WORKSHOP No. 5: E-DEMOCRACY FROM THE GRASS ROOTS
The workshop was divided into two panels, the first on the role of the media in promoting democracy, the second on new forms of activism made possible by the Internet. However, the two panels often addressed common issues as it is clear that the growth of the Internet has an impact on the traditional media and that the entire information environment in which citizens operate is changing.
Summary of both panels’ findings
From the traditional media to the new media
Professor Karol Jakubowicz, Poland, former Chair of the Steering Committee on the Media and New Communication Services (CDMC) of the Council of Europe, made a very full and detailed statement on the role and future of the public service media.
He pointed out that public service television companies were having to adapt both to technological change (increase in the number of digital terrestrial channels, satellites, the Internet) and to social and political change (growing individualism, disaffection with politics, proliferation of social networks). They had, in particular, to satisfy the needs of young people, who were a less captive, more demanding audience. However, at the same time, in many countries, the ageing of the population and the fact that older people had more time meant that it was the elderly who made up the largest share of the television audience.
In Karol Jakubowicz’s view, public service television companies would have to become public service media organisations and this would require two major changes:
Alongside the traditional media, new media were attempting to emerge, making use of the Internet. Francesco Piccinini described one of these, the Internet site Agoravox.it, which had been set up a few months previously on the same lines as Agoravox.fr with the aim of allowing citizens to make their voice heard and take part in the citizen journalism movement. It enabled Internet users to analyse the news through their contributions or comments. Readers were also invited to assess the interest and the quality of contributions, making it possible to highlight the most popular ones. This type of site enriched people’s view of the world, stimulated debate between citizens and prompted them to adopt a more questioning attitude towards the news. However, it also raised a number of problems. Contributions frequently came from the same people all the time, particularly from those who had the requisite cognitive resources and time and those who were in information-related occupations (teachers and students, consultants etc). While this site did foster comment and discussion, it did not necessarily present any new or original information and some subjects (particularly those relating to international news or news from far away countries) were scarcely covered, if at all. Lastly, citizen journalists tended to model their practices on professional journalists and had not transformed journalistic writing as much as could have been expected.
Alex Sergent described the British channel, Catch 21, which defined itself as “UK’s first Internet television channel - run by young people, for young people”. Its aim was to promote more active political participation by young citizens and it made considerable use of video clips, which were a very successful means of reaching young people through the Internet. In other words, Catch 21 was intended to get young people more interested in politics, using the tools and media that they used and liked most. For this purpose, Catch 21 provided access to a whole range of programmes including reports on politics, discussion programmes (often in the form of “question times”) and a blog.
Changes in political communication
Thomas Noirfalisse described Oxfam International’s e-campaigning methods. He began by going over some of the main advantages of the Internet for conducting campaigns, which included lower transaction costs, permanent availability of services and the possibility of conducting campaigns in several different countries. The point of campaigning was not just to get over a message but first to alert people to a problem, then to enlist their help. In this connection, Oxfam made intensive use of all the new resources offered by Web 2.0 in terms of social networks, which fostered greater involvement by individuals by making them feel that they belonged to a community.
Sonja Kubisch described Germany’s National Network for Civil Society, which was a national online network designed to promote greater involvement by German civil society. Founded in 2002, it was made up of over 190 member associations or organisations and engaged in two main types of activity. Firstly, it helped citizens to get involved by providing them with information about civil society associations and encouraging them to join them. Secondly, it acted as a resource centre through which information and documents that were useful for collective action could be made available on line.
Professor Alexander Trechsel of the European University Institute gave an introduction to the EU Profiler, which was a tool to help people decide who to vote for and would be used for the first time at the June 2009 European elections in the 27 member countries. Over recent decades, various indicators such as falling electoral turnout, declining confidence in elected representatives or parties and voter disaffection showed that the public were distancing themselves from politics. The political choices available seemed to them to be opaque, muddled and fragmented, whereas in fact their interest in public affairs had not necessarily declined. The EU Profiler was an online application which enabled voters to identify which parties or candidates were closest to their concerns or expectations. Having filled in a questionnaire on their preferences in nine spheres, voters were informed which parties' programmes most closely matched their own preferences. EU Profiler was not just a tool to help individuals make voting decisions. It would also provide valuable data on national variations in political preferences or the mechanisms of voter behaviour.
The presentations and the ensuing discussions brought out a number of common issues.
The impact of technology
There was much talk in the workshop of a crisis of democracy and citizenship1, particularly the problem of how to get young citizens involved in politics. However, little mention was made of the impact of communication technologies themselves. An issue which will no doubt require further thought is the way in which technological systems offer new resources but also introduce new constraints and change or influence the practices of individuals or organisations.
Firstly, the mere fact of putting new services on the Internet does not by itself create new social dynamics. To take the example of Catch 21, it is not necessarily obvious what is radically new about the Internet’s contribution. Catch 21 does use new technologies to broadcast its programmes, but its coverage of politics is still very conventional and centred on institutional issues. As Rachel Gibson pointed out, the Internet changes the form of communication between government and citizens but not necessarily its nature.
Secondly, choices regarding technical configurations are never neutral. They have an effect on the way in which information is presented2 or raise privacy issues (for example where personal data is used for online campaigns). There is often a tendency to project a very positive image of the Internet (perhaps because of the novelty factor and the allure of its applications), but it should not be forgotten that it can also be used, consciously or unconsciously, for applications or practices that pose a threat to democracy.
One of the great hopes to which the Internet has given rise is that it will radically alter the channels of communication between citizens and government and facilitate more direct exchanges between them. If traditional mediating organisations (political parties, trade unions, the mass media, etc) are in crisis, it is no doubt because, among other things, they have not listened closely enough to citizens’ concerns and have failed to involve citizens in their operation. However, it should be borne in mind that they also perform important functions (aggregating preferences, capitalising on expertise, continuity of action) which, as yet, have no equivalent on the Internet.
At the same time, questions must be asked about the new visible or invisible forms of mediation that are appearing on the Internet. Citizens often imagine that they can become the media themselves and produce the information that they need collectively. But in point of fact, the number one media tool on the Internet is probably the Google search engine, which sorts, selects and arranges the presentation of the sites which it offers Internet users according to their requests. It serves as an intermediary between Internet users and the sources of information that are available on the Internet.
All processes of communication between individuals involve a form of intermediation, whether through language, organisations or technical devices3. But if intermediation is inevitable, we must ensure that it is organised in a transparent and open manner. In the same way as we analyse the operation of the media to try and understand the changes they bring to the circulation of information, we have to scrutinise the intermediation systems that are appearing on the Internet so as to identify any pernicious effects they may have.
Many current communication strategies are based on the principle of targeting. Messages are tailored to target audiences and a careful choice is made among all the available channels to find the one that is most likely to reach the selected audience. The strategy adopted by Oxfam International, described by Thomas Noirfalisse, is exemplary in this respect as each Oxfam campaign has its own specific communication plan.
However, this development also raises at least two major issues with regard to the quality of democracy in modern societies.
Targeting techniques based on personal data collection, which enable the population to be segmented according to various criteria (age, personal tastes, consumer habits, etc.), pose a potential threat to democracy where data potentially raising privacy issues is collected, sometimes without people’s consent or knowledge4. It is to be feared that some political players might be tempted, for the sake of effective communication, to disregard citizens’ privacy and, in certain cases, there may be a need for the authorities to impose regulatory controls.
Targeted communication tends to fragment society by treating it not as a collective entity but as a patchwork of different sub-groups. Targeted communication exacerbates differences instead of promoting shared values and common reference points. It is important to remember that democracy is also about organising peaceful co-existence.
1 Which calls to mind the frequently heard observation that in e-democracy, the real challenge is not the “e” but the democracy.
2 For example, the systems used to assess messages posted on sites such as Agoravox might lead to marginal or dissenting views being rejected and produce political uniformity rather than foster real debate.
3 Example of a technical intermediation device: to make discussions clearer and more constructive, many online forums use voting systems that make it possible to highlight the most valued contributions.
4 For instance, people signing up to connect with friends on Facebook are asked for a great deal of information which reveal their personalities and certain private preferences.