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Social media in politics Can Facebook help in urban planning?

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Tags: Bernd HammDaniel ReichertFacebookKlaus Jensenliquid democracyMalu Dreyerpanel discussionsocial mediaSPDWinfried Thaa

Yesterday, the SPD fraction in the parliament of Trier invited to a panel discussion about "Facebook in urban planning", which took place in the venerable baroque halls of the electroral palace. No question I had to be there. The discussion brought a lot of interesting aspects to light, but missed a chance regarding liquid democracy.

A couple of months ago, "Facebook in urban planning" was a hot topic, because of the events around the Aral station in the Ostallee of Trier, when the parliament decided to extend the lease with the leaseholder after a Facebook fanpage and an online petition. 16vor has written summary of what happened (only available in German), and you can start with this discussion between Marcus Stölb and Thomas Brück.

Participants in the discussion, led by Michael Schmitz (@volksfreundchen), were:

Social networks: a chance for mobilization, but a chance missed regarding liquid democracy

Winfried Thaa gave a political assessment of the phenomenon: While Facebook surely changes the ways of political participation, he pointed out that his ambivalent opinion regarding this development. Social media thus have a great potential to mobilize, but are not adequate means to find a quantitative majority. The researcher also was very critical towards the potential of discussions on Facebook.

Daniel Reichert explained the goals of the association liquid feedback: observing how society changes and trying to find answers for politics to go along this way. He noticed learning in the political field, but also the open question how more people can be motivated to participate.

In this regard, a shortfall of the organizers became apparent: with projects like the software Adhocracy, liquid feedback is an example of innovative platforms of citizen participation. Furthermore, this was one of the rare occasions to have somebody from such a project in Trier. I therefore do not understand why the organizers did not take the opportunity of a short introduction at the beginning of the discussion – a shortcoming which became apparent in the many questions regarding liquid democracy.

Citizen participation in Trier, fifteen times

Klaus Jensen reported on the positive experiences with the citizen balance, where 2,000 people are participating. In total, there are 15 methods of citizen participation in Trier, with those based on the internet as the most recent. Jensen welcomed this development, but also said that you have to weight the clicks.

Minister Malu Dreyer showed a strong interest in social media and said she is also using Facebook. In politics, however, there were no rules, and especially the socially weak parts of the population are difficult to reach with forms of participation.

Bernd Hamm called the debate around participation on the internet a "symptom of discomfort regarding the representative democracy". He observed four kinds of citizen participation:

  • Facebook: quick, but also a bit irrelevant
  • citizen participation regarding the reform of administration: stage-managed from the top and therefore dead on arrival
  • citizen balance in Trier: interesting, but difficult to participate – the strength of this platform lies more in the creation of new ideas
  • renewable energies: real movement from the bottom

Obviously, the Lokale Agenda 21 was also a topic – Hamm explained that he particularly learned how important a small group of engaged members are in order to push a project forward.

people on a panel in a baroque room
Moderated by Michael Schmitz, Winfried Thaa, Klaus Jensen, Malu Dreyer, Daniel Reichert and Bernd Hamm discussed the role of Facebook in urban planning – the person in the back stayed silent.

The audience: thought-provoking impulses and questions

There were a couple of different topics discussed by the audience – some of them not too closely related to the topic at hand. A lot of questions regarded liquid democracy. For example, Daniel Reichert explained how participants can themselves decide how deep they want to dig into the various topics, and how this was communicated by visual icons. In general, he pointed out that we should use open source software instead of relying on commercial products like Facebook.

The various facets of the answers showed that it is not easy to answer the pros and cons of anonymity in discussions and political participation. Winfried Thaa stressed that anonymity substantially lowers the inhibition threshold of insulting people, while Malu Dreyer said that she made a lot of positive experiences with online discussions. Daniel Reichert explained the dilemma of online citizen participation: While without authentication, it is not possible to judge how representative answers are, but on the other hand, authentication is a thread to anonymity and a barrier to participation. Klaus Jensen told the audience that they had these discussion regarding the citizen balance, with the result that user have to register on the platform, but can still maintain their anonymity towards the outside world.

Citizen participation: not in all regards

It also became clear during the discussion that not all topics are suitable for citizen participation. Deciding on financial aspects is an example for this, as Klaus Jensen pointed out. However, participation on the way towards these decisions is possible. Winfried Thaa stressed that there are limits of political involvement: a lot of people do not have the required knowledge, and a lot of decisions are taken in mutual agreement. However, any topic with diverging opinions should be regarded political.

Thought-provoking impulses were also found regarding the question of disenchantment with politics. The political researcher Thaa talked about two fundamentally different views in the political sciences: While the one group says that "too much" politics is the reason for this disenchantment, the other group (including himself) sees its origin in the feeling of having too little influence.

Summary: interesting discussion in venerable baroque halls

All in all, the SPD fraction of Trier has excelled in creating a good event, covering a lot of interesting aspects. What a shame that it was not able to show liquid democracy to the audience – especially if you have someone from the organization in the room, this would have been a welcomed opportunity. Without this, I had the impression that the platform stayed too abstract.

However, Daniel Reichert gave a nice closing thought: "The internet is great, because it connects people. Therefore use open source software!"

Images: "Was ist Liquid Democracy" of the BPB, CC BY, participants in the discussion by Sabrina Schmitz