Or will digital discussions always inevitably descend into a punch-up?

Boxers throwing punches

We’re all familiar with the dilemma: the internet potentially opens up a huge audience for public participation, making it easy for anyone to have their say. But too often it also seems to bring with it a polarising, tribal toxicity, with comment threads reduced to thoughtless shouting matches. Is that just an unavoidable downside of digital interaction – or is there another way?

The National Assembly for Wales have been using Dialogue to open up public discussions online – on everything from the future of agriculture to Welsh Baccalaureate Qualifications. Some of the topics (such as giving prisoners the vote) have been pretty contentious but that hasn’t deterred the Assembly from running the Dialogues. In fact, they’ve found the process to be consistently constructive, with participants giving considered and relevant feedback.

We recently spoke to one of the Assembly’s Senior Researchers, Hannah Johnson, to hear more about how they’d done it. She told us the format and process of Dialogue itself played a big part:

“I found Dialogue to be an essential tool in the debate. It helped to focus discussion around self-selecting themes in one inquiry, and opened out the debate beyond the two main arguments in another, helping the committee to understand the entire spectrum of debate.

The platform encourages thoughtful, considered debate – more than a standard online survey or poll – and I have found it to also elicit respectful discussions, even when opinions are in conflict.

Dialogue is also incredibly easy to understand (for users) and to extract and summarise the contributions (for officials).

I love it, and can’t wait to use it in future inquiries!”

This is consistent with our experience: a well-designed exercise (from the framing of the question to the structure of the response process) makes a huge difference to whether you get productive discussion or overrun with trolls. But, in short, YES it is absolutely possible to have constructive conversations online.

Screenshot of National Assembly for Wales Dialogue site