Virtual communities and the democratic debate: online discussions not always bring freedom of speech
Much has been discussed by academics and practitioners about the role of virtual communities in promoting open debate, and so improving the quality of public participation and underpinning democracy. However virtual communities do not necessarily have full freedom of speech.
By Magda Hercheui
This is the main argument of the research study I have undertaken with virtual communities, entitled ‘Virtual communities and democratic debates: A case study on institutional influences’, presented to the International Conference of Information Systems, ICIS 2009, in Phoenix, Arizona.
In this paper, I discuss how institutions such as governments and universities may affect the freedom of opinion in online debates. The article challenges the idea that virtual communities are necessarily spaces for democratic debates, showing that in practice people may fear to expose their ideas in such a collective environment, especially when they believe powerful social actors could use mechanisms of punishment in both online and offline environments against those that disagree with their ideas.
The paper analyses empirical data to show in how non-democratic social structures emerge, and discusses the role of technology in this process. It is not a surprise that powerful actors choose channels of communication that allow them to maintain control over the expressions of community members. Indeed, members are generally free to express their ideas, but they may be excluded from the community if these ideas are too challenging to the mainstream leaders of the communities.
An important lesson from this research is the role of technology: discussion lists permit their owners (creators of lists) to have more power than other members, supporting forms of exclusion that would not be possible if the very same tools empowered the whole community rather than a few moderators. The paper discusses in detail how systems development and design can embed features in different technologies in order to promote the freedom of debate.
In spite of recognizing the role of technology, I also argue in the paper that way people behave is not moulded by technology. Discussion lists enable a particular form of governance, but people could use appropriate technology in a different ways. Thus the paper shows how institutions, technology and social actors interact to permit the emergence of particular governance structures in virtual communities.
The paper offers many lessons that are useful for researchers and practitioners who are interested in governance structures in virtual environments. Although I have researched voluntary communities, almost certainly the observed factors are also important in non-voluntary groups. More organisations are using virtual teams as a way of fostering collaboration, and many companies are building virtual communities using social media for marketing their products. These environments are subject to the influence of institutions in society, and the organisations themselves have institutionalised structures which affect the forms of governance and interaction in these online environments.
This is not to say that we cannot be surprised. Naturally social actors, or users, or customers, or audiences, or citizens – different disciplines call these virtual groups differently – may decide to act in ways that have not been planned by organisations. However, it is a matter of fact that organisations maintain control of their virtual channels, ultimately defining the content that is acceptable. In a broader level, there are other public domains for conversations, through the many social media channels that are open to the contribution of all without censorship, and in which companies cannot control the content. This is the most interesting field of interaction, in which the battles for hearts and minds cannot count on the control of technology but on good arguments, quick responses, and the capacity to interacting with people.
Hercheui, M.D. (2009). Virtual Communities and Democratic Debates: A Case Study on Institutional Influences. Proceedings 30th International Conference of Information Systems (ICIS), Phoenix, Arizona, USA, 14th-18th December 2009.
About the author:
Dr. Magda Hercheui is a senior lecturer at Westminster Business School. She has done her Masters and PhD at the London School of Economics in the domain of virtual communities. Currently she researches virtual communities, social media and the application of technology for management of information on sustainability.