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Breathless Democracies : Can Digital Platforms Really Revolutionize Citizen Participation ?

Dernière mise à jour : 15 mars 2022

As vice-president of the USA, Al Gore prophesied in 1994 "a new age of democracy" enabled by the Internet. This ideal would be formed in the perspective of "a continuous democracy in which the popular will would find a permanent expression".

More than 20 years have passed since this declaration, and yet, experts continue to raise questions about the idea of a democratic reinforcement allowed by digital platforms. We are indeed in a new era where liberal democracy is being challenged by contemporary issues.

Whether it’s the crisis of representation and participation, the success of illiberal and authoritarian models, or the rise of populist parties, we should think about digital platforms as a remedy for our democratic regimes designed in the 19th century.

Sociologist Manuel Castells has examined new possibilities offered by these platforms. Indeed, he noticed the emergence of a hybrid communication and space. The virtual space now meets the real space, allowing the development of a specific platform of political autonomy where communities of activists are created and where new social movements are born.

In other words, new technologies can be used to initiate short-term political actions by creating ephemeral public spaces of contestation or debate that are deviated from traditional political structures. An aggregation of isolated individuals now has the capacity to constitute a community united by a specific interest. Alone behind their screens, citizens get involved more easily in these movements because of their non-binding and flexible nature. The generalized distrust of institutional politics explains the popularity of these keyboard mobilizations based on informal governance as shown by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Thus, counter-agendas are the new standard and online petitions contribute to this. For example, the 2020 petition calling for justice for George Floyd collected 20 million signatures and propelled the racial issue onto the global stage.

Furthermore, communication expert Fank Babeau observes that "ordinary" individuals-alienated from activism-don’t hesitate to share political opinions on Youtube, unlike other platforms where anonymity isn’t possible (e.g., Facebook). Although they get in touch with other subjectivities, Bernard Manin puts this into perspective by showing that digital platforms segment the public space. Unlike the mass media, digital platforms algorithms lead to beliefs reinforcement and tribalization of digital interactions.

Despite this observation, it’s obvious that online platforms reshape citizens’ roles in the political field. From now on, citizens have multiplied access to information, allowing them to reach a level of expertise and to set themselves up as controllers of public authority’s action.

Within this new framework, Evidence Checks, a public scrutiny of evidence underpinning policy, was born in the UK. We can also mention the triumphant Brazilian initiative LabHacker, a parliamentary in-house innovation unit that aims to improve the transparency and public understanding of the legislative process.

Also, social media allow dominated groups to impulse new protest actions and more generally social movements that were not possible before. Non-hegemonic groups use this powerful channel to create political movements. From this initiative, other users participate in their development allowing its strengthening-it was the case for MeToo-.

In some cases, these Internet-based protests can even have a significant impact beyond the national setting as demonstrated by the Arab Spring. This movement was born on digital platforms in 2010 and generate the proliferation of a new anti-authoritarian public opinion in the Arab world. This has been made possible by citizens circulating information via their smartphones -replacing professional journalists-.

Political scientist Pippa Norris speaks of "critical citizenship" to characterize this new paradigm where horizontality becomes a reality. In fact, the Internet allows more open and varied access to information, less homogeneous public debates, and direct political interactions.

However, citizens are not the only ones to benefit from the modified political ecosystem : states and politicians are also trying to regain the trust of citizens. This is the case of the US representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who spoke on the live-streaming platform Twitch at the time of the 2020 general elections. In addition to being spaces of contestation, digital platforms are also spaces of political reconstruction. Internet users are seizing them to empower themselves and rethink the relationship between governing and governed. The Pirate Party, a political party created in 2012 in Iceland took into account this evolution. Indeed, following the decline of trust in politics, internet activists decided to take the opposite view by proposing a direct democracy platform allowing large-scale open discussion, collaborative policy development, regular referendums. In practice, the party holds regular video-recorded meetings around the country encouraging open participation and discussion of policy issues and anyone can propose a policy in office meeting attendees.

Also, some states try overpowering the technological tool to consult citizens: open budgets and participatory budgeting are institutionalized in some cities like Paris or Madrid. This phenomenon tends to be standardized in a growing number of countries.

Nevertheless, some experts distrust these tools and fear that citizens and states don’t use them to strengthen democracy unlike private corporations (e.g., Apple). In that respect, David P. Reed, an expert in networking and internet policy, wrote, "'Democracy' in 2030 will be democracy in name only. The mechanisms of widespread corporate surveillance of user behavior and modification of user behavior are becoming so sophisticated that the citizen interests of democratic-structured countries will no longer be represented in any meaningful way. [...] Citizens' choices will be manipulated more and more in the interests of those who can pay to drive that system.”

It is obvious that the Internet and social networks stimulate the multiplication of forms and practices of social protests worldwide. Online activism reinforces grassroots mobilization and the Internet may represent a protected space defying totalitarian regime, allowing the passage from private and virtual space to the space of the street. Today, digital platforms open a field of possibilities, they are a tool able to totally refund our rusty democratic systems in which only a minority inflict its own interests. Let us remember, however, that such political will is only achievable if this same minority doesn’t take control over this tool with the aim of maintaining the established order.

Corentin Dandé

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