Valera Ordaz, L. (2016): “Individualist, communitarian or deliberative? Exploring the democratic potential of online political talk through three democratic philosophies.” Paper presented at the Political Studies Association Annual Conference “Media and Politics in Times of Crisis and Change”, London School of Economics and Political Science, 12th and 13th December 2016.
Research on Internet’s impact on politics has been largely dominated by a theoretical debate between the so called cyberoptimists and cyberpessimists, who have expressed their conflicting views on how the digital media could either enhance or threaten political participation and democracy. According to Wright (2011), this theoretical schism has harmed empirical analysis of political conversation by, among others, leading researchers to use narrow definitions of political discussion grounded in very strong normative standards, mostly in deliberative theory.
Researchers relying on ideal notions of deliberation have therefore faced questions like: a) how to establish and justify concrete threshold levels that variables need to exceed in order to conceive discussions as deliberative, and b) how to interpret results and infer any theoretical knowledge about the democratic value of online political talk (Black et al. 2011). These limitations have often led most researchers to basically confirm that online political discussions do not reflect either all or some of the proposed deliberative norms. Other have argued that we might be overlooking the actual democratic value of online political conversations by exclusively focusing on normative deliberative notions (Coleman & Blumler 2009).
In order to explore the democratic functions that these discussions might be serving beyond deliberation, we propose a comparative theoretical framework that includes operationalizing three modes of democratic communication grounded in deliberative theory, liberal-individualism and communitarianism, drawing on previous work (Freelon, 2010). A content analysis operationalizing these three democratic philosophies through nine variables will be applied to the conversations hosted on the Facebook profiles of four Spanish political parties. More specifically, to a sample of 2,800 comments published during Spanish General Election campaign 2015. Results will show if these online spaces mostly serve individual purposes, like self-expression or direct contact with political elites, communitarian goals like homophily or mobilization, or rather deliberative functions, allowing for rational debates.