From participation to e-participation: what changes? (Part 2)


Collecting signatures is, for instance, a traditional way of drawing public opinion and institutions` attention on a particular issue: in some case, people sign a petition to call for a referendum, that is to turn an unofficial act into an official one. In a world without ICT, activists would set stands in a public place, most probably in a crowded square, would stop people explaining them the reasons why it`s important to care about the issue, would distribute flyers and leaflets with the goal of collecting as many signatures as possible.

As we can see, the main framework of political participation is respected: we have joint activities on the one hand (setting stands, distribution of flyers...) and common goals on the other (collecting signatures, raise awareness among public opinion, put pressure on governments to take some action or call for a referendum).

How the employment of ICT changes the act of collecting signatures? According to our definition, communication technologies allow to broaden and deepen political participation by reinforcing connections between citizens so that the chances to reach the political common goal are increased. Making a website, creating an online petition or posting on social media as Facebook or Twitter are good ways of conducting a successful e-petition. Through ICT the connections between citizens are definitely strengthened and the chances to reach goals increased. The example fully epitomized the way in which the physiognomy of joint activities changed and, with it, its nature. So how did it change? Why ICT make our initiative more successful?

1. Speed of information transmission: thanks to technological tools as newsletters, website and social media information can be spread almost instantaneously.
Pros: people can be reached anywhere in the world; possibility of debates and deliberation in real time.
Cons: possibility of spreading uncontrolled fake news or false information; public opinion may easily be misled and misinformed.

2. Amount and organization of information: ICT allows to transmit a potentially infinite amount of information. Tools as hypertexts and hyperlinks allow to organize information coherently.
Pros: knowledge is shared, public and accessible by all.
Cons: possibility of spreading fake news or false information; public opinion may easily be misled and misinformed.

3. Number of people reached: a device (PC, tablet, smartphone...) and an internet connection makes anyone a potential actor in the political e-game.
Pros: young people are accustomed to new technologies and have easy access to online activities.
Cons: people with lack of IT skills or living in remote areas are excluded from new forms of participation.

4. Anonymity: e-participation guarantees the privacy of participants and a highest level of anonymity.
Pros: anonymity may increase participation and engagement - especially of social, religious and sexual minorities - enriching the debate with more honest and original ideas.
Cons: anonymity may decrease the quality of comments and favour uncivil behavior.

5. Participation vs Engagement: ICT may have different effects on public participation and engagement.
Pros: reaching a wide audience may increase both the participation and engagement of people in political processes.
Cons: since the medium excludes any physical interaction, it may be perceived as cold and impersonal. The result is a decrease of both participation and engagement or an increase of superficial participation not followed by authentic engagement (clicktivism and slacktivism).

A possible objection may be raised against the thesis according to which the employment of ICT in political participation affects both the forms and the ontology of participation. After all, you may say, ICT pertains to participation only quantitatively (it`s just a matter of exchanging more information with more people in a faster way!) and not qualitatively (we are still in the domain of joint activities in the light of a shared goal). However, both in natural and social phenomena, quantitative differences provoke at some point qualitative differences as well. A 2.5 magnitude earthquake doesn`t really cause any qualitative change; on the other hand, an 8 magnitude earthquake will cause the destruction of man-made structures and the instigation of other natural disasters such as tsunamis, avalanches and landslides. By changing the temperature of water (quantitative change), at some point you will record qualitative changes as well (you turn water into ice or steam). The same happens in social phenomena; the only difference is that, since social phenomena are not reproducible and repeatable under the same condition, we are not able to forecast any consequence caused by quantitative changes. Poverty increasing, for instance, may lead to popular revolutions, but also to people starving to death.  The same applies to political participation; since, as we have seen, the introduction of ICT in the political game generated a significant quantitative change, it is rational to expect qualitative changes as well. Online electoral campaigns and electronic voting are already a reality (primary election for 5 Stars Movement in Italy and Podemos in Spain), but we shouldn`t be surprised if, in some decades, new forms of government (E-Democracy, deliberative democracy or even new totalitarian states, as Orwell`s Oceania) will spread around the globe. For now, prudence suggests not to make any prediction.


A last word on the role of young people in e-participation. Surveys and researches agree unanimously in pointing that voting turnout, membership in political parties, interest in politics and trust in political institutions show a substantial decline among young people. However, this doesn`t not necessarily mean that youth have no interest in European and national political life. Indeed, the paradox is easily explained if we consider that young people, far from being apathetic, are inclined towards non-conventional forms of participation or, to use our categories, prefer e-participation (blogs, social media, online campaigns...) over traditional political participation. Some recent events have already demonstrated the potentiality of these new forms: 2013 protests in Taksim Square and Gezi Park, 2010 Arab spring and 2011 Indignados Movement are all characterized by a massive youth participation which employed ICT as fundamental tools for coordinating actions and spreading information. It is also interesting to note that when institutions themselves favour the use of new technologies (as it was for 5 Stars Movement or Podemos`primary election), youth participation considerably increases. In this case, I feel enough comfortable to forecast that the future will be young.

Written by: Cristian Riva