Hungary has been in the news a lot lately, not least with its controversial media act and the alleged erosion of democracy by the current Prime Minister and his party. I’ve been watching developments with interest and a little concern.
In a move that some would say contradicts the growing opinion that Hungary is becoming less democratic, the government has set up a website on which people can express their opinions on how the country is being run. Citizens can post their ideas and suggestions on 30 areas of interest from environmental protection to economic policy to sport. The website is open till 31 March 2012 and is modelled on the UK’s 2010 Spending Challenge when the Chancellor George Osborne asked the great British public to send him their ‘very best ideas on how to get more for less from our public services’.
Before the Internet, the collection of these opinions would have been a monumental task. But as our social interaction is increasingly moving online, e-participation is fast-becoming the name of the game. Let’s not forget though, that not everyone wants to participate, and not everyone wants to participate electronically. While the pre-Internet paper-census-style information-gathering exercise reached every home (and everyone could chose to participate...or not), e-participation targets those with online access who favour such electronic communication. There is a danger that the results of e-participation exercises like this one in Hungary will be portrayed as reflecting the opinions of the many, when, in reality, they could well be the opinions of the few.
There is a danger, too, of confirmation bias. Studies like those done by Cass Sunstein show that people tend to polarise on the Internet, preferring to engage with those who think the same way. Does showing all comments submitted run the risk of self-censorship? Might possible participants in the initiative decide to comment (or not) depending on what’s already been posted? I wonder whether e-participation is, in fact, a double-edged sword?