Online Deliberation in a New Age of Canadian Politics

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Participation Thursday, July 03, 2014 View Count = 1598

Online Deliberation in a New Age of Canadian Politics

Guest blog by Eleonore Fournier-Tombs

Over the last few decades, polls have shown citizens’ decreasing levels of trust and engagement in the Canadian political process. This trend comes at a time when the improvement of online technologies such as forums, social media and chats is allowing a new kind of dialogue between political parties and citizens. Is the online public sphere a viable avenue for reviving citizen engagement and influence in Canadian politics?

In order to answer this question, I examined online chats and blog comments from the May 2011 Liberal Party of Canada online convention. This convention came at a time when the Party had suffered a crushing defeat and was keen to quickly bounce back. During this post-election online convention, it consulted its members on what seemed at first to be simple issues – setting a date for the next convention and for the election of the next Leader of the Party – but which in fact gave rise to a much more complex discussion about how to rebuild the Party, which type of leader to elect, and how to allow members to grieve while continuing to engage and have trust in the Party.

I was particularly interested in the quality of the discussions happening during the convention - did members seem free to participate? Did they simply state their point or did they add arguments to validate it? Did they mention other members’ points as well? Were they respectful of each other and did they try to come up with joint requests or suggestions?

The results of this study yielded several interesting points. First, discourse quality online varies considerably depending on the platform - spaces where comments are posted in an asynchronous mode, such as blogs, typically show longer and much more thoughtful contributions than synchronous, chat-style spaces.

Second, like most Internet content worldwide, the discussions under study showed a strong English bias. Canadian citizens should, at the very least, have their voices heard in the two official languages, and potentially in any of their many other native tongues. Although multilingual Internet discussions do not happen without a little advance planning, there are more and more opportunities for automatic translation services online that might allow for participants to break free of these linguistic silos.

Finally, consultation of citizens at a national level requires mobility, making it more difficult for members in Northern BC, for example, to attend in-person conventions and have their voices heard - opportunities which offline require funding and time away from work. The online approach broadened political participation so that remote voices were not only heard locally, but were also part of the conversation at a national level.

Returning to the quality of the discussions observed it seems that the technologies tended to make participation more free and accessible. Whether participants made superficial or substantial contributions depended on the nature of the platform - blogs allowed for much more in-depth discussions, a trend that we can see reflected in many other online spaces as well.

There is a lot of potential in these and other discussions happening all over the web. As politically-inclined citizens, we need to continue building online participation tools and opportunities, and reverse this decline in engagement to create a political atmosphere in Canada where its citizens are even more involved in creating the country that they really want to live in.

Eleonore Fournier-Tombs recently completed her Master’s degree at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information, where she studied online discourse quality in political parties in Canada. She is currently the Online Communications Manager at the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report Office in New York. Views expressed in this article are her own.

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