The VAP social science program was designed to make a significant contribution to debates about the capacity of information technology (IT) to facilitate deliberative democracy. In particular, we hoped to learn which psychological and social processes will come to bear most forcefully in online civic discussion, and what may happen when the expanded use of and improvements in IT give the general public access to quality political information and make possible high telepresence discussion among large numbers of people.
The research program proposed to look at two sets of consequences of central importance to understanding the effects of online political discussion: community effects and decision quality effects. Examples of questions relevant to the former are:
- Will IT-infused politics be viewed as more community-minded and principled?
- Will it help generate greater conflict or greater consensus?
- Will IT help build social networks and trust (social capital)? Political tolerance? Political efficacy and agency?
In looking at the decision quality effects of IT-infused politics, we are concerned with whether uses of IT result in or make less likely any of the following outcomes:
- conformity in decision making,
- higher integrative complexity of decision rationales,
- correspondence of decisions with respondent values,
- identification of a common good,
- joint information search strategies,
- deception and manipulation,
- confidence in decisions,
- more effort learning about an issue, and
- less biased information search regarding the issue.
In general, the concern is whether IT-mediated decision making leads to better or worse decision quality relative to isolated decision making or face-to-face decision making?
Just around the time we were commencing our project, two political scientists, John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, published what became a widely read book, Stealth Democracy (Cambridge University Press, 2002), arguing that most Americans want a democracy run like a business by experts with little deliberation, compromise, or public input. Hibbing and Theiss-Morse depict this preference for stealth democracy as a largely innocuous desire by contented people who have better things to do than engage in politics. As a response, Peter Muhlberger expanded his research agenda to determine whether stealth democracy preferences might be related to ascertainable cognitive errors and socially problematic attitudes, such as a subject's limited capacity for taking the perspective of others with whom they are engaged in political discussion. Our data support an affirmative finding and provide evidence that online political discussion can ameliorate these errors and attitudes.