Refining Deliberative Standards for Online Political Communication: Introducing a Summative Approach to Designing Deliberative Recommender Systems

How can Social Media best foster democratic debates? In a new paper, TWON’s very own Sjoerd Stolwijk, Michael Heseltine, Corinna Oschatz, and Damian Trilling challenge the notion that a perfect debate on social media platforms is a desirable outcome.

Over the last few years, diagnoses that the democracies of post-industrial nations of the global north are in decline have spread like proverbial wildfire. Often times, the way that social media continues shaping our lives and interactions with one another is held at least partially accountable for its ostensible effect on larger societal structures.

Contrasting the established “additive” paradigm of deliberative democracy research, Stolwijk, Heseltine, Oschatz and Trilling “propose an alternative conception of debate quality for online platforms, based on the recently proposed systematic, summative approach to deliberative democracy”. Using this approach, the researchers shift the focus from singular factors of deliberation to more systemic interdependences of deliberative factors and their effects on society at large.

Starting with an outline of critiques of the additive approach and its unitary implications, Stolwijk et al. inquire into the effects of deliberation indicators on one another as opposed to their effects on a monolithic deliberation. Continuing, they pose the question of exactly where online platforms fit into the larger system of deliberative democracy and whether they can be placed within a ‘micro-meso-macro’-layer approach.

On the base of this contextualisation, the authors move on to propose the ‘summative approach’ to deliberative democracy and online platforms’ role within it, arriving at the proposition that online communication should be viewed as complementary to existing forms of deliberation rather than a replacement.

“when facilitating debate between citizens, instead of aiming for civil conversation, it might be better for (macro) deliberative democracy, if in some cases people are allowed some incivility to make suppressed voices heard or to create a communicative environment where some might feel more at home, where they feel they don’t need to be eloquent and highly educated to be allowed to speak up”

The authors included a comparative table containing both ‘additive’ and ‘summative’ indicators for successful deliberation, both as an overview and an invitation for other researchers to contribute and improve. Concluding remarks reiterate the paper’s findings and summarise the scientific value of the ‘summative’ approach.

In an effort to promote inclusivity and accessibility, papers published by the TWON consortium are published as open-source. So check out our paper for free, published here.