It is widely believed that online technology can help to reinvigorate democratic participation. For example,
the use of digital technology at the level of political parties may have more potential to invigorate democracy than mere experiments with online voting. In particular, digital technology could help parties recover the role they once played in making government more responsive to the interests of particular groups.
There is some truth to this. But online participation processes have complex effects on the way that party members engage.
My research focuses on the use of online tools in the Green Party in Germany. The party implemented a series of changes to how their members can engage online. Specifically, they introduced online surveys among their member base, in order to enable discussions about policy decisions; introduced an online petition system, through which members can collectively set discussion items on the agenda of the executive board (or other party bodies), and further developed their existing online proposal submission system, so as to allow close to real-time tracking of the status of proposals, and their level of support.
The question is what effect the introduction of these tools had. This is important precisely because there are, and have been for some time, many expectations about the potential of ‘online democracy’. What is often overlooked in these discussions is that online participation is by definition exclusive and may therefore reinforce political divisions that already affect how politics is conducted beyond the internet.
For example, we already know that inequalities in society such as gender, age, educational attainment, income, ethnic origin and social class lead to differences in political participation. Women are less likely to engage in formal politics, either in parties or voting. While young people may be more likely to engage in political protest, they are less likely to engage in formal politics. Whether or not a person will vote is to a large degree predictable by their formal education.
These are the divides that are often assumed to be overcome with technology: online, nobody knows who you are – and therefore, everyone can vote, discuss and participate independent of what holds them back offline.
Unfortunately, it is not true. While nobody may know that I am a woman, I do not stop being one. The things that hold women back, such as lower income (), lower political efficacy ( ) and less time (e.g. through ) are still there.
If women earn less, they have less resources to spend on political participation; they are also less likely to have access to the internet. If they feel less empowered, they are less likely to vote, or even attempt to engage politically. If they have more on their minds and shoulders, they have less time, and will be less likely to spend what time they have on political participation.
Other factors have similar effects, both on political participation in general, and . Through this combination of the participation divide and the digital divide, online political participation, rather than helping those who are disadvantaged offline, is actually more likely to reinforce these divides, and make those people even less likely to engage.
The problem is even more complex than this. Online participation is not one thing, and different tools do not have the same effect. The difference is not so much in whether a political activity is conducted online or offline, but in the nature of the activity; and different online participation tools engage different types of members.
For example, men and younger members were more likely to be active on the proposal platform, while the surveys were very engaging for highly educated members. Older members were less likely to use either of these tools. There were even some new inequalities – for example, women were very active in the party overall, but less active online. The one factor that universally predicted the likely adoption of online tools was the opinion members had of these tools: if they thought they would help them, they were more likely to use them; if they thought they would not, then adoption was unlikely.
In short, while online participation could help to reinvigorate internal party democracy, this will not happen of its own accord. Parties will need to put in hard work to make it happen. This will involve understanding how their members currently participate and reflecting their preferences in what they do online.
They will also need to consider who does not currently participate, understand why, and, if possible, find ways to enable these members to participate. Crucially, this also means that they need to recognize that the solution may not even be online.