P&I Special Issue 2023 Call for Paper – Datafication. Platformisation. Metaverse. Global Internet Policy or a Fractured Communication Future?

Datafication. Platformisation. Metaverse. Global Internet Policy or a Fractured Communication Future?

Special Issue Call for Papers, Volume 15, Issue 4

Datafication. Platformization. Metaverse. What is the state of global internet policy? Within our current online and hyper-connected lives, is it possible to have such a thing as global internet policy? Building off the 2022 Policy & Internet Conference, this special issue addresses the complex and multiple perspectives of internet policy from around the globe.

As we evolve through the Anthropocene and attempt to navigate the significant challenges humanity currently faces, we are consistently reminded of the most pressing critical issues of our epoch. Economic systems are the point of breaking, industrial action mobilised by unions is at an all-time high, inflation is rising, workers’ pay continues to fall, and the stability of our political systems has come into question. Our health systems are under unfathomable stress, refugee numbers are increasing through displacement, and the war in Ukraine continues, all of which adds to the growing global societal, economic and political pressures. And yet, concurrently, our connectivity through digital media and its surrounding environments is at an all-time high, arguably from the rise of technology players providing suites of social media platforms and its supporting infrastructures that enable a seamless and convenient, always-on lifestyle. The same app that enables us to chat with our friends and family can also book our rideshares, order our food, pay for our purchases and tempt us to become internet celebrities. What was once framed as user generated content activity has now become a normalised cultural pastime, as TikTok influencers feed the demotic turn that sees ordinary folk become internet superstars in rather small timeframes.

At the same time, policymakers are reforming legislation to address the incomprehensible imbalance of power that is generated by technology giants. One of the immediate issues concerning users is their online privacy. In many instances, governments continue to struggle with bringing large-scale social media platforms to account, and seeking mutually beneficial outcomes. TikTok especially has raised concerns with user privacy as many cybersecurity agencies who advise governments have no clear answers on how to maintain its use while not knowing what will happen to user data. Alongside user data issues, in some countries the relationship between technology providers and governments is blurred, where regulation is becoming a weaponized approach to citizen control. To counter these sorts of power imbalances, advocacy groups are consistently calling for safe, inclusive, affordable and reliable internet connectivity, as the digital divide continues to increase. The urgency for healthy online civic spaces has been highlighted as a key focus for advocacy groups, while ensuring the safety of its users has also been highlighted.

This special issue asks for responses to these contemporary issues and seeks to understand if a global internet policy is possible. How might we incorporate co-design, open dialogues, increased governance, interoperability and user-centred discussions into policy discussions? What are the immediate issues for policymakers?

We welcome research that addresses the following areas of interest (but not limited to):

  • Takedowns, shadowbanning, throttling
  • Non-western approaches towards internet policy
  • Internet governance and infrastructures
  • Content moderation
  • Regulatory responses that address the growing digital divide 
  • Communication and technology for positive economic development
  • Building strong communication systems during times of high societal pressure
  • Social media and labour concerns
  • Emerging digital communication for marginalised groups and individuals
  • Digital communication that bridges regional legislation
  • Communication and technology through comparative media systems 
  • Regulation for diversity across media systems
  • Media automation for the next 10 years and beyond
  • Young people and social media
  • Innovative empirical examples of positive digital communication and/or technology development

Please send through your title and 150-200 word abstract to Jonathon Hutchinson [jonathon.hutchinson@sydney.edu.au] and Milly Stilinovic [milica.stilinovic@sydney.edu.au] with the subject line: Policy & Internet Special Issue by October 31 2022.


October 31 – Abstracts due

November 18 – Notification of Accepted Papers

January 31 (2023) – Full Papers Due

March 31 (2023) – Final Revisions Due

Photo by Risto Kokkonen on Unsplash

Can “We the People” really help draft a national constitution? (sort of..)

Þingvellir: location of the Althing, the national parliament of Iceland, established in 930 AD with sessions held at the location until 1798. Image: Luc Van Braekel (Flickr CC BY 2.0).

As innovations like social media and open government initiatives have become an integral part of politics in the twenty-first century, there is increasing interest in the possibility of citizens directly participating in the drafting of legislation. Indeed, there is a clear trend of greater public participation in the process of constitution making, and with the growth of e-democracy tools, this trend is likely to continue. However, this view is certainly not universally held, and a number of recent studies have been much more skeptical about the value of public participation, questioning whether it has any real impact on the text of a constitution.

Following the banking crisis, and a groundswell of popular opposition to the existing political system in 2009, the people of Iceland embarked on a unique process of constitutional reform. Having opened the entire drafting process to public input and scrutiny, these efforts culminated in Iceland’s 2011 draft crowdsourced constitution: reputedly the world’s first. In his Policy & Internet article “When Does Public Participation Make a Difference? Evidence From Iceland’s Crowdsourced Constitution”, Alexander Hudson examines the impact that the Icelandic public had on the development of the draft constitution. He finds that almost 10 percent of the written proposals submitted generated a change in the draft text, particularly in the area of rights.

This remarkably high number is likely explained by the isolation of the drafters from both political parties and special interests, making them more reliant on and open to input from the public. However, although this would appear to be an example of successful public crowdsourcing, the new constitution was ultimately rejected by parliament. Iceland’s experiment with participatory drafting therefore demonstrates the possibility of successful online public engagement — but also the need to connect the masses with the political elites. It was the disconnect between these groups that triggered the initial protests and constitutional reform, but also that led to its ultimate failure.

We caught up with Alexander to discuss his findings.

Ed: We know from Wikipedia (and other studies) that group decisions are better, and crowds can be trusted. However, I guess (re: US, UK) I also feel increasingly nervous about the idea of “the public” having a say over anything important and binding. How do we distribute power and consultation, while avoiding populist chaos?

Alexander: That’s a large and important question, which I can probably answer only in part. One thing we need to be careful of is what kind of public we are talking about. In many cases, we view self-selection as a bad thing — it can’t be representative. However, in cases like Wikipedia, we see self-selected individuals with specialised knowledge and an uncommon level of interest collaborating. I would suggest that there is an important difference between the kind of decisions that are made by careful and informed participants in citizens’ juries, deliberative polls, or Wikipedia editing, and the oversimplified binary choices that we make in elections or referendums.

So, while there is research to suggest that large numbers of ordinary people can make better decisions, there are some conditions in terms of prior knowledge and careful consideration attached to that. I have high hopes for these more deliberative forms of public participation, but we are right to be cautious about referendums. The Icelandic constitutional reform process actually involved several forms of public participation, including two randomly selected deliberative fora, self-selected online participation, and a popular referendum with several questions.

Ed: A constitution is a very technical piece of text: how much could non-experts realistically contribute to its development — or was there also contribution from specialised interest groups? Presumably there was a team of lawyers and drafters managing the process?

Alexander: All of these things were going on in Iceland’s drafting process. In my research here and on a few other constitution-making processes in other countries, I’ve been impressed by the ability of citizens to engage at a high level with fundamental questions about the nature of the state, constitutional rights, and legal theory. Assuming a reasonable level of literacy, people are fully capable of reading some literature on constitutional law and political philosophy, and writing very well-informed submissions that express what they would like to see in the constitutional text. A small, self-selected set of the public in many countries seeks to engage in spirited and for the most part respectful debate on these issues. In the Icelandic case, these debates have continued from 2009 to the present.

I would also add that public interest is not distributed uniformly across all the topics that constitutions cover. Members of the public show much more interest in discussing issues of human rights, and have more success in seeing proposals on that theme included in the draft constitution. Some NGOs were involved in submitting proposals to the Icelandic Constitutional Council, but interest groups do not appear to have been a major factor in the process. Unlike some constitution-making processes, the Icelandic Constitutional Council had a limited staff, and the drafters themselves were very engaged with the public on social media.

Ed: I guess Iceland is fairly small, but also unusually homogeneous. That helps, presumably, in creating a general consensus across a society? Or will party / political leaning always tend to trump any sense of common purpose and destiny, when defining the form and identity of the nation?

Alexander: You are certainly right that Iceland is unusual in these respects, and this raises important questions of what this is a case of, and how the findings here can inform us about what might happen in other contexts. I would not say that the Icelandic people reached any sort of broad, national-level consensus about how the constitution should change. During the early part of the drafting process, it seems that those who had strong disagreements with what was taking place absented themselves from the proceedings. They did turn up later to some extent (especially after the 2012 referendum), and sought to prevent this draft from becoming law.

Where the small size and homogeneous population really came into play in Iceland is through the level of knowledge that those who participated had of one another before entering into the constitution-making process. While this has been over emphasised in some discussions of Iceland, there are communities of shared interests where people all seem to know each other, or at least know of each other. This makes forming new societies, NGOs, or interest groups easier, and probably helped to launch the constitution-making project in the first place.

Ed: How many people were involved in the process — and how were bad suggestions rejected, discussed, or improved? I imagine there must have been divisive issues, that someone would have had to arbitrate? 

Alexander: The number of people who interacted with the process in some way, either by attending one of the public forums that took place early in the process, voting in the election for the Constitutional Council, or engaging with the process on social media, is certainly in the tens of thousands. In fact, one of the striking things about this case is that 522 people stood for election to the 25 member Constitutional Council which drafted the new constitution. So there was certainly a high level of interest in participating in this process.

My research here focused on the written proposals that were posted to the Constitutional Council’s website. 204 individuals participated in that more intensive way. As the members of the Constitutional Council tell it, they would read some of the comments on social media, and the formal submissions on their website during their committee meetings, and discuss amongst themselves which ideas should be carried forward into the draft. The vast majority of the submissions were well-informed, on topic, and conveyed a collegial tone. In this case at least, there was very little of the kind of abusive participation that we observe in some online networks.

Ed: You say that despite the success in creating a crowd-sourced constitution (that passed a public referendum), it was never ratified by parliament — why is that? And what lessons can we learn from this?

Alexander: Yes, this is one of the most interesting aspects of the whole thing for scholars, and certainly a source of some outrage for those Icelanders who are still active in trying to see this draft constitution become law. Some of this relates to the specifics of Iceland’s constitutional amendment process (which disincentives parliament from approving changes in between elections), but I think that there are also a couple of broadly applicable things going on here. First, the constitution-making process arose as a response to the way that the Icelandic government was perceived to have failed in governing the financial system in the late 2000s. By the time a last-ditch attempt to bring the draft constitution up for a vote in parliament occurred right before the 2013 election, almost five years had passed since the crisis that began this whole saga, and the economic situation had begun to improve. So legislators were not feeling pressure to address those issues any more.

Second, since political parties were not active in the drafting process, too few members of parliament had a stake in the issue. If one of the larger parties had taken ownership of this draft constitution, we might have seen a different outcome. I think this is one of the most important lessons from this case: if the success of the project depends on action by elite political actors, they should be involved in the earlier stages of the process. For various reasons, the Icelanders chose to exclude professional politicians from the process, but that meant that the Constitutional Council had too few friends in parliament to ratify the draft.

Read the full article: Hudson, A. (2018) When Does Public Participation Make a Difference? Evidence From Iceland’s Crowdsourced Constitution. Policy & Internet 10 (2) 185-217. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/poi3.167

Alexander Hudson was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Bursting the bubbles of the Arab Spring: the brokers who bridge ideology on Twitter

Thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square, Cairo, on Friday May 13, 2011. Image by Hossam el-Hamalawy.

Online activism has become increasingly visible, with social media platforms being used to express protest and dissent from the Arab Spring to #MeToo. Scholarly interest in online activism has grown with its use, together with disagreement about its impact. Do social media really challenge traditional politics? Some claim that social media have had a profound and positive effect on modern protest — the speed of information sharing making online networks highly effective in building revolutionary movements. Others argue that this activity is merely symbolic: online activism has little or no impact, dilutes offline activism, and weakens social movements. Given online activity doesn’t involve the degree of risk, trust, or effort required on the ground, they argue that it can’t be considered to be “real” activism. In this view, the Arab Spring wasn’t simply a series of “Twitter revolutions”.

Despite much work on offline social movements and coalition building, few studies have used social network analysis to examine the influence of brokers of online activists (i.e. those who act as a bridge between different ideological groups), or their role in information diffusion across a network. In her Policy & Internet article “Brokerage Roles and Strategic Positions in Twitter Networks of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution”, Deena Abul-Fottouh tests whether social movements theory of networks and coalition building — developed to explain brokerage roles in offline networks, between established parties and organisations — can also be used to explain what happens online.

Social movements theory suggests that actors who occupy an intermediary structural position between different ideological groups are more influential than those embedded only in their own faction. That is, the “bridging ties” that link across political ideologies have a greater impact on mobilisation than the bonding ties within a faction. Indeed, examining the Egyptian revolution and ensuing crisis, Deena finds that these online brokers were more evident during the first phase of movement solidarity between liberals, islamists, and socialists than in the period of schism and crisis (2011-2014) that followed the initial protests. However, she also found that the online brokers didn’t match the brokers on the ground: they played different roles, complementing rather than mirroring each other in advancing the revolutionary movement.

We caught up with Deena to discuss her findings:

Ed: Firstly: is the “Arab Spring” a useful term? Does it help to think of the events that took place across parts of the Middle East and North Africa under this umbrella term — which I suppose implies some common cause or mechanism?

Deena: Well, I believe it’s useful to an extent. It helps describe some positive common features that existed in the region such as dissatisfaction with the existing regimes, a dissatisfaction that was transformed from the domain of advocacy to the domain of high-risk activism, a common feeling among the people that they can make a difference, even though it did not last long, and the evidence that there are young people in the region who are willing to sacrifice for their freedom. On the other hand, structural forces in the region such as the power of deep states and the forces of counter-revolution were capable of halting this Arab Spring before it burgeoned or bore fruit, so maybe the term “Spring” is no longer relevant.

Ed: Revolutions have been happening for centuries, i.e. they obviously don’t need Twitter or Facebook to happen. How significant do you think social media were in this case, either in sparking or sustaining the protests? And how useful are these new social media data as a means to examine the mechanisms of protest?

Deena: Social media platforms have proven to be useful in facilitating protests such as by sharing information in a speedy manner and on a broad range across borders. People in Egypt and other places in the region were influenced by Tunisia, and protest tactics were shared online. In other words, social media platforms definitely facilitate diffusion of protests. They are also hubs to create a common identity and culture among activists, which is crucial for the success of social movements. I also believe that social media present activists with various ways to circumvent policing of activism (e.g. using pseudonyms to hide the identity of the activists, sharing information about places to avoid in times of protests, many platforms offer the possibility for activists to form closed groups where they have high privacy to discuss non-public matters, etc.).

However, social media ties are weak ties. These platforms are not necessarily efficient in building the trust needed to bond social movements, especially in times of schism and at the level of high-risk activism. That is why, as I discuss in my article, we can see that the type of brokerage that is formed online is brokerage that is built on weak ties, not necessarily the same as offline brokerage that usually requires high trust.

Ed: It’s interesting that you could detect bridging between groups. Given schism seems to be fairly standard in society (Cf filter bubbles etc.), has enough attention been paid to this process of temporary shifting alignments, to advance a common cause? And are these incidental, or intentional acts of brokerage?

Deena: I believe further studies need to be made on the concepts of solidarity, schism and brokerage within social movements both online and offline. Little attention has been given to how movements come together or break apart online. The Egyptian revolution is a rich case to study these concepts as the many changes that happened in the path of the revolution in its first five years and the intervention of different forces have led to multiple shifts of alliances that deserve study. Acts of brokerage do not necessarily have to be intentional. In social movements studies, researchers have studied incidental acts that could eventually lead to formation of alliances, such as considering co-members of various social movements organisations as brokers between these organisations.

I believe that the same happens online. Brokerage could start with incidental acts such as activists following each other on Twitter for example, which could develop into stronger ties through mentioning each other. This could also build up to coordinating activities online and offline. In the case of the Egyptian revolution, many activists who met in protests on the ground were also friends online. The same happened in Moldova where activists coordinated tactics online and met on the ground. Thus, incidental acts that start with following each other online could develop into intentional coordinated activism offline. I believe further qualitative interviews need to be conducted with activists to study how they coordinate between online and offline activism, as there are certain mechanisms that cannot be observed through just studying the public profiles of activists or their structural networks.

Ed: The “Arab Spring” has had a mixed outcome across the region — and is also now perhaps a bit forgotten in the West. There have been various network studies of the 2011 protests: but what about the time between visible protests, isn’t that in a way more important? What would a social network study of the current situation in Egypt look like, do you think?

Deena: Yes, the in-between times of waves of protests are as important to study as the waves themselves as they reveal a lot about what could happen, and we usually study them retroactively after the big shocks happen. A social network of the current situation in Egypt would probably include many “isolates” and tiny “components”, if I would use social network analysis terms. This started showing in 2014 as the effects of schism in the movement. I believe this became aggravated over time as the military coup d’état got a stronger grip over the country, suppressing all opposition. Many activists are either detained or have left the country. A quick look at their online profiles does not reveal strong communication between them. Yet, this is what apparently shows from public profiles. One of the levers that social media platforms offer is the ability to create private or “closed” groups online.

I believe these groups might include rich data about activists’ communication. However, it is very difficult, almost impossible to study these groups, unless you are a member or they give you permission. In other words, there might be some sort of communication occurring between activists but at a level that researchers unfortunately cannot access. I think we might call it the “underground of online activism”, which I believe is potentially a very rich area of study.

Ed: A standard criticism of “Twitter network studies” is that they aren’t very rich — they may show who’s following whom, but not necessarily why, or with what effect. Have there been any larger, more detailed studies of the Arab Spring that take in all sides: networks, politics, ethnography, history — both online and offline?

Deena: To my knowledge, there haven’t been studies that have included all these aspects together. Yet there are many studies that covered each of them separately, especially the politics, ethnography, and history of the Arab Spring (see for example: Egypt’s Tahrir Revolution 2013, edited by D. Tschirgi, W. Kazziha and S. F. McMahon). Similarly, very few studies have tried to compare the online and offline repertoires (see for example: Weber, Garimella and Batayneh 2013, Abul-Fottouh and Fetner 2018). In my doctoral dissertation (2018 from McMaster University), I tried to include many of these elements.

Read the full article: Abul-Fottouh, D. (2018) Brokerage Roles and Strategic Positions in Twitter Networks of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Policy & Internet 10: 218-240. doi:10.1002/poi3.169

Deena Abul-Fottouh was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Call for Papers: Government, Industry, Civil Society Responses to Online Extremism

The process of radicalization still lacks clarity, and relies on theorizing that is rife with assumptions. Image of flowers left at London Bridge in June 2017, by Gerry Popplestone (Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

We are calling for articles for a Special Issue of the journal Policy & Internet on “Online Extremism: Government, Private Sector, and Civil Society Responses”, edited by Jonathan Bright and Bharath Ganesh, to be published in 2019. The submission deadline is October 30, 2018.

Issue Outline

Governments, the private sector, and civil society are beginning to work together to challenge extremist exploitation of digital communications. Both Islamic and right-wing extremists use websites, blogs, social media, encrypted messaging, and filesharing websites to spread narratives and propaganda, influence mainstream public spheres, recruit members, and advise audiences on undertaking attacks.

Across the world, public-private partnerships have emerged to counter this problem. For example, the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) organized by the UN Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate has organized a “shared hash database” that provides “digital fingerprints” of ISIS visual content to help platforms quickly take down content. In another case, the UK government funded ASI Data Science to build a tool to accurately detect jihadist content. Elsewhere, Jigsaw (a Google-owned company) has developed techniques to use content recommendations on YouTube to “redirect” viewers of extremist content to content that might challenge their views.

While these are important and admirable efforts, their impacts and effectiveness is unclear. The purpose of this special issue is to map and evaluate emerging public-private partnerships, technologies, and responses to online extremism. There are three main areas of concern that the issue will address:

(1) the changing role of content moderation, including taking down content and user accounts, as well as the use of AI techniques to assist;

(2) the increasing focus on “counter-narrative” campaigns and strategic communication; and

(3) the inclusion of global civil society in this agenda.

This mapping will contribute to understanding how power is distributed across these actors, the ways in which technology is expected to address the problem, and the design of the measures currently being undertaken.

Topics of Interest

Papers exploring one or more of the following areas are invited for consideration:

Content moderation

  • Efficacy of user and content takedown (and effects it has on extremist audiences);
  • Navigating the politics of freedom of speech in light of the proliferation of hateful and extreme speech online;
  • Development of content and community guidelines on social media platforms;
  • Effect of government policy, recent inquiries, and civil society on content moderation practices by the private sector (e.g. recent laws in Germany, Parliamentary inquiries in the UK);
  • Role and efficacy of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning in countering extremism.

Counter-narrative Campaigns and Strategic Communication

  • Effectiveness of counter-narrative campaigns in dissuading potential extremists;
  • Formal and informal approaches to counter narratives;
  • Emerging governmental or parastatal bodies to produce and disseminate counter-narratives;
  • Involvement of media and third sector in counter-narrative programming;
  • Research on counter-narrative practitioners;
  • Use of technology in supporting counter-narrative production and dissemination.

Inclusion of Global Civil Society

  • Concentration of decision making power between government, private sector, and civil society actors;
  • Diversity of global civil society actors involved in informing content moderation and counter-narrative campaigns;
  • Extent to which inclusion of diverse civil society/third sector actors improves content moderation and counter-narrative campaigns;
  • Challenges and opportunities faced by global civil society in informing agendas to respond to online extremism.

Submitting your Paper

We encourage interested scholars to submit 6,000 to 8,000 word papers that address one or more of the issues raised in the call. Submissions should be made through Policy & Internet’s manuscript submission system. Interested authors are encouraged to contact Jonathan Bright (jonathan.bright@oii.ox.ac.uk) and Bharath Ganesh (bharath.ganesh@oii.ox.ac.uk) to check the suitability of their paper.

Special Issue Schedule

The special issue will proceed according to the following timeline:

Paper submission: 30 October 2018

First round of reviews: January 2019

Revisions received: March 2019

Final review and decision: May 2019

Publication (estimated): December 2019

The special issue as a whole will be published at some time in late 2019, though individual papers will be published online in EarlyView as soon as they are accepted.

How can we encourage participation in online political deliberation?

The benefits of political participation may remain unclear if public deliberation takes place without a clear goal or a real say in decision-making for the participants. Image: Bündnis 90/Die Grünen Nordrhein-Westfalen (Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

Political parties have been criticised for failing to link citizen preferences to political decision-making. But in an attempt to enhance policy representation, many political parties have established online platforms to allow discussion of policy issues and proposals, and to open up their decision-making processes. The Internet—and particularly the social web—seems to provide an obvious opportunity to strengthen intra-party democracy and mobilise passive party members. However, these mobilising capacities are limited, and in most instances, participation has been low.

In their Policy & Internet article “Does the Internet Encourage Political Participation? Use of an Online Platform by Members of a German Political Party,” Katharina Gerl, Stefan Marschall, and Nadja Wilker examine the German Greens’ online collaboration platform to ask why only some party members and supporters use it. The platform aims to improve the inclusion of party supporters and members in the party’s opinion-formation and decision-making process, but it has failed to reach inactive members. Instead, those who have already been active in the party also use the online platform. It also seems that classical resources such as education and employment status do not (directly) explain differences in participation; instead, participation is motivated by process-related and ideological incentives.

We caught up with the authors to discuss their findings:

Ed.: You say “When it comes to explaining political online participation within parties, we face a conceptual and empirical void.” Can you explain briefly what the offline models are, and why they don’t work for the Internet age?

Katharina / Stefan / Nadja: According to Verba et al. (1995) the reasons for political non-participation can be boiled down to three factors: (1) citizens do not want to participate, (2) they cannot, (3) nobody asked them to. Speaking model-wise we can distinguish three perspectives: Citizens need certain resources like education, information, time and civic skills to participate (resource model and civic voluntarism model). The social psychological model looks at the role of attitudes and political interest that are supposed to increase participation. In addition to resources and attitudes, the general incentives model analyses how motives, costs and benefits influence participation.

These models can be applied to online participation as well, but findings for the online context indicate that the mechanisms do not always work like in the offline context. For example, age plays out differently for online participation. Generally, the models have to be specified for each participation context. This especially applies for the online context as forms of online participation sometimes demand different resources, skills or motivational factors. Therefore, we have to adapt and supplemented the models with additional online factors like internet skills and internet sophistication.

Ed.: What’s the value to a political party of involving its members in policy discussion? (i.e. why go through the bother?)

Katharina / Stefan / Nadja: Broadly speaking, there are normative and rational reasons for that. At least for the German parties, intra-party democracy plays a crucial role. The involvement of members in policy discussion can serve as a means to strengthen the integration and legitimation power of a party. Additionally, the involvement of members can have a mobilising effect for the party on the ground. This can positively influence the linkage between the party in central office, the party on the ground, and the societal base. Furthermore, member participation can be a way to react on dissatisfaction within a party.

Ed.: Are there any examples of successful “public deliberation” — i.e. is this maybe just a problem of getting disparate voices to usefully engage online, rather than a failure of political parties per se?

Katharina / Stefan / Nadja: This is definitely not unique to political parties. The problems we observe regarding online public deliberation in political parties also apply to other online participation platforms: political participation and especially public deliberation require time and effort for participants, so they will only be willing to engage if they feel they benefit from it. But the benefits of participation may remain unclear as public deliberation – by parties or other initiators – often takes place without a clear goal or a real say in decision-making for the participants. Initiators of public deliberation often fail to integrate processes of public deliberation into formal and meaningful decision-making procedures. This leads to disappointment for potential participants who might have different expectations concerning their role and scope of influence. There is a risk of a vicious circle and disappointed expectations on both sides.

Ed.: Based on your findings, what would you suggest that the Greens do in order to increase participation by their members on their platform?

Katharina / Stefan / Nadja: Our study shows that the members of the Greens are generally willing to participate online and appreciate this opportunity. However, the survey also revealed that the most important incentive for them is to have an influence on the party’s decision-making. We would suggest that the Greens create an actual cause for participation, meaning to set clear goals and to integrate it into specific and relevant decisions. Participation should not be an end in itself!

Ed.: How far do political parties try to harness deliberation where it happens in the wild e.g. on social media, rather than trying to get people to use bespoke party channels? Or might social media users see this as takeover by the very “establishment politics” they might have abandoned, or be reacting against?

Katharina / Stefan / Nadja: Parties do not constrain their online activities to their own official platforms and channels but also try to develop strategies for influencing discourses in the wild. However, this works much better and has much more authenticity as well as credibility if it isn’t parties as abstract organisations but rather individual politicians such as members of parliament who engage in person on social media, for example by using Twitter.

Ed.: How far have political scientists understood the reasons behind the so-called “crisis of democracy”, and how to address it? And even if academics came up with “the answer” — what is the process for getting academic work and knowledge put into practice by political parties?

Katharina / Stefan / Nadja: The alleged “crisis of democracy” is in first line seen as a crisis of representation in which the gap between political elites and the citizens has widened drastically within the last years, giving room to populist movements and parties in many democracies. Our impression is that facing the rise of populism in many countries, politicians have become more and more attentive towards discussions and findings in political science which have been addressing the linkage problems for years. But perhaps this is like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Read the full article: Gerl, K., Marschall, S., and Wilker, N. (2016) Does the Internet Encourage Political Participation? Use of an Online Platform by Members of a German Political Party. Policy & Internet doi:10.1002/poi3.149

Katharina Gerl, Stefan Marschall, and Nadja Wilker were talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Making crowdsourcing work as a space for democratic deliberation

As demonstrated by the reform of Finland’s off-road law, crowdsourcing legislation can function as a space for democratic deliberation. Image: Lassi Välimaa (Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

There are a many instances of crowdsourcing in both local and national governance across the world, as governments implement crowdsourcing as part of their open government practices aimed at fostering civic engagement and knowledge discovery for policies. But is crowdsourcing conducive to deliberation among citizens or is it essentially just a consulting mechanism for information gathering? Second, if it is conducive to deliberation, what kind of deliberation is it? (And is it democratic?) Third, how representative are the online deliberative exchanges of the wishes and priorities of the larger population?

In their Policy & Internet article “Crowdsourced Deliberation: The Case of the Law on Off-Road Traffic in Finland”, Tanja Aitamurto and Hélène Landemore examine a partially crowdsourced reform of the Finnish off-road traffic law. The aim of the process was to search for knowledge and ideas from the crowd, enhance people’s understanding of the law, and to increase the perception of the policy’s legitimacy. The participants could propose ideas on the platform, vote others’ ideas up or down, and comment.

The authors find that despite the lack of explicit incentives for deliberation in the crowdsourced process, crowdsourcing indeed functioned as a space for democratic deliberation; that is, an exchange of arguments among participants characterised by a degree of freedom, equality, and inclusiveness. An important finding, in particular, is that despite the lack of statistical representativeness among the participants, the deliberative exchanges reflected a diversity of viewpoints and opinions, tempering to a degree the worry about the bias likely introduced by the self-selected nature of citizen participation.

They introduce the term “crowdsourced deliberation” to mean the deliberation that happens (intentionally or unintentionally) in crowdsourcing, even when the primary aim is to gather knowledge rather than to generate deliberation. In their assessment, crowdsourcing in the Finnish experiment was conducive to some degree of democratic deliberation, even though, strikingly, the process was not designed for it.

We caught up with the authors to discuss their findings:

Ed.: There’s a lot of discussion currently about “filter bubbles” (and indeed fake news) damaging public deliberation. Do you think collaborative crowdsourced efforts (that include things like Wikipedia) help at all more generally, or are we all damned to our individual echo chambers?

Tanja and Hélène: Deliberation, whether taking place within a crowdsourced policymaking process or in another context, has a positive impact on society, when the participants exchange knowledge and arguments. While all deliberative processes are, to a certain extent, their own microcosms, there is typically at least some cross-cutting exposure of opinions and perspectives among the crowd. The more diverse the participant crowd is and the larger the number of participants, the more likely there is diversity also in the opinions, preventing strictly siloed echo chambers.

Moreover, it all comes down to design and incentives in the end. In our crowdsourcing platform we did not particularly try to attract a cross-cutting section of the population so there was a risk of having only a relatively homogenous population self-selecting into the process, which is what happened to a degree, demographically at last (over 90% of our participants were educated male professionals). In terms of ideas though, the pool was much more diverse than the demography would have suggested, and techniques we used (like clustering) helped maintain the visibility (to the researchers) of the minority views.

That said, if what you are is after is maximal openness and cross-cutting exposure, nothing beats random selection, like the one used in mini-publics of all kinds, from citizens’ juries to deliberative polls to citizens’ assemblies. That’s what Facebook and Twitter should use in order to break the filter bubbles in which people lock themselves: algorithms that randomise the content of our newsfeed and expose us to a vast range of opinions, rather than algorithms that maximise similarity with what we already like.

But for us the goal was different and so our design was different. Our goal was to gather knowledge and ideas and for this self-selection (the sort also at play in Wikipedia) is better than random-selection: whereas with random selection you shut the door on most people, in crowdsourcing platform you just let the door open to anyone who can self-identify as having a relevant form of knowledge and has the motivation to participate. The remarkable thing in our case is that even though we didn’t design the process for democratic deliberation, it occurred anyway, between the cracks of the design so to speak.

Ed.: I suppose crowdsourcing won’t work unless there is useful cooperation: do you think these successful relationships self-select on a platform, or do things perhaps work precisely because people may NOT be discussing other, divisive things (like immigration) when working together on something apparently unrelated, like an off-road law?

Tanja and Hélène: There is a varying degree of collaboration in crowdsourcing. In crowdsourced policymaking, the crowd does not typically collaborate on drafting the law (unlike the crowd does in Wikipedia writing), but they rather respond to the crowdsourcer’s, in this case, the government’s prompts. In this type of crowdsourcing, which was the case in the crowdsourced off-road traffic law reform, the crowd members don’t need to collaborate with each other in order the process to achieve its goal of finding new knowledge. The crowd can, of course, decide not to collaborate with the government and not answer the prompts, or start sabotaging the process.

The degree and success of collaboration will depend on the design and the goals of your experiment. In our case, crowdsourcing might have worked even without collaboration because our goal was to gather knowledge and information, which can be done by harvesting the contributions of the individual members of the crowd without them interacting with each other. But if what you are after is co-creation or deliberation, then yes you need to create the background conditions and incentives for cooperation.

Cooperation may require bracketing some sensitive topics or else learning to disagree in respectful ways. Deliberation, and more broadly cooperation are social skills — human technologies you might say — that we still don’t know how to use very well. This comes in part from the fact that our school systems do not teach those skills, focused as they are on promoting individual rather than collaborative success and creating an eco-system of zero-sum competition between students, when in the real world there is almost nothing you can do all by yourself and we would be much better off nurturing collaborative skills and the art or technology of deliberation.

Ed.: Have there been any other examples in Finland — i.e. is crowdsourcing (and deliberation) something that is seen as useful and successful by the government?

Tanja and Hélène: Yes, there has been several crowdsourced policymaking processes in Finland. One is a crowdsourced Limited Liability Housing Company Law reform, organised by the Ministry of Justice in the Finland government. We examined the quality of deliberation in the case, and the findings show that the quality of deliberation, as measured by Discourse Quality Index, was pretty good.

Read the full article: Aitamurto, T. and Landemore, H. (2016) Crowdsourced Deliberation: The Case of the Law on Off-Road Traffic in Finland. Policy & Internet 8 (2) doi:10.1002/poi3.115.

Tanja Aitamurto and Hélène Landemore were talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Habermas by design: designing public deliberation into online platforms

Advocates of deliberative democracy have always hoped that the Internet would provide the means for an improved public sphere. Image: March for Our Lives, Washington, by DK Lee (Flickr CC BY 2.0).

Advocates of deliberative democracy have always hoped that the Internet would provide the means for an improved public sphere. But what particular platform features should we look to, to promote deliberative debate online? In their Policy & Internet article “Design Matters! An Empirical Analysis of Online Deliberation on Different News Platforms“, Katharina Esau, Dennis Friess, and Christiane Eilders show how differences in the design of various news platforms result in significant variation in the quality of deliberation; measured as rationality, reciprocity, respect, and constructiveness.

The empirical findings of their comparative analysis across three types of news platforms broadly support the assumption that platform design affects the level of deliberative quality of user comments. Deliberation was most likely to be found in news fora, which are of course specifically designed to initiate user discussions. News websites showed a lower level of deliberative quality, with Facebook coming last in terms of meeting deliberative design criteria and sustaining deliberation. However, while Facebook performed poorly in terms of overall level of deliberative quality, it did promote a high degree of general engagement among users.

The study’s findings suggest that deliberative discourse in the virtual public sphere of the Internet is indeed possible, which is good news for advocates of deliberative theory. However, this will only be possible by carefully considering how platforms function, and how they are designed. Some may argue that the “power of design” (shaped by organisers like media companies), contradicts the basic idea of open debate amongst equals where the only necessary force is Habermas’s “forceless force of the better argument”. These advocates of an utterly free virtual public sphere may be disappointed, given it’s clear that deliberation is only likely to emerge if the platform is designed in a particular way.

We caught up with the authors to discuss their findings:

Ed: Just briefly: what design features did you find helped support public deliberation, i.e. reasoned, reciprocal, respectful, constructive discussion?

Katharina / Dennis / Christiane: There are several design features which are known to influence online deliberation. However, in this study we particularly focus on moderation, asynchronous discussion, clear topic definition, and the availability of information, which we have found to have a positive influence on the quality of online deliberation.

Ed.: I associate “Internet as a deliberative space” with Habermas, but have never read him: what’s the short version of what he thinks about “the public sphere” — and how the Internet might support this?

Katharina / Dennis / Christiane: Well, Habermas describes the public sphere as a space where free and equal people discuss topics of public import in a specific way. The respectful exchange of rational reasons is crucial in this normative ideal. Due to its open architecture, the Internet has often been presented as providing the infrastructure for large scale deliberation processes. However, Habermas himself is very sceptical as to whether online spaces support his ideas on deliberation. Ironically, he is one of the most influential authors in online deliberation scholarship.

Ed.: What do advocates of the Internet as a “deliberation space” hope for — simply that people will feel part of a social space/community if they can like things or comment on them (and see similar viewpoints); or that it will result in actual rational debate, and people changing their minds to “better” viewpoints, whatever they may be? I can personally see a value for the former, but I can’t imagine the latter ever working, i.e. given people basically don’t change?

Katharina / Dennis / Christiane: We are thinking that both hopes are present in the current debate, and we partly agree with your perception that changing minds seems to be difficult. But we may also be facing some methodological or empirical issues here, because changing of minds is not an easy thing to measure. We know from other studies that deliberation can indeed cause changes of opinion. However, most of this probably takes place within the individual’s mind. Robert E. Goodin has called this process “deliberation within” and this is not accessible through content analysis. People do not articulate “Oh, thanks for this argument, I have changed my mind,” but they probably take something away from online discussions which makes them more open minded.

Ed.: Does Wikipedia provide an example where strangers have (oddly!) come together to create something of genuine value — but maybe only because they’re actually making a specific public good? Is the basic problem of the idea of the “Internet supporting public discourse” that this is just too aimless an activity, with no obvious individual or collective benefit?

Katharina / Dennis / Christiane: We think Wikipedia is a very particular case. However, we can learn from this case that the collective goal plays a very important role for the quality of contributions. We know from empirical research that if people have the intention of contributing to something meaningful, discussion quality is significantly higher than in online spaces without that desire to have an impact.

Ed.: I wonder, isn’t Twitter the place where “deliberation” now takes place? How does it fit into, or inform, the deliberation literature, which I am assuming has largely focused on things like discussion fora?

Katharina / Dennis / Christiane: This depends on the definition of the term “deliberation”. We would argue that the limitation to 280 characters is probably not the best design feature for meaningful deliberation. However, we may have to think about deliberation in less complex contexts in order to reach more people; but this is a polarising debate.

Ed.: You say that “outsourcing discussions to social networking sites such as Facebook is not advisable due to the low level of deliberative quality compared to other news platforms.” Facebook has now decided that instead of “connecting the world” it’s going to “bring people closer together” — what would you recommend that they do to support this, in terms of the design of the interactive (or deliberative) features of the platform?

Katharina / Dennis / Christiane: This is a difficult one! We think that the quality of deliberation on Facebook would strongly benefit from moderators, which should be more present on the platform to structure the discussions. By this we do not only mean professional moderators but also participative forms of moderation, which could be encouraged more by mechanisms which support such behaviour.

Read the full article: Katharina Esau, Dennis Friess, and Christiane Eilders (2017) Design Matters! An Empirical Analysis of Online Deliberation on Different News Platforms. Policy & Internet 9 (3) 321-342.

Katharina (@kathaesa), Dennis, and Christiane were talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Censorship or rumour management? How Weibo constructs “truth” around crisis events

On 12 August 2015, a series of explosions killed 173 people and injured hundreds at a container storage station at the Port of Tianjin. Tianjin Port by Matthias Catón (Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

As social media become increasingly important as a source of news and information for citizens, there is a growing concern over the impacts of social media platforms on information quality—as evidenced by the furore over the impact of “fake news”. Driven in part by the apparently substantial impact of social media on the outcomes of Brexit and the US Presidential election, various attempts have been made to hold social media platforms to account for presiding over misinformation, with recent efforts to improve fact-checking.

There is a large and growing body of research examining rumour management on social media platforms. However, most of these studies treat it as a technical matter, and little attention has been paid to the social and political aspects of rumour. In their Policy & Internet article “How Social Media Construct ‘Truth’ Around Crisis Events: Weibo’s Rumor Management Strategies after the 2015 Tianjin Blasts“, Jing Zeng, Chung-hong Chan and King-wa Fu examine the content moderation strategies of Sina Weibo, China’s largest microblogging platform, in regulating discussion of rumours following the 2015 Tianjin blasts.

Studying rumour communication in relation to the manipulation of social media platforms is particularly important in the context of China. In China, Internet companies are licensed by the state, and their businesses must therefore be compliant with Chinese law and collaborate with the government in monitoring and censoring politically sensitive topics. Given most Chinese citizens rely heavily on Chinese social media services as alternative information sources or as grassroots “truth”, the anti-rumour policies have raised widespread concern over the implications for China’s online sphere. As there is virtually no transparency in rumour management on Chinese social media, it is an important task for researchers to investigate how Internet platforms engage with rumour content and any associated impact on public discussion.

We caught up with the authors to discuss their findings:

Ed.: “Fake news” is currently a very hot issue, with Twitter and Facebook both exploring mechanisms to try to combat it. On the flip-side we have state-sponsored propaganda now suddenly very visible (e.g. Russia), in an attempt to reduce trust, destabilise institutions, and inject rumour into the public sphere. What is the difference between rumour, propaganda and fake news; and how do they play out online in China?

Jing / Chung-hong / King-wa: The definition of rumour is very fuzzy, and it is very common to see ‘rumour’ being used interchangeably with other related concepts. Our study drew the definition of rumour from the fields of sociology and social psychology, wherein this concept has been most thoroughly articulated.

Rumour is a form of unverified information circulated in uncertain circumstances. The major difference between rumour and propaganda lies in their functions. Rumour sharing is a social practice of sense-making, therefore it functions to help people make meaning of an uncertain situation. In contrast, the concept of propaganda is more political. Propaganda is a form of information strategically used to mobilise political support for a political force.

Fake news is a new buzz word and works closely with another buzz term – post-truth. There is no established and widely accepted definition of fake news, and its true meaning(s) should be understood with respect to specific contexts. For example, Donald Trump’s use of “fake news” in his tweets aims to attack a few media outlets who have reported unfavourable stories about the him, whereas ungrounded and speculative “fake news” is created and widely circulated on the public’s social media. If we simply understand fake news as a form of fabricated news, I would argue that fake news can operate as either rumour, propaganda, or both of them.

It is worth pointing out that, in the Chinese contexts, rumour may not always be fake and propaganda is not necessarily bad. As pointed out by different scholars, rumour functions as a social protest against the authoritarian state’s information control. And in the Chinese language, the Mandarin term Xuanchuan (‘propaganda’) does not always have the same negative connotation as does its English counterpart.

Ed.: You mention previous research finding that the “Chinese government’s propaganda and censorship policies were mainly used by the authoritarian regime to prevent collective action and to maintain social stability” — is that what you found as well? i.e. that criticism of the Government is tolerated, but not organised protest?

Jing / Chung-hong / King-wa: This study examined rumour communication around the 2015 Tianjin blasts, therefore our analyses did not directly address Weibo users’ attempts to organise protest. However, regarding the Chinese government’s response to Weibo users’ criticism of its handling of the crisis, our study suggested that some criticisms of the government were tolerated. For example, the messages about local government officials mishandling of the crisis were not heavily censored. Instead, what we have found seems to confirm that social stability is of paramount importance for the ruling regime and thus online censorship was used as a mean to maintain social stability. It explains Weibo’s decision to silence the discussions on the assault of a CNN reporter, the chaotic aftermath of the blasts and the local media’s reluctance to broadcast the blasts.

Ed.: What are people’s responses to obvious government attempts to censor or head-off online rumour, e.g. by deleting posts or issuing statements? And are people generally supportive of efforts to have a “clean, rumour-free Internet”, or cynical about the ultimate intentions or effects of censorship?

Jing / Chung-hong / King-wa: From our time series analysis, we found different responses from netizens with respect to topics but we cannot find a consistent pattern of a chilling effect. Basically, the Weibo rumour management strategies, either deleting posts or refuting posts, will usually stimulate more public interest. At least as shown in our data, netizens are not supportive of those censorship efforts and somehow end up posting more messages of rumours as a counter-reaction.

Ed.: Is online rumour particularly a feature of contemporary Chinese society — or do you think that’s just a human thing (we’ve certainly seen lots of lying in the Brexit and Trump campaigns)? How might rumour relate more generally to levels of trust in institutions, and the presence of a strong, free press?

Jing / Chung-hong / King-wa: Online rumour is common in China, but it can be also pervasive in any country where use of digital technologies for communication is prevalent. Rumour sharing is a human thing, yes you can say that. But it is more accurate to say, it is a societally constructed thing. As mentioned earlier, rumour is a social practice of collective sense-making under uncertain circumstances.

Levels of public trust in governmental organisations and the media can directly impact rumour circulation, and rumour-debunking efforts. When there is a lack of public trust in official sources of information, it opens up room for rumour circulation. Likewise, when the authorities have low credibility, the official rumour debunking efforts can backfire, because the public may think the authorities are trying to hide something. This might explain what we observed in our study.

Ed.: I guess we live in interesting times; Theresa May now wants to control the Internet, Trump is attacking the very institution of the press, social media companies are under pressure to accept responsibility for the content they host. What can we learn from the Chinese case, of a very sophisticated system focused on social control and stability?

Jing / Chung-hong / King-wa: The most important implication of this study is that the most sophisticated rumour control mechanism can only be developed on a good understanding of the social roots of rumour. As our study shows, without solving the more fundamental social cause of rumour, rumour debunking efforts can backfire.

Read the full article: Jing Zeng, Chung-hong Chan and King-wa Fu (2017) How Social Media Construct ‘Truth’ Around Crisis Events: Weibo’s Rumor Management Strategies after the 2015 Tianjin Blasts. Policy & Internet 9 (3) 297-320. DOI: 10.1002/poi3.155

Jing Zeng, Chung-hong Chan and King-wa Fu were talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Does Internet voting offer a solution to declining electoral turnout?

Electronic voting in Brussels. © European Union 2014 – European Parliament.

e-Voting had been discussed as one possible remedy for the continuing decline in turnout in Western democracies. In their Policy & Internet article “Could Internet Voting Halt Declining Electoral Turnout? New Evidence that e-Voting is Habit-forming”, Mihkel Solvak and Kristjan Vassil examine the degree to which e-voting is more habit forming than paper voting. Their findings indicate that while e-voting doesn’t seem to raise turnout, it might at least arrest its continuing decline in Western democracies. And any technology capable of stabilising turnout is worth exploring.

Using cross-sectional survey data from five e-enabled elections in Estonia—a country with a decade’s experience of nationwide remote Internet voting—the authors show e-voting to be strongly persistent among voters, with clear evidence of habit formation. While a technological fix probably won’t address the underlying reasons for low turnout, it could help stop further decline by making voting easier for those who are more likely to turn out. Arresting turnout decline by keeping those who participate participating might be one realistic goal that e-voting is able to achieve.

We caught up with the authors to discuss their findings:

Ed.: There seems to be a general trend of declining electoral turnouts worldwide. Is there any form of consensus (based on actual data) on why voting rates are falling?

Mihkel / Kristjan: A consensus in terms of a single major source of turnout decline that the data points to worldwide is clearly lacking. There is however more of an agreement as to why certain regions are experiencing a comparatively steeper decline. Disenchantment with democracy and an overall disappointment in politics is the number one reason usually listed when discussing lower and declining turnout levels in new democracies.

While the same issues are nowadays also listed for older established democracies, there is no hard comparative evidence for it. We do know that the level of interest in and engagement with politics has declined across the board in Western Europe when compared to the 1960-70s, but this doesn’t count as disenchantment, and the clear decline in turnout levels in established democracies started a couple of decades later, in the early 1990s.

Given that turnout levels are still widely different depending on the country, the overall worldwide decline is probably a combination of the addition of new democracies with low and more-rapidly declining turnout levels, and a plethora of country-specific reasons in older democracies that are experiencing a somewhat less steep decline in turnout.

Ed.: Is the worry about voting decline really about “falling representation” per se, or that it might be symptomatic of deeper problems with the political ecosystem, i.e. fewer people choosing politics as a career, less involvement in local politics, less civic engagement (etc.). In other words — is falling voting (per se) even the main problem?

Mihkel / Kristjan: We can only agree; it clearly is a symptom of deeper problems. Although high turnout is a good thing, low turnout is not necessarily a problem as people have the freedom not to participate and not to be interested in politics. It becomes a problem when low turnout leads to a lack of legitimacy of the representative body and consequently also of the whole process of representation. And as you rightly point out, real problems start much earlier and at a lower level than voting in parliamentary elections. The paradox is that the technology we have examined in our article—remote internet voting—clearly can’t address these fundamental problems.

Ed.: I’m assuming the Estonian voters were voting remotely online (rather than electronically in a booth), i.e. in their own time, at their convenience? Are you basically testing the effect of offering a more convenient voting format? (And finding that format to be habit-forming?).

Mihkel / Kristjan: Yes. One of the reasons we examined Internet voting from this angle was the apparent paradox of every third vote being cast online but also only a minute increase in turnout. A few other countries also experimenting with electronic voting have seen no tangible differences in turnout levels. The explanation is of course that it is a convenience voting method that makes voting simpler for people who are already quite likely to vote—now they simply use a more convenient option to do so. But what we noted in our article was a clearly higher share of electronic voters who turned out more consistently over different elections in comparison to voters voting on paper, and even when they didn’t show traits that usually correlate with electronic voting, like living further away from polling stations. So convenience did not seem to tell the whole story, even though it might have been one of the original reasons why electronic voting was picked up.

Ed.: Presumably with remote online voting, it’s possible to send targeted advertising to voters (via email and social media), with links to vote, i.e. making it more likely people will vote in the moment, in response to whatever issues happen to be salient at the time. How does online campaigning (and targeting) change once you introduce online voting?

Mihkel / Kristjan: Theoretically, parties should be able to lock voters in more easily by advertising links to the voting solution in their online campaigns; as in banners saying “vote for me and you can do it directly here (linked)”. In the Estonian case there is an informal agreement to remain from doing that, however, in order to safeguard the neutrality of online voting. Trust in online voting is paramount, even more so than is the case with paper voting, so it probably is a good idea to try to ensure that people trust the online voting solution to be controlled by a neutral state agent tasked with conducting the elections, in order to avoid any possible associations between certain parties and the voting environment (which linking directly to the voting mechanism might cause to happen). That can never be 100% ensured though, so online campaigns coupled with online voting can make it harder for election authorities to convey the image of impartiality of their procedures.

As for voting in the moment I don’t see online voting to be substantially more susceptible to this than other voting modes — given last minute developments can influence voters voting on paper as well. I think the latest US and French presidential elections are a case in point. Some argue that the immediate developments and revelations in the Clinton email scandal investigation a couple of weeks before voting day turned the result. In the French case the hacking and release of Macron’s campaign communications immediately before voting day however didn’t play a role in the outcome. Voting in the moment will happen or not regardless of the voting mode being used.

Ed.: What do you think the barriers are to greater roll-out of online voting: presumably there are security worries, i.e. over election hacking and lack of a paper trail? (and maybe also worries about the possibility of coercive voting, if it doesn’t take place alone in a booth?)

Mihkel / Kristjan: The number one barrier to greater roll-out remains security worries about hacking. Given that people cannot observe electronic voting (i.e. how their vote arrives at the voting authorities) the role of trust becomes more central than for paper voting. And trust can be eroded easily by floating rumours even without technically compromising voting systems. The solution is to introduce verifiability into the system, akin to a physical ballot in the case of paper voting, but this makes online voting even more technologically complex.

A lot of research is being put into verifiable electronic voting systems to meet very strict security requirements. The funny thing is however that the fears holding back wider online voting are not really being raised for paper voting, even though they should. At a certain stage of the process all paper votes become bits of information in an information system as local polling stations enter or report them into computer systems that are used to aggregate the votes and determine the seat distribution. No election is fully paper based anymore.

Vote coercion problems of course cannot be ruled out and is by definition more likely when the voting authorities don’t exercise control over the immediate voting environment. I think countries that suffer from such problems shouldn’t introduce a system that might exacerbate that even more. But again, most countries allow for multiple modes that differ in the degree of neutrality and control exercised by the election authority. Absentee ballots and postal voting (which is very widespread in some countries, like Switzerland), are as vulnerable to voter coercion as is remote Internet voting. Online voting is simply one mode of voting—maintaining a healthy mix of voting modes is probably the best solution to ensure that elections are not compromised.

Ed.: I guess declining turnout is probably a problem that is too big and complex to be understood or “fixed” — but how would you go about addressing it, if asked to do so?

Mihkel / Kristjan: We fully agree—the technology of online voting will not fix low turnout as it doesn’t address the underlying problem. It simply makes voting somewhat more convenient. But voting is not difficult in the first place — with weekend voting, postal voting and absentee ballots; just to name a few things that already ease participation.

There are technologies that have a revolutionary effect (i.e. that alter impact and that are truly innovatory) and then there are small technological fixes that provide for a simpler and more pleasurable existence. Online voting is not revolutionary; it does not give a new experience of participation, it is simply one slightly more convenient mode of voting and for that a very worthwhile thing. And I think this is the maximum that can be done and that is within our control when it comes to influencing turnout. Small incremental fixes to a large multifaceted problem.

Read the full article: Mihkel Solvak and Kristjan Vassil (2017) Could Internet Voting Halt Declining Electoral Turnout? New Evidence that e-Voting is Habit-forming. Policy & Internet. DOI: 10.1002/poi3.160
Mihkel Solvak and Kristjan Vassil were talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.