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Echo- vs. Deliberative Chambers - Do Biased Online Discussions Threaten Direct Democracy?

English title Echo- vs. Deliberative Chambers - Do Biased Online Discussions Threaten Direct Democracy?
Applicant Bühlmann Marc
Number 183081
Funding scheme Digital Lives
Research institution Institut für Politikwissenschaft Universität Bern
Institution of higher education University of Berne - BE
Main discipline Political science
Start/End 01.10.2018 - 31.03.2020
Approved amount 222'350.00
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Keywords (8)

experiment; direct democracy; opinion formation; online discussion; deliberative chambers; digitization; cognitive complexity; motivated reasoning

Lay Summary (German)

Verschiedentlich wird behauptet, dass Digitalisierung eine Bedrohung für die Meinungsbildung in der direkten Demokratie darstelle. In so genannten «Echokammern» finden Diskussionen mit Gleichgesinnten statt, bei denen Meinungen verstärkt und radikalisiert werden. Dies steht im Gegensatz zur demokratischen Idee eines argumentativen Meinungsaustauschs. Allerdings kann Digitalisierung einen solchen Austausch auch ermöglichen, indem Beratungsräume (deliberative chambers) eingerichtet werden, in denen unterschiedliche Argumente die Meinungsbildung bereichern.
Lay summary

Inhalt und Ziel des Forschungsprojekts
Das Projekt erforscht die Auswirkungen von Diskussionen in Online-Foren auf die Meinungsbildung bei direktdemokratischen Abstimmungen. Mit Hilfe von Experimenten und auf der Basis eines Online-Tools wird untersucht, was verschiedene Pro- und Contraargumente bei Personen mit unterschiedlichen Ausgangsmeinungen bewirken: Polarisieren Echokammern (Argumente unterstützen eigene Ausgangsmeinung)? Haben Beratungsräume (ausgeglichene Pro- und Contraargumente) eine positive Wirkung auf die Meinungsbildung? Bewirken reine Gegenargumente (Argumente widersprechen eigener Ausgangsmeinung) eine Verstärkung oder eine Abschwächung der eigenen Position? 

Wissenschaftlicher und gesellschaftlicher Kontext
Aus praktischer Sicht will das Projekt Wege aufzeigen, wie die demokratische Qualität in direktdemokratischen Entscheidungen verbessert werden kann. Erlauben "Beratungskammern" eine demokratische Meinungsbildung, also die Suche nach Entscheidungen durch fruchtbaren Gedankenaustausch ihrer Bürger.innen? Oder verkommen politische Diskussionen in Online-Foren tatsächlich zu reinen "Echokammern"?
Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 25.09.2018

Responsible applicant and co-applicants


Project partner

Scientific events

Active participation

Title Type of contribution Title of article or contribution Date Place Persons involved
13th ECPR General Conference Talk given at a conference Echo vs Deliberative Chambers: Opinion Formation in Online Forums in Swiss Direct-Democratic Voting 05.09.2019 Wroclaw, Poland Wyss Dominik; Frick Karin;
Digital Futures Network Day Talk given at a conference Echo- vs. Deliberative Chambers – Do Biased Online Discussions Threaten Direct Democracy? 05.12.2018 Lausanne, Switzerland Wyss Dominik;

Use-inspired outputs

Associated projects

Number Title Start Funding scheme
187496 Digital Democratic Innovations to Empower Citizens in the Digital Age 01.04.2020 NRP 77 Digital Transformation


Many scholars claim that digitization poses a threat to opinion formation in particular and to direct democracy in general. The dominance of interactions with like-minded in so-called “echo-chambers” may radicalize opinions and undermine mutual understanding and compromise (see section 2.1). This is aggravated by the fact that cognitive biases are at work that cause people to develop overconfidence in their initial opinions (i.e. motivated reasoning). However, there might be room for a more optimistic view on digitization: Establishing so-called “deliberative chambers” might allow for a fruitful exchange of diverse arguments and positions and enrich the process of opinion formation. It is thus of crucial importance to understand the effects of discussions in online forums on the quality of citizens’ opinion formation. By conducting experiments with the help of a simulated online forum, the proposed project examines how and to which extent discussions in online forums strengthen or weaken the quality of citizens’ opinion formation in direct democratic campaigns (see section 2.3). Our experiment will be based on a further development of an online tool dubbed “Smartopinion” (Wyss & Beste 2017). We will use this experimental platform to simulate asynchronous discussions. For our purpose, we randomly assign participants to a control group and four treatment groups: 1) a skewed forum where pro arguments dominate, 2) a skewed forum where con arguments dominate, 3) a forum where pro and con arguments are balanced, 4) and a free choice group, where participants decide themselves in which of the three forums they want to participate. This setup allows us to assess pivotal questions relevant to the motivated-reasoning and echo-chamber literature: a) Are people more likely to choose online forums populated by like-minded and do they exhibit confirmation and disconfirmation biases during discussions? b) Do skewed forums and biased information processing lead to a polarization of opinions and undermine the epistemic potential that could be released in balanced forums?The proposed project addresses the following blind spots in current research on interpersonal (online) discussions (see section 2.2): 1) While traditional experiments on interpersonal discussion are partly compromised with regard to their internal validity, psychological experiments that are mainly concerned with internal validity involved the creation of artificial settings where individuals are treated in isolation from each other. Simulated online forums as proposed by this project try to consolidate these approaches by coming as close as possible to real-life online discussions without harming an experiment’s internal validity. 2) Studies on interpersonal discussion too often rely on an idealized notion of citizens that are free from cognitive biases. The proposed research fully integrates research on political psychology by acknowledging processes of motivated reasoning and by capturing a voters’ competence also in terms of the capacity to accommodate other positions (see also 2.4). 3) The only two online experiments conducted in Switzerland were both concerned with ballot proposals on migration, which is a highly salient and contested issue. Since interpersonal discussions and opinion formation are very context sensitive, it is imperative to conduct research in other settings as well.From a more practical point of view, our research bears the potential of showing ways on how democratic quality in direct-democratic decision-making might be improved. Are “deliberative chambers” apt for fulfilling the epistemic function of a democracy, namely the search for decisions through a fruitful exchange of arguments by its citizens? Or do political discussions in online forums indeed deteriorate to simple “echo-chambers”?