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Notre Dame researcher explores how technology can defend democracy

Growing public disenchantment with social media often highlights how it has poisoned political discourse. Critics say its business model leverages negative emotions to maximize user engagement, fueling mistrust and polarization. Keough School of Global Affairs scholar Lisa Schirch sees opportunity in a new class of deliberative technologies and their implications for democracy.

Growing public disenchantment with social media often highlights how it has poisoned political discourse. Critics say its business model leverages negative emotions to maximize user engagement, fueling mistrust and polarization.

But Lisa Schirch, the Richard G. Starmann Sr. Professor of the Practice of Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs, sees opportunity in a new class of deliberative technologies she finds can facilitate dialogue and generate workable policy solutions, strengthening democratic institutions that are increasingly under attack. Her recent research explores these tools and their implications for democracy.

“The algorithms on major social media platforms like Meta and X are divisive and emphasize disagreement,” said Schirch, who is part of the Keough School’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

“But the design of deliberative technologies is different,” Schirch said. “They use algorithms and artificial intelligence to synthesize large-scale public dialogues and highlight areas of agreement. This can bridge divides, build trust in public institutions and ultimately help strengthen democracy in an era of democratic backsliding.”

Analyzing benefits, policy implications of new tech

In a new policy brief, Schirch argues that deliberative technologies can foster more robust civic engagement, build trust in public institutions by better aligning governance with public opinion, improve understanding of policy issues, synthesize large qualitative inputs, depolarize policy debates, generate new policy options offering opportunities for collective intelligence, and transform the polarizing qualities of social media conversations.

Schirch’s research found that these technologies have important implications for the future of democracy because they can increase participation and civic engagement, foster attention to accuracy to address misinformation and disinformation, reduce toxic polarization toward people in opposing groups, encourage critical thinking to weigh complex issues and policy trade-offs, shift perspectives and curb groupthink as people engage with diverse points of view, test assumptions and reduce perception gaps on what participants think others believe, and incentivize finding and articulating consensus.

Researching and promoting pro-social tech

A crucial aspect of these new technologies is their design — something Schirch had in mind when she helped found the Council on Technology and Social Cohesion. This group of peacebuilders and technology experts seeks to address rising polarization and violence by fostering trust and collaboration.

Rather than taking a harm reduction approach to new technologies, the council wants to reimagine how they are designed and deployed. During 2024, it is convening a series of global meetings with computer engineers, business leaders and peacebuilding experts. The idea, Schirch said, is to collaboratively design a digital infrastructure that supports social cohesion and the human dignity of marginalized groups.

The deliberative technologies needed to build such an infrastructure don’t rely on social media’s negative-emotion algorithms, journalism’s bias for drama or politicians’ fear-mongering, Schirch said.

Instead, they are built to gather and synthesize large amounts of public input on policy preferences. This allows reformers — governments, nonprofits, think tanks and tech-savvy volunteers — to both identify consensus and also find potential solutions that could help move the needle on policy debates.

Importantly, Schirch said, these tools can pair artificial intelligence with collective intelligence — the wisdom of crowds. Diverse inputs and robust data synthesis offer the possibility of solutions that may scale for larger populations, Schirch said, adding that over the past decade or so, dozens of countries around the world have used these technologies to make progress on policy debates.

Studying tech and the future of democracy

Schirch is continually exploring these issues. In March, she helped organize a digital democracy symposium in Washington, D.C., for the Keough School and its Kellogg Institute for International Studies. The gathering included a keynote address by Nobel laureate Maria Ressa, a Filipino American journalist who is a prominent critic of digital disinformation, and drew the support of several prominent democratic think tanks.

In April, Schirch was part of a convening in New York City hosted by Google. In May, she will host two workshops in San Francisco on designing and funding pro-social technology. And in June, with support from the Toda Peace Institute, the Kroc Institute will host an international workshop to help peacebuilding organizations learn how to use deliberative technologies in war zones.

“These technologies are coming at an important moment,” Schirch said. “They are powerful tools to help human beings talk with and listen to each other at scale, find common ground and collaborate on creative new policy solutions.”

Originally published by Josh Stowe at keough.nd.edu on April 4.

Contact: Tracy DeStazio, associate director of media relations, 574-631-9958 or tdestazi@nd.edu

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