“Deliberation made citizens more aware of where their true beliefs are.”

Pierangelo Isernia is Professor of Political Science at the University of Siena, Italy. During the last 15 years he has coordinated several European projects under the Horizon 2020 Framework Programme. Today, he is the main coordinator of the EUComMeet project, which explores how deliberation and participation can help reduce polarization, foster citizens’ reflexivity and understand how people can alter their place through social structures through technology and deliberation. He sheds light on this for Missions Publiques.

Missions Publiques. The EUComMeet project will analyze the finest ways to bring people to deliberation through technology, but before exploring this, shouldn’t we try and understand if that is what people actually want?

Pierangelo Isernia. Deliberation faces many challenges and Eucommeet will try to address at least three of them. One is the need to bring people closer to deliberation. The challenge here is not only inclusion of those traditionally uninterested to politics or socially and politically disenfranchised, but also to involve those who prefer stealth democracy[1]. As suggested by John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse in their book Stealth Democracy in 1998, a remarkable number of people do not want a more active, participatory democracy, but rather they want procedures to exist but not to be visible on a routine basis. Like Stealth planes, that are designed to be effectively immune to radar detection at normal combat ranges, yet they can show up on radar when desired. Similarly, the people want democratic procedures to exist but not to be apparent on a day-to-day basis unless in case of emergency. So, yes, the EUComMeet project takes into account the stealth democracy challenge.

Getting people to deliberate isn’t the only challenge we’re focusing on. The second challenge is to bring deliberation closer to people. As you very well know, deliberation on a large scale is often a huge undertaking, extremely expensive in both financial and human-resourceful terms. To address this challenge, EUComMeet wants to exploit the opportunities technological advantages offers in terms of online deliberation. And this challenge is not only related to layperson but also to politicians.

The third challenge is to better embed deliberation in the policymaking process. The problem is both of institutions and people. There is a tension, in the eyes of many political beholders, between representative and participatory democracy, a tension that is not always obvious, but it affects the capacity of deliberation to impact on the policy-making process. In a recent survey carried out on a sample of Italian politicians at local, regional and national level, we explored what kind of decision-making processes they perceived as the most legitimate. We found out that having decision taken by a representative sample of people was the least approved strategy for Italian politicians. Deliberation is not something that representatives naturally think of in their work. They need to be socialized to better understand how this set of tools and strategies can be useful both to them and to the community at large. This is why we decided to make the EUComMeet project start and end at the city level because we think this is one level of action where it is easier to engage decision makers in the importance of these activities.

"Deliberation might make arguments effective in letting people reason about the motivations of their own beliefs.

Pierangelo Isernia

Professor of Political Science at the University of Siena

Missions Publiques. One of your missions is to understand how deliberation can alleviate polarization in like-minded groups. What is the method put in place?

Pierangelo Isernia. In our project we devise deliberation as a process made of a set of inter-related blocks. We are disentangling what is going on in the deliberative process, and we focus on five main blocks that compose any deliberative process: inclusion, polarization, reflexivity, identity, and impact.

As to Polarization, this is a topical issue nowadays in deliberation theory and not only. A lot of attention is devoted to polarization in social psychology, sociology, political science and communication studies. And we already know a lot. But the problem is that the existing results are not always aligned, and some are even contradictory. Part of the problem is that there is a lot of variation in the way we build deliberate experiments: some topics get people more polarized than others, different settings (online or face-to-face…), designs (with or without experts or politicians involved in the discussion) and goals (whether the objective is to better understand a complicated issue or to help lead to decisions) can affect the way polarization can work. Some studies show that conversations will likely to be less “heated” on an online and human-moderated setting because it tends to minimize non-verbal communication. On the other hand, a non-moderated setting will tend to escalate easier and quicker. A single Twitter post can quickly become hateful, social media is the perfect example to polarization effects through non-moderated discussions. All these elements may impact whether a mini public will be polarized or not.

In EUCommeet we are looking at the issue of polarization from different viewpoints. As an example, we look at the impact that a computer versus human moderated deliberation can impact polarization. We also explore whether the composition of the groups might affect polarization. We will be allocating people to mini-publics based also on their views on the topic under discussion (economy and environment) to see how people who are more like-minded behave compared to groups composed of people who are polarized. We will also have a social media control group composed of people who will be exchanging ideas online without being moderated, to explore to what extent the online setting rather than the fact that it is moderated is what is affecting polarization.


Missions Publiques. Can groups, whether polarized or not, change their political positions through deliberation?

Pierangelo Isernia. People can change their positions through deliberation. That has already a proven fact and it is what we call reflexivity. In the Europolis project, as an example, we explored whether deliberation could help people to have their political ideology properly organized and whether to align their preference with their ideological stand. Some of course are very familiar with ideological positions and try to keep policy preference coherent with their ideology, but for many other people, it’s difficult to match one’s ideological positions with their political preferences. What we found, is that deliberation can help to clear this out. For example, we found that on immigration issues, a topic on which many left-wing oriented people often hold anti-immigration positions, going through a deliberation process makes those people more aware of where they should stand ideologically, make the ideological connection with the issue stronger. In other words, those left-wing leaners who enter deliberation less supportive and tolerant toward immigration come out from it more supportive towards immigration because they adjusted their policy preference to make them coherent with their ideology. Deliberation made them more aware of where their true beliefs are.

Moreover, we know that people pay attention to other participants’ arguments and, sometimes, they are also moved by these arguments in a direction that is in line with the overall tone of the group. Last, deliberation might make arguments effective in letting people reason about the motivations of their own beliefs. We are exploring whether deliberation might make people more alert of their own cognitive limitations and the cognitive traps their mind might fall in. In so doing, deliberation makes them also better and more articulate argumentators.

However, we need to do more. EUComMeet cannot answer all questions but one hypothesis is, as Jane Suiter put it, that: “If we better understand the mechanisms via which deliberation can help people to engage in a kind of political reasoning that is not egocentric and biased, but other-regarding and reflective, we will be able to design appropriate institutions which can foster higher quality political choices.”

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