Developing a Civil Society on the Internet

Speakers’ Corner Trust is collaborating with the Oxford Internet Institute on a joint project, supported by Facebook, which focuses on an increasingly widely acknowledged but under-researched challenge, namely the negative nature of much online political debate and the means of improving it.

 

The Internet – An Unrealised Potential for Civil Debate

When the internet has so much to offer politics, why does it deliver so little?

We all recognise the problem: the internet promises us a vital, creative forum for political debate – but delivers so much negativity, narrow-mindedness and personal abuse.

I Am Quite Cross - WebThe need for open, inclusive and constructive debate has rarely been more urgent. We face huge challenges, some national, some global but all requiring us to work together to agree common solutions to common problems – or at least to disagree tolerantly and respectfully.

The internet has enormous capacity to support and invigorate civil society: it offers the best opportunity we’ve ever had to bring people together to share ideas and opinions. Yet examples of genuine deliberation can be hard to find and there are few spaces in which people with diverging or opposing views engage with each other with both mutual respect and common purpose.Comments Column

In fact, online debate is all too often nasty, brutish and short. Opportunities for productive dialogue regularly descend rapidly into sloganising and/or personal abuse and the chance to develop our thinking, to gain insight into alternative points of view and, where possible, to build consensus is lost.

Think the Scottish Referendum, think Brexit, think the Labour Party leadership contests, think the US Presidential and our own recent general election.

Why is that? And what do we need to do to get the best out of the internet – and ourselves?

The Widening the Net Symposium

SCT and OII organised a one-day symposium which took place on 20 October 2017, bringing together a range of leading civil society activists, tech company representatives, academics, journalists, civil servants and others to consider in particular

  • the internet’s potential as a forum for the kind of discussion, diversity and consensus building which underpin and enliven the democratic process
  • the factors which inhibit the realisation of that potential
  • what changes in online culture, and perhaps the design of the internet’s platforms, might be required to achieve it.

The day was filled with lively and thought-provoking discussion which, it is hoped, will feature in the report of proceedings which will be prepared and disseminated in the coming weeks.

Opening up a Public Debate

This project seeks to inform and contribute to an important debate about how we use the internet. But it also aims to help identify practical measures which both policy-makers and users can adopt in order to make the internet a more constructive and positive force for political participation and change.

Once the symposium report has been published, we hope to be able to take the debate further.

 


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