ‘creative destruction’.  Although these companies are dominant now, will they remain so in the future?  One thinks of the once mighty IBM – still a large company but no longer dominant – and Yahoo was once the search engine of choice.  Other points included:

  • the web gave good access to business to their customers and likewise, consumers had greater power
  • quite simply, everyone had a voice now (if they wanted it).  Blogs and tweets enabled people to express a view they never could before
  • While it was true the new media was owned by tech giants, newspapers were also largely owned by media moguls such as the Murdoch’s and people like the Barclay twins who live on a rock in the English channel
  • one advantage of the internet was the ability of people to mount petitions and take part in campaigning to express their views.  This would have been a lot more difficult without the Web.  It did lead onto a discussion of ‘clicktivism’ and a belief by some MPs for example that because it was so easy, people didn’t really care about the issue concerned.

The discussion moved on to wider issues and one such was the whole notion of ‘truth’ and what it meant.  There was a lively discussion based on the difference between truth and opinion particularly as far as the media were concerned.  It was one person’s view that an opinion can never be true – a notion we did not fully resolve and not everyone agreed with.  Balance in the media was another concern and the problem of bias being introduced in the process of trying to be balanced.  For example, the great weight of scientific evidence points to global warming but there are some who disagree.  Inviting representatives from each camp onto various programmes gives the impression the arguments are evenly balanced when in fact they may not be.  Another problem concerns people representing various think tanks whose funding was opaque.  We are frequently not informed that an energy company for example is behind a supposedly independent think tank.  George Monbiot has written about this problem on several occasions.  There are several reports by Transparency International as well.

Finally, we spent some time on the notion of altruism and how this was part of our genetic make up.

Part II

Part 2 of the café was spent on the other topic which was Is it helpful to have party politics at the local level?  Frome in Somerset and Flatpack Democracy was the subject of a Compass meeting last year.  The question was asked then could the Frome system be replicated further up the chain and the speaker thought not.

Many people feel frustrated that issues which are local are determined not on their merits but on the activities of political parties operating at what is – in their view – an inappropriate fashion.  However, some suggested that in fact party politics do intrude at the local level.  For example schools and the drive to create academies independent of the local authority.  This would be closely linked to the politics of the local area.  This was particularly so as the bulk of funding came from central government.  Would better decisions be taken if there were no political parties?  Linked to this was the problem of dominant parties.  Our first past the post system meant one party can assume dominance and remain so for decades.

Do people vote for individuals or parties?  A question without an answer since many will not know who their local candidate is and in any event, much voting was tribal.  There was also the problem of engagement: how do you reach people who are uninterested in local politics and are ignorant of the issues?

Altogether an interesting and informed debate over two crucial issues.

Peter Curbishley