217 – Crowd-sourcing Italy’s future

Posted on March 4, 2013 by

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In 213, I have commented on the Italian elections. Meanwhile, a friend of mine has suggested to me signing a “petition” on the future of the country. http://www.change.org – “the world’s petition platform” – sent me 9 similar petitions. I perused them:

Petition

Votes

Summary

A

155,315

5*: alliance with PD
B

18,054

PD: alliance with 5*
C

8,579

Alliance of the left

D

6,570

5*: no alliance with PD
E

2,281

5*: alliance with PD
F

2,168

PD: alliance with 5*
G

1,793

Reform PD/alliance
H

883

No PdL
I

825

PD: alliance with 5*

5* = Five star Movement of comic Beppe Grillo; PD = Democratic Party; PdL = center-right party under Berlusconi.

The numbers secure the Democratic Party (PD)a majority in the House. In the Senate,  the PD needs help: either a coalition or at least external allies – first of all to get the vote of confidence, and then pass laws.

A newspaper-sponsored poll indicates a majority in the country for a center-left government. Opinions diverge within the group between coalition (33%) and alliance (15%). Understandably, part of the electorate calls for a grand coalition (34%), so as not to be left out in the cold.

Now for the petitions: there is a clear convergence among them. The 5*Movement is to join forces with the PD and create a government that can carry out some reforms. Beppe Grillo is under pressure to revise his “we only do it alone” attitude.

If one looks at the numbers, petition A is by far the winner. I do not have whether this overwhelming vote reflects contingent history. In any case, the text is well written, and the author is a 24-old lady.

The petitions concentrate on the government program. Here I’d say, there is much overt or covert overlap: A and D share the same program, but diverge on the tactics. In fact,  tactical opinions (coalition/alliance) appear as subaltern concern – this may partially reflect the fact that the tactical situation changes continuously; also it intersects with personalities and the specific context.

These are all ways of doing politics by “crowd-sourcing”. But the approaches differ in fundamental ways.

Polls are more “objective”: the sample is scientifically construed (or at least one hopes). The pollster imposes the framework of the question. At the outset, an “expert” configures the questions. He confronts the pollees with a closed and a “top down” view, where there is no room for the unexpected. One should not forget the manipulative character of some of questions asked. The poll framework hardly engages the polled, who just signals “up” or “down”.

The petition system has other characteristics. It is:

  • “Bottom-up” – anyone can participate (gone are the days where the party hacks would dominate party meetings);
  • “Open-ended” – all suggestions are possible. The system allows for unexpected proposals that are “outside the box”;
  • “Voluntary” and hence lacks statistical legitimacy;
  • Prone to overt and covert forms of “hijacking”.
  • Some articulation of the message is possible. An iterative procedure can refine the petition’s content, or move beyond, or to consequent aspects. Comments enrich it. Petitions merge, or split: it is a living process in real time;
  • Provides rough and ready as well as reasonably impartial vetting through the voting system;
  • Facilitates “closure” of the debate through unassailable results;
  • Moderates the “personality” an “authority” component inherent in personal proposals;
  • Depersonalizes and de-professionalizes the debate;
  • Yields some degree of involvement but no “non-negotiable” commitment. Professionals often dogmatize political positions, and this may hinder compromises at a later stage.

The greatest effect of the petition system, however, could be in the subtle “decision shaping” and the connected “empowerment” it yields to voters.

I contend that reading and signing petitions subliminally shapes the voter’s opinion. People confronted with a petition tend to consider the merits, unless put under time pressure. Respondents mull over the text, explore the implications and resonances; they will develop mental reservations even when they sign. Respondents slightly alter their views, and often enlarge and nuance them when confronted with the text. Psychological research underscores the transformative effect of even cursory or passing experiences. [1]

Adding one’s signature to a “successful” list may be a transformative experience. The psychological principle of “pluralistic ignorance” describes a situation where individual members of the group disbelieve something, but mistakenly believe everyone else in the group believes it.[2] Bowing to perceived “peer pressure” they remain silent – a “conspiracy of silence” ensues.

Petitions are a way to get around such false perceptions. Put it in a positive way: As long as I’m isolated I may despair about the possibility of change. A petition tells me how widespread the sentiment is. I and others recognize “collective intentionality” in the making (I’ve described this kind of effect in http://wp.me/p81We-zK with regard to the American Revolution).

One proviso: We should not mistake such a transformative experience with manias.  Intent is shared – if imperfectly – when respondents react to a text. It is the hallmark of a mania: the situation excludes all substantive reflection. A mania accrues when people reflexively “follow the leader”.[3] Trusting others is not the same thing as together developing trust.


[1]              See Claude M. STEELE (2010): Whistling Vivaldi and other clues to how stereotypes affect us. Norton, New York

[2]              Michael SHERMER (2013): dictators and diehards. Pluralistic ignorance and the bast last hope on earh. Scientific American, CCCVIII, 3

[3]           This is a classic heuristics – replacing a difficult problem by a simpler one. If someone cries “fire” in a movie house, the difficult issue is to verify the truth. The easy way is to assume that whoever triggered the alarm or the neighbor has done it for me and follow him into the stampede. See: James SUROWIECKI (2004): The wisdom of crowds – Why the many are smarter than the few. Little Brown, New York.