The Englaro case in Italy has personally affected me a lot but this is not a personal blog so I will not put my thoughts here.
Yet there are some important conclusions for the role of web in politics which i would like to highlight.
The story is such: big debate in Italy on whether this poor girl was to be allowed to die or not after 17 years in coma. Newspapers, of course, run forum, online debate, online surveys.
So here is what happened at Italy’s largest newspaper, Corriere della Sera, which is an important piece of evidence on how to abuse public participation. If you can’t read italian, I recommend you install the GoogleTranslate button.
Basically, the survey started, large majority in favour of letting the girl die untile they reached 50K votes in in 3 days . Experience tells them that normally results after 5K votes are stable. But here not! Suddenly a reverse of fortune happens: in one day 50K votes are casted and the votes gets back in balance.
The Corriere is very transparent about this: because of this suspicious behaviour, they removed the survey from the homepage. And in fact, once removed from the homepage, the vote went back as they were before the anomaly.
So the vote was clearly manipulated in order to show Italians were splitted on the issue. And I am sure this helped to raise doubts in people, making them think twice.
Why is this important? it shows how parties have understood the importance of the web and actively manipulate conversations in order to influence results. Let’s keep in mind this. It happens also in comments, not only in votes.
My final question is: does this mean online conversation and participation are unlikely to work if they address really important and controversial issues?
Or will the governance tools and transparent behaviour, such as the good approach of the Corriere della Sera, effective enough to ensure these debates are genuine?
My answer is that it depends on the quality of the democracy and the civic skills of the citizens. In Italy, the majority of people will not look at this article, will not care about the manipulation, and overall it will appear people were divided, so manipulation works and web conversations don’t. In other countries, such a blatant manipulation would have backfired because of popular revolt.
Ultimately is the old linus’s law “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow“”. Countries without enough critical eyes will see web-based participation become a manipulative tool.
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