Digital Participation and Elections
Year of production: 2024
In today’s rapidly evolving landscape, the concept of digital participation has emerged as a transformative force, challenging the established boundaries of electoral and democratic processes. This dynamic phenomenon encompasses a wide array of activities that leverage technology to engage citizens in the democratic process, transcending the limitations of traditional political involvement and voting. Innovative digital participation platforms and tools elicit positive transformations, offering unprecedented opportunities to shape a more robust, inclusive, and resilient democratic future. However, among the potential benefits, the landscape is not without challenges; issues such as security concerns, the digital divide, and the pervasive threat of misinformation must be addressed to ensure the integrity and effectiveness of these evolving democratic practices.
Impact of Digital Participation on Voter Engagement, Accessibility and Inclusivity
The shift from conventional town hall assemblies to virtual forums, blogs, and social media platforms has offered potential for the democratization of the flow of information, providing new channels and opportunities for sharing information and engaging citizens in policy and legal initiatives and design. This evolution empowers individuals to actively participate in political discourse, irrespective of geographical limitations. Remote voting can help facilitate the act of voting for citizens facing mobility challenges or residing in remote areas. Digital participation also possesses the ability to amplify traditionally marginalized voices. By providing a platform for those who may have been sidelined in conventional political processes, digital participation significantly contributes to creating a more inclusive and participatory democratic experience. The technology becomes a catalyst for breaking down barriers and ensuring that diverse perspectives are not merely acknowledged but actively heard in the democratic discourse.
Possibilities and Innovations in Digital Participation
The realm of digital participation unfolds through various avenues, each offering unique possibilities and innovations that reshape democratic processes, foster increased citizen engagement, and potentially impact, directly or indirectly on elections. Three pivotal aspects of this transformation are e-voting, the use of social media, and the diffusion of crowdsourcing platforms.
E-voting systems represent a paradigm shift in the democratic process. Estonia has been a pioneer in this phenomenon, offering I-voting since 2005. The 2023 parliamentary elections marked a historic moment as more i-votes (51%) were cast than traditional paper votes (49%). Estonia’s pioneering efforts have influenced other nations; for instance, France extends e-voting options to citizens residing abroad, and Switzerland conducted extensive trials in select cantons. The advantages of e-voting are evident in its enhanced convenience compared to traditional ballot box voting. Notably, it significantly reduces the time and cost associated with casting a vote. Data from Estonian elections in 2013-2014 revealed that conventional on-paper voting takes approximately 16 times longer than casting an online vote. Beyond efficiency, e-voting lowers the costs of political participation, particularly in countries with vast territories and low population density. There is the additional potential appeal of e-voting in its capacity to eliminate obstacles related to factors like bad weather, long lines, or confusion over polling locations. Critically, e-voting addresses challenges faced by specific demographics, including individuals with reduced mobility such as the elderly or disabled citizens, those working on Election Day, travelers, voters living abroad, and those residing far from polling places. Considering the increased mobility among European Union citizens, facilitating voting for those living abroad emerges as a crucial consideration.
From a general perspective, studies that have considered aggregated data from several countries demonstrate that the impact of the availability of e-voting on turnout is notable for specific groups of citizens. E-voting appears to increase participation among abstainers, occasional voters, and individuals facing illness or mobility issues, and thus underscores the potential positive contribution of e-voting to the equality of participation. While the convenience aspect plays a role in citizens’ voting decisions, it’s essential to recognize that political factors such as interest and satisfaction with the political system also influence participation. Internet voting cannot resolve these broader challenges, however it can serve as a tool to actively engage citizens in electoral processes.
Crowdsourcing, petitions and civic engagement
Crowdsourcing stands as a globally employed participation method and, more specifically, as a powerful tool for enhancing democratic engagement. It serves as a complementary instrument within existing frameworks, aiming to broaden the contributor base to policy-making, eliminate potential participation barriers, and actively involve the currently disengaged populations throughout Europe. Participation platforms are instrumental in gathering public opinions, ideas, and solutions, fostering a dynamic exchange between policymakers and citizens.
A platform showcasing the effectiveness of crowdsourcing is ManaBalss.lv, operating in Latvia. On this platform, every Latvian citizen who has reached the age of 16 can propose an initiative and gather signatures for its delivery to the Latvian Parliament. Initiatives signed online by at least 10,000 citizens and meeting legal criteria are automatically sent to and subsequently considered by a specific parliamentary committee. The data shows that 453,174 citizens (out of a national population of 1,879,383 inhabitants) have participated in initiatives at least once, contributing to a total of 2,730,000 votes cast. The number of participants is increasing annually, with 42,830 members joining the ManaBalss.lv community in 2022. Similar initiatives have been implemented in other EU countries.
This democratization of decision-making not only enriches governance by incorporating diverse perspectives but also enhances transparency. Citizens can witness their contributions actively shaping policies, fostering a sense of agency and connection to the political process. By leveraging these innovative platforms, citizens actively voice concerns, provide feedback, and contribute to the co-creation of policies. This evolution towards more interactive and collaborative governance holds the potential to strengthen the bond between citizens and their governments, sustaining public interest in political life. The influence of crowdsourced initiatives on political decision-making processes extends beyond policy formulation; it can also impact elections. The increased transparency and accessibility offered by these platforms contribute to a more informed electorate, potentially influencing overall electoral participation.
Social Media as a Tool for Participation
Social media has emerged as a potent and transformative tool for citizen participation in the contemporary political landscape. The increasing use of social media in the EU is evident, with Eurostat data from 2022 indicating that 58% of people aged 16-74 participate in social networks. Additionally, a dedicated Eurobarometer survey in October 2023 revealed that 37% of respondents consider social media as the most used medium to access news, reflecting an 11% increase compared to the previous year. It’s evident that social media is playing an increasingly crucial role in the realm of digital participation, emerging as a significant source of political information for voters.
During election campaigns, candidates leverage social media to establish direct connections with voters, share policy platforms, and mobilize support. The interactive nature of these platforms enables immediate feedback, allowing politicians to gauge public sentiment and adjust their strategies accordingly.
Furthermore, the instantaneous nature of digital communication on social media ensures the rapid dissemination of information, including political developments and candidates’ positions. The shareability of content on social media goes beyond traditional communication channels, amplifying the reach of political messages and creating a viral effect. This feature contributes to a more dynamic and accessible political discourse, reaching diverse audiences in a way that traditional media may not. Hashtags, trending topics, and user-generated content contribute to the amplification of voices that could be marginalized in traditional media.
While social media holds significant potential, it is not exempt from the risks of misinformation, manipulation, and the echo chamber effect, all of which can profoundly impact elections and political debate. Therefore, implementing measures to mitigate these risks and reduce their potential impact is crucial.
Potential Drawbacks and Challenges
Security Concerns: Examining Vulnerabilities
The shift towards digitalization of the voting process, especially with the advent of e-voting, brings forth a multitude of security concerns that necessitate a thorough examination. Given its digital nature, e-voting is inherently susceptible to various technical risks spanning hardware, software, human error, and misuse. Technical system malfunctioning is a potential risk, with the possibility of glitches or failures in the voting system that could compromise the integrity of the entire process.
Cyberattacks pose a significant threat, from both in-country and out-country state or non-state actors. Targets may include voter registration technologies, voting and vote counting systems, result transmission and aggregation technologies, as well as websites for result publication and other online election-related services. Not only election-related technology but also electoral stakeholders, parties, candidates, media, and campaigns can be targets of these attacks. The objective of such attacks may include breaching the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of election data or influencing the outcome of the elections.
Additional risks include inaccurate or corrupt voter registers, potentially containing missing or fake records. Misidentification of eligible voters and the creation of fake voters could undermine the authenticity of the electoral process. Corrupt practices in vote recording, storage, and counting further compound the vulnerabilities.
These attacks may aim to disrupt communication channels, manipulate public opinion, or compromise the overall integrity of the electoral process. Remote voting solutions, especially those taking place in an uncontrolled environment, introduce an additional set of concerns. The higher risk of fraud, coercion, family voting, impersonation, or the violation of ballot secrecy becomes a considerable challenge in remote voting scenarios.
In conclusion, the digitalization of the voting process brings undeniable advantages in terms of accessibility and convenience. However, the introduction of these digital elements also raises critical security concerns that demand careful consideration and robust measures to safeguard the integrity and confidentiality of the electoral process.
Misinformation and Manipulation: Mitigating Risks
Misinformation and manipulation pose significant risks in the realm of digital participation, particularly in the context of electoral processes. The rapid spread of false or misleading information, fake news, and hate speech on digital platforms has the potential to profoundly impact public opinion, alter voter sentiment, and exacerbate social divisions. In the digital age, bad actors may exploit these platforms to disseminate false narratives, engage in disinformation campaigns, attack political candidates, or manipulate public sentiment, often utilizing fake videos or images created by artificial intelligence.
The impact is amplified by the echo chamber effect. When individuals are surrounded on social media by like-minded people and content that reinforces their viewpoints, they may become increasingly entrenched in their opinions, contributing to heightened polarization. Social media, in particular, becomes a powerful vehicle for the rapid dissemination of misinformation, with viral content shaping political narratives that can influence election outcomes.
For this reason, the incorporation of fact-checking mechanisms should be regarded as an essential component, providing the public with tools to verify the accuracy of information circulating online. Platform policies also play a pivotal role in addressing these risks. They must prioritize the authenticity and accuracy of information, implementing measures to curb the spread of misinformation and disinformation. This involves robust content moderation, the promotion of authoritative sources, and the swift removal of false content that violates community standards
According to Eurostat, 47% of individuals aged 16-74 in the EU encountered untrue or dubious information on news websites or social media in the three months preceding the survey. However, only around a quarter (23%) took steps to verify the truthfulness of the information or content. The prevalence of confirmation bias, cognitive shortcuts, and the sheer volume of information makes it challenging for individuals to discern between accurate and misleading content, further contributing to the traction gained by misinformation in public discourse. Initiatives focused on media literacy play a crucial role in equipping individuals with the skills to critically evaluate information sources and discern between credible and unreliable content.
It is therefore clear that mitigating the risks associated with misinformation and manipulation requires a comprehensive and multi-pronged approach. Tackling the challenges posed by misinformation and manipulation requires a collective effort from individuals, educators, media organizations, and digital platforms. By fostering a media-literate and vigilant public, implementing fact-checking mechanisms, and enforcing platform policies that prioritize accuracy, we can work towards creating a digital landscape that is more resilient to the harmful effects of misinformation on democratic processes.
Digital Divide: Addressing Inequalities
The digital divide, characterized by the gap in access to modern information and communication technology, is a significant challenge that directly impacts the inclusivity of digital participation in democratic processes. In 2022, 2.4% of the EU population and 7.6% of those at risk of poverty in the EU were unable to afford an Internet connection. The digital divide particularly affects specific groups such as elderly, disabled or rural residents. According to EU data only 25% of those aged 65 to 74 had at least basic overall digital skills and since public consultations and policy discussions are increasingly carried out online, this may impact on the capabilities of older persons of being able to exercise their civil and political rights. In broader terms only 54% of people in the EU aged 16 to 74 possess at least basic overall digital skills. However, when examining the influence of geographical location, a significant disparity emerges. Merely 46% of individuals residing in rural areas have acquired basic digital skills, lagging significantly behind their counterparts in urban areas, where the figure stands at 61%. Studies further confirm that disability status is associated with lower than average levels of basic internet access across the European countries.
The consequences of the digital divide extend beyond mere access to the Internet; it encompasses the ability to meaningfully engage in e-voting, participate in social media discourse, and partake in other digital civic activities. This emphasizes that bridging the digital divide is not solely a technological challenge but also a critical aspect of ensuring that the democratic process remains inclusive, representing the voices of all citizens rather than deepening existing socio-economic disparities. This multifaceted challenge requires attention not only in terms of access but also in addressing disparities in digital skills.
The role of the European Union on Digital Participation and Education
To address the challenges connected to the digital divide and digital literacy, the European Union has developed the Digital Education Action Plan (2021-2027), a policy initiative aiming to support the adaptation of the education and training systems of Member States to the digital age. The European Commission funds many activities on research and innovation for digital learning under several programs, including Horizon Europe and the Digital Europe Programme. In this context, the Erasmus+ programme plays a key role in supporting citizens of all ages in acquiring the digital skills and competences they need. Additionally, within the framework of the European Solidarity Corps programme, volunteer opportunities become available for projects aimed at boosting digital skills and fostering digital literacy.
In the ever-evolving landscape of contemporary politics, the rise of digital participation signifies a pivotal moment in democratic practices. The profound impact of digital tools on voter engagement has democratized political processes, providing citizens unprecedented access to information, fostering connections with candidates, and facilitating active participation in decision-making. This transformative power of digital participation extends to amplifying marginalized voices, contributing to a more inclusive democratic experience.
The diverse innovations in digital participation, encompassing e-voting systems, crowdsourcing platforms, and the influential role of social media, offer a spectrum of possibilities for reshaping democratic processes. While celebrating these positives, it is crucial to confront and address potential drawbacks and challenges associated with digital participation. Security concerns in e-voting, the digital divide, and the pervasive threat of misinformation and manipulation demand vigilant consideration and proactive solutions. As we navigate the benefits of technology, safeguarding the integrity of democratic processes becomes paramount. Bridging the digital divide, fortifying cybersecurity measures, and fostering digital literacy emerge as critical imperatives to ensure that the advantages of digital participation are accessible to all citizens.
While EU policy initiatives lay the groundwork to achieve such aims, the journey toward a resilient and inclusive digital democracy is a collective effort. As citizens, policymakers, and technologists, each of us plays a vital role in shaping the future of democratic engagement. It is incumbent upon us to advocate for policies that bridge the digital divide, ensuring that technology benefits all citizens, regardless of age, location, or socio-economic status. Support and actively engage with fact-checking initiatives, and demand accountability from digital platforms to uphold the accuracy and authenticity of information. By fostering a media-literate public and advocating for responsible digital practices, we can collectively build a digital landscape that strengthens the foundations of democracy.