Online democracy and the tyranny of the minority

The internet is the greatest potential enabler of genuine direct democracy ever, right? Well, not necessarily.

David Adams at OS News points out that recent high-profile gaming and crashing of internet polls (most notably the pwnzorage of Time Magazine by the 4chan hordes) should be taken as a caution; online direct democracy opens the gates to the tyranny of the minority, he says.

One of the dangers of direct democracy has always been that the majority of people can band together to persecute an individual or smaller group using legitimate voting, such as voting for confiscatory taxes on a wealthy individual, or restricting the civil rights of a minority ethnic group. This is called “tyranny of the majority.” That’s why no country practices direct democracy. There always needs to be a constitution to enumerate essential rights, a court to ensure that the constitution is obeyed, and a representative structure such as a legislature to insulate the nation’s laws from the whims of the voters. A tyranny of the minority is when a vote is open to anyone, but because not enough people are engaged politically, or not enough people know about it, a small group can organize itself to make a surprise assault on the poll and exert disproportionate influence.

Hmmm. Surely those marginalised by said poll would hence become more aware of the potential for engagement with the system as a result? And if the barriers to participation are so low, surely they’d be unlikely to be trounced the same way twice? But back to Adams:

… let’s assume for a moment that we could come up with a system that only allowed for legitimate votes, and we could have 100% confidence in that fact. Let’s assume that this system enabled votes to be easy to cast and easy to count. This system would probably work fine for big, high-profile elections like the presidency and congress, because the candidates and the parties are already doing everything they can to mobilize their troops to vote for their person. Where the tyranny of the minority would come into play would be the smaller races, such as school board, county sheriff, and other local ballots. These are races that are much more easily swayed by an organized group that represents a small minority of the voters but can swing the vote their direction if they’re determined enough. This is something that happens already every election, with manual voting, but with electronic voting, it would happen much more. I’m afraid that with remote e-voting, coupled with every more useful and popular regional and local social networks, Stephen Colbert would win every election in the country.

Frankly, looking at the roster of self-serving chumps we call a government here in the UK, I’m not entirely certain having Colbert in power for a while wouldn’t at least be a refreshing change, if not a political and historical turning point. I can see where Adams is going with this, but I’m a great believer in the old saw that every generation gets the government it deserves, with the corollary that we’re currently governed by shysters because we left the door wide open to them.

Maybe the early years of a direct and participatory democracy would usher in some terrible single-interest wackadoos and bigots (though I’m not entirely sure how much difference we’d notice), but I think it would also make everyone else think “well, if it’s that easy to get someone elected, we’ll give ’em a run for their money next time round”. End result – a more engaged electorate using a more democratic system. And while that’s admittedly a blue-sky scenario, I think it acts as a balance to Adams’ pessimism; it’s too early to write off the potential of the internet to reinvigorate democratic processes just because a few magazines and websites got chumped by script-kids. [via SlashDot]

One thought on “Online democracy and the tyranny of the minority”

  1. When David Adam’s mention that “no country practices direct democracy” he shows his complete ignorance on the theme. Did he ever hear about Switzerland, referendum, plebiscite?

    Frankly, he should avoid writing about things he does not have a clue.

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