How can we encourage participation in online political deliberation?

Political parties have been criticized 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 mobilize passive party members. However, these mobilizing 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 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 mobilizing 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 organizations 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.

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. 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 organizers 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 skeptical 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 polarizing 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.

Does crowdsourcing citizen initiatives affect attitudes towards democracy?

Crowdsourcing legislation is an example of a democratic innovation that gives citizens a say in the legislative process. In their Policy and Internet journal article ‘Does Crowdsourcing Legislation Increase Political Legitimacy? The Case of Avoin Ministeriö in Finland’, Henrik Serup Christensen, Maija Karjalainen and Laura Nurminen explore how involvement in the citizen initiatives affects attitudes towards democracy. They find that crowdsourcing citizen initiatives can potentially strengthen political legitimacy, but both outcomes and procedures matter for the effects.

Crowdsourcing is a recent buzzword that describes efforts to use the Internet to mobilize online communities to achieve specific organizational goals. While crowdsourcing serves several purposes, the most interesting potential from a democratic perspective is the ability to crowdsource legislation. By giving citizens the means to affect the legislative process more directly, crowdsourcing legislation is an example of a democratic innovation that gives citizens a say in the legislative process. Recent years have witnessed a scholarly debate on whether such new forms of participatory governance can help cure democratic deficits such as a declining political legitimacy of the political system in the eyes of the citizenry. However, it is still not clear how taking part in crowdsourcing affects the political attitudes of the participants, and the potential impact of such democratic innovations therefore remain unclear.

In our study, we contribute to this research agenda by exploring how crowdsourcing citizens’ initiatives affected political attitudes in Finland. The non-binding Citizens’ Initiative instrument in Finland was introduced in spring 2012 to give citizens the chance to influence the agenda of the political decision making. In particular, we zoom in on people active on the Internet website Avoin Ministeriö (Open Ministry), which is a site based on the idea of crowdsourcing where users can draft citizens’ initiatives and deliberate on their contents. As is frequently the case for studies of crowdsourcing, we find that only a small portion of the users are actively involved in the crowdsourcing process. The option to deliberate on the website was used by about 7% of the users; the rest were only passive readers or supported initiatives made by others. Nevertheless, Avoin Ministeriö has been instrumental in creating support for several of the most successful initiatives during the period, showing that the website has been a key actor during the introductory phase of the Citizens’ initiative in Finland.

We study how developments in political attitudes were affected by outcome satisfaction and process satisfaction. Outcome satisfaction concerns whether the participants get their preferred outcome through their involvement, and this has been emphasized by proponents of direct democracy. Since citizens get involved to achieve a specific outcome, their evaluation of the experience hinges on whether or not they achieve this outcome. Process satisfaction, on the other hand, is more concerned with the perceived quality of decision making. According to this perspective, what matters is that participants find that their concerns are given due consideration. When people find the decision making to be fair and balanced, they may even accept not getting their preferred outcome. The relative importance of these two perspectives remains disputed in the literature.

The research design consisted of two surveys administered to the users of Avoin Ministeriö before and after the decision of the Finnish Parliament on the first citizens’ initiative in concerning a ban on the fur-farming industry in Finland. This allowed us to observe how involvement in the crowdsourcing process shaped developments in central political attitudes among the users of Avoin Ministeriö and what factors determined the developments in subjective political legitimacy. The first survey was conducted in fall 2012, when the initiators were gathering signatures in support of the initiative to ban fur-farming, while the second survey was conducted in summer 2013 when Parliament rejected the initiative. Altogether 421 persons filled in both surveys, and thus comprised the sample for the analyses.

The study yielded a number of interesting findings. First of all, those who were dissatisfied with Parliament rejecting the initiative experienced a significantly more negative development in political trust compared to those who did not explicitly support the initiative. This shows that the crowdsourcing process had a negative impact on political legitimacy among the initiative’s supporters, which is in line with previous contributions emphasizing the importance of outcome legitimacy. It is worth noting that this also affected trust in the Finnish President, even if he has no formal powers in relation to the Citizens’ initiative in Finland. This shows that negative effects on political legitimacy could be more severe than just a temporary dissatisfaction with the political actors responsible for the decision.

Nevertheless, the outcome may not be the most important factor for determining developments in political legitimacy. Our second major finding indicated that those who were dissatisfied with the way Parliament handled the initiative also experienced more negative developments in political legitimacy compared to those who were satisfied. Furthermore, this effect was more pervasive than the effect for outcome satisfaction. This implies that the procedures for handling non-binding initiatives may play a strong role in citizens’ perceptions of representative institutions, which is in line with previous findings emphasising the importance of procedural aspects and evaluations for judging political authorities.

We conclude that there is a beneficial impact on political legitimacy if crowdsourced citizens’ initiatives have broad appeal so they can be passed in Parliament. However, it is important to note that positive effects on political legitimacy do not hinge on Parliament approving citizens’ initiatives. If the MPs invest time and resources in the careful, transparent and publicly justified handling of initiatives, possible negative effects of rejecting initiatives can be diminished. Citizens and activists may accept an unfavourable decision if the procedure by which it was reached seems fair and just. Finally, the results give reason to be hopeful about the role of crowdsourcing in restoring political legitimacy, since a majority of our respondents felt that the possibility of crowdsourcing citizens’ initiatives clearly improved Finnish democracy.

While all hopes may not have been fulfilled so far, crowdsourcing legislation therefore still has potential to help rebuild political legitimacy.

Read the full article: Christensen, H., Karjalainen, M., and Nurminen, L., (2015) Does Crowdsourcing Legislation Increase Political Legitimacy? The Case of Avoin Ministeriö in Finland. Policy and Internet 7 (1) 25–45.

Henrik Serup Christensen is Academy Research Fellow at SAMFORSK, Åbo Akademi University.

Maija Karjalainen is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Political Science and Contemporary History in the University of Turku, Finland.

Laura Nurminen is a Doctoral Candidate at the Department of Political and Economic Studies at Helsinki University, Finland.