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Democracy and the public square

"Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people." - John Adams

Imagine the cacophony of information that is rattling around a voter's mind. Who do I believe when there are very confident people on both sides telling me the exact opposite thing?

I believe a good public square is not only essential for freedom of expression, but essential for democracy. Today we go through what public square our democracies face and some basic requirements for a better functioning public square.

The foundations of democracy

We know what a vibrant democracy is when we see one. 6 common pillars of democracy are:

1.      Informed voters

2.      The rule of law

3.      Public engagement

4.      Freedom of expression

5.      Equality in the political process

6.      Checks and balances

Of those, the public square is heavily involved in Informing voters, public engagement, freedom of expression and checks and balances. The prize of a well functioning public square is a healthy democracy. So what happens when we do not have that?

What is Happening Today?

The nature of the public square has been transformed by technology but it would be naïve to say that it is the only reason. Discourse in all media has become more polarised. The best explanation I have seen to explain this is we have lost our common sense of the collective and are more likely to be distrustful of other citizens.

I’m not suggesting there was a gilded age where altruistic people roamed the Earth looking to selflessly act for the benefit of their fellow citizens, but occasionally, particularly after crises, there have been political settlements of the largest outstanding problems.

Misinformation, echo chambers, and the resulting polarised discourse has meant, we only know the priorities of our tribe not that of the country. We have lost our sense of what is representative, and this leads to the more angry political landscape where you need to stop the “other side” from getting the keys and wrecking the country.

What is Needed?

We will be focusing on rebuilding the public square next week, but at a minimum people need:

  1. Fact-checked information: Accurate, comprehensive, and timely information must be available to all citizens on matters related to elections.

  2. Multiple voices: The public square must be accessible to diverse voices and perspectives, ensuring that all segments of society are heard.

  3. Make platforms accountable: If a reasonable person can be nudged into being exposed to completely fabricated, sensationalised content there is something wrong with the platform. Full stop.

The platforms court controversy and shrill voices. These are not representative voices but get an unreasonable amount of traffic. We deserve more from our public square.

Why are people not getting what they need?

There are several reasons why the public square is not adequately serving its role in democracy:

  1. Erosion of Trust: A decline in trust towards traditional institutions and media complicates the public square's role. A low trust environment breeds scepticism and justification to retreat into your own echo chamber.

  2. Political Polarization: We should not overestimate the readiness of all parties to have open and respectful dialogue. Many do not want to engage the other side.

  3. Regulatory Challenges: The rapid evolution of technology outpaces the development of appropriate regulations and oversight mechanisms. Can you imagine the politicians in the UK and the US being ahead of this?

  4. Economic Interests: Media companies and social media platforms prioritize profit over public interest, leading to sensationalism and misinformation, but can we really expect them to act otherwise?

I am an optimist, in that the challenges facing the public square are significant, but not insurmountable.

Join me next week to discuss “Public square 2.0”. Sign up to the subscription list on Blog | Deciders ( Follow me on twitter: @Decidersblog.


Rebuilding the public square series:


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