From Shouting Matches to Argument Maps: An Online Deliberation Experiment in Italy

Why online discussions devolve into chaos and how to recover the wisdom of the crowd.

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Case study abstract

This case study examines an online deliberation experiment in which a group of supporters of a large political party were invited to propose ways to reform a national electoral law. 

Researchers compared a traditional comment forum with the Deliberatorium, an online collaborative platform where users build “argument maps” to capture the various proposals and their associated arguments for and against. 

The aim of the study was to assess the capability of this tool to support large-scale deliberation in a real-world case, comparing the argument-map approach to a traditional discussion forum. 

By comparing users’ experience across several metrics related to usability, activity levels, and quality of collaboration, we found that while the argument-map platform was perceived as less intuitive and fluid, users nevertheless maintained their engagement at a similar rate to the forum condition and ended up producing more interactions, fewer self-referential arguments, and a more respectful tone.

Key recommendations

Representation-centric tools can help raise the quality of public deliberation. 
Though less familiar, argument maps can help public actors harness collective intelligence by focusing citizens on reasoned arguments over personalities, reducing superficial, duplicative, or toxic content, and encouraging the combination and synergy of ideas.


Decide whether ideation or deliberation is more important in your particular case.
For example, argument mapping may be particularly useful where the set of policy options is already well defined, and the goal is to weigh carefully the arguments for and against these options. Conversely, in “blue sky” situations where the goal is to generate new and innovative ideas, a traditional forum may be the better approach. Employing a forum-based approach to public innovation at the ideation phase could then be followed by an argument-map phase to deliberate over the ideas that seem most promising to the group.

Establish a learning and moderation process that gets citizens ready to contribute.
Our team of ten moderators, already well trained in the logical structure of argument maps, made a critical contribution to the success of this study. Though the moderators’ task was significantly more intensive than in the discussion-forum condition, we found that much of this extra effort fell at the very beginning. Once they acquired the basics of argument mapping, most citizens needed little or no further help.

Partnerships between politicians and researchers can advance the common good. 
The political actors in this study had to do something unfamiliar: allow the par-ticipating party members to be divided into two experimental conditions. The scientists in this study also had to do something unfamiliar: negotiate the study objectives and types of data analysis to suit the real-world needs of a partner, in this case a political party. This flexibility on both sides ultimately allowed us to advance our understanding of public deliberation – a subject of great interest to researchers and politicians alike.


Read the in-depth case study

“From Shouting Matches to Argument Maps: An Online Deliberation Experiment in Italy”

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In open acess thanks to the Porticus Foundation

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