Does digital democracy improve democracy?

Thamy Pogrebinschi at Open Democracy: “The advancement of tools of information and communications technology (ICT) has the potential to impact democracy nearly as much as any other area, such as science or education. The effects of the digital world on politics and society are still difficult to measure, and the speed with which these new technological tools evolve is often faster than a scholar’s ability to assess them, or a policymaker’s capacity to make them fit into existing institutional designs.

Since their early inception, digital tools and widespread access to the internet have been changing the traditional means of participation in politics, making them more effective. Electoral processes have become more transparent and effective in several countries where the paper ballot has been substituted for electronic voting machines. Petition-signing became a widespread and powerful tool as individual citizens no longer needed to be bothered out in the streets to sign a sheet of paper, but could instead be simultaneously reached by the millions via e-mail and have their names added to virtual petition lists in seconds. Protests and demonstrations have also been immensely revitalized in the internet era. In the last few years, social networks like Facebook and WhatsApp have proved to be a driving-force behind democratic uprisings, by mobilizing the masses, invoking large gatherings, and raising awareness, as was the case of the Arab Spring.

While traditional means of political participation can become more effective by reducing the costs of participation with the use of ICT tools, one cannot yet assure that it would become less subject to distortion and manipulation. In the most recent United States’ elections, computer scientists claimed that electronic voting machines may have been hacked, altering the results in the counties that relied on them. E-petitions can also be easily manipulated, if safe identification procedures are not put in place. And in these times of post-facts and post-truths, protests and demonstrations can result from strategic partisan manipulation of social media, leading to democratic instability as has recently occurred in Brazil. Nevertheless, the distortion and manipulation of these traditional forms of participation were also present before the rise of ICT tools, and regardless, even if the latter do not solve these preceding problems, they may manage to make political processes more effective anyway.

The game-changer for democracy, however, is not the revitalization of the traditional means of political participation like elections, petition-signing and protests through digital tools. Rather, the real change on how democracy works, governments rule, and representation is delivered comes from entirely new means of e-participation, or the so-called digital democratic innovations. While the internet may boost traditional forms of political participation by increasing the quantity of citizens engaged, democratic innovations that rely on ICT tools may change the very quality of participation, thus in the long-run changing the nature of democracy and its institutions….(More)”