5th Internet, Law and Politics Conference (VII). Political participation and Social Networking Sites

Notes from the 5th Internet, Law and Politics Conference: The Pros and Cons of Social Networking Sites, organized by the Open University of Catalonia, School of Law and Political Science, and held in Barcelona, Spain, on July 6th and 7th, 2009. More notes on this event: idp2009.

Political participation and Social Networking Sites
Chaired by Ana Sofía Cardenal

Marta Cantijoch, Assistant Professor at the Political Science Department of the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, PolNet research group.

Embedded video at http://ictlogy.net/?p=2428

The distinction amongst citizens is not only between people that participate and that do not participate, but also in how they participate when they do, distinguishing between conventional or unconventional political participation (Political Action Study, 1979), or representational and extra-representational participation (Teorell, Torcal and Montero, 2007): e.g. go to demonstrations, follow calls to boycott products or actions, etc. The latter group is acting outside institutions, thus his political action is not only about a specific position but forms also matter and are plenty of meaning.

In general, we’re seeing a change of attitude where conventional engagement is decreasing (i.e. less people being partisans in a political party) while unconventional politics are increasing. One of the reasons being dissatisfaction towards performance of representative democracy.

Combination of attitudes:

  • Disaffected citizens: dissatisfaction + low involvement = apathy, non, participation
  • Critical citizens: dissatisfaction + involvement = unconventional participation
  • Institutionalized citizens: satisfaction + involvement = conventional participation

Social networking sites provide both a qualitative and a quantitative change: higher amount of available information combined with a higher diversity of discourses; contacts and exchanges in horizontals processes (citizen to citizen) made possible while the control of communication stays in the users’ hands; interactivity.

Social networking sites also represent an open gate towards unsolicited, though relevant, information that affects your peers, or your weak ties, but that (positively) reshapes one’s own context.


  • Tools for citizen empowerment: processes of communication are citizen-initiated (vs. elite directed)
  • Reinforcement / promotion of attitudinal change: non-hierarchical communication processes
  • Impact on critical citizens but also on institutionalized profiles

Internet use fosters unconventional forms of participation, a hypothesis verified for the Spanish case.

New opportunity for formal institutions to reconnect to the public, to try and bring them back to the representative democracy arena. This will of course require an adaptation to web 2.0 technologies in the exchanges with the citizens: abandoning the top-down logic, certain degree of decentralization, and higher granularity of participation.

Nobody knows more than everyone together
José Antonio Donaire, Member of the Catalan Parliament, Catalan Socialist Party.

Embedded video at http://ictlogy.net/?p=2428

Politics 2.0 is not ICT-enhanced politics, or e-Politics. It’s a change of paradigm enabled by a technological change.

Change of paradigm:

  • The crisis of the autoritas, in the case of representative democracy, the crisis of parties, where a minority sets the general agenda in contradiction with a supposed representative democracy. The change should be towards deliberative democracy, the collective intelligence, collaborative work. The more people debate on a subject, the lower the margin of error. But not only to decrease errors: the deliberative process is a goal in itself. Deliberative democracy negates the autoritas and brings the wisdom back to the collective.
  • Adaptation from politics to policies, from the big politics to the policies of shades and the small details.
  • The appearance of complexity, where the same person can have different opinions that not necessarily match the traditional division of left-wing, right-wing or a specific ideology. Multiple identities have to be acknowledged and hence spaces for contact need to be enabled.

How to put this into practice? Different models that can be understood as progressive stages:

  • Politicians 2.0: the members of the Parliament, etc. have twitter or Facebook accounts, write on their blogs, etc. This provides transparency, interaction, a first person communication (despite the vertical discourse of the party), proximity. Politicians 2.0 are, nevertheless, a necessary but not sufficient step towards Politics 2.0
  • Political means 2.0, that enable participation, the collective intelligence, managing the complex, rewarding or recognising meritocracy. A wiki, for instance, can allow most of these aspects. The network also generates autoritas, but it is a well deserved autoritas. The Catalan Parlament 2.0 could be an example of this.
  • Politicized means 2.0, that enable the exchange of ideas, community building and creation of communities, cyberactivism, against particracy. The pros is that people debate seriously, the cons is that they might lead to quasi-parties.
  • Political spaces 2.0: gathering spaces, dialogue and exchange, complex identities, against particracy.

A distinction between direct democracy and deliberative democracy. The Net to directly decide can lead to dangerous outcomes or problems as the NIMBY, lobbying or even taking the whole system as a joke (e.g. the Spanish “efecto Chikilicuatre”, where Spaniards chose a stand-up comedy actor to represent Spain at Eurovision).

But politics will be 2.0 or won’t be.

Ricard Espelt, Copons Town Councillor, in charge of Economic Promotion, New Technologies and Communication.

Embedded video at http://ictlogy.net/?p=2428


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In a small town like Copons, problems are small but real ones, and the traditional solution would be that the citizen would shift the problem towards the city council, which might or might not solve the problem, given their limited resources.

Copons 2.0 aims at bringing the citizen back in the equation.

Problems should be able to be rephrased as alternatives, opportunities, requirements… In any case, a problem should be an excuse for a debate, for an encounter within the town and within citizens themselves.

The Administration is seen as a resource, but its limits are properly framed and known by everyone.

And the citizen is, again, no more a “whiner” but someone who can also contribute with solutions, or contributing to “the” solution.

Social networking sites put all these things together, making possible sharing, deliberation, participation, etc.

Far from corporativism, Copons opted for universal and socialized tools, in the cloud, for free: WordPress, Facebook, Flickr, etc. and everything licensed with Creative Commons. Notwithstanding, opinions were only accepted if backed with a real digital profile, even if they were popular or widely accepted.

Surprisingly, online administrative processes have been the less popular, being participative tools the most used. The major: There’s no opposition: it is the citizens who are watching us. Working on the net and in such a framework, the administration has to be transparent and the citizens ask for highest degrees of accountability, responsibility, etc.

What happens with the digital divide? Wifi areas and digital literacy workshops were created to help the laggards catch up with the rest. Training is made on a peer-to-peer basis, where initiated volunteers help their neighbours. Now, more people have digital profiles, there’s more broadband penetration, offline debate has been enriched and enhanced by online debate, people self-organize. A good pro: everybody knows who their representatives are and viceversa.

The Copons 2.0 project has been able to deal with quite complex problems, problems that came from a long tail of approaches, that gathered all the relevant agents (known and unknown) affected by the problem, etc. And sometimes, the identified solutions belonged not to the Government sphere, but to a shared set of responsibilities/responsibles. But, as monitoring is constant, solutions are temporal and they quickly enter a process of constant improvement… as in a permanent beta.


Franck Dumortier: Where are the limits of conventional and unconventional? How is your digital identity affected by you participation conventionally or unconventionally? (e.g. a demonstration that ends up with you on jail because of some uncontrolled riots)

Ismael Peña-López: the impact of SNS on critical and institutionalized citizens, is it the same one? Is it more “2.0” in the case of critical/grassroots and more “1.0” in the case of institutionalized/top-down? José Antonio Donaire: we’ll most probably be seeing Politics 2.0 made up of the 4 stages mentioned below. On the other hand, it not about web 2.0 tools, or web 2.0 tools used the 1.0 or the 2.0 way, but whether there is a deliberative process, however it takes place. Marta Cantijoch: Agreed, it’s not about technology but processes and philosophy, a participatory one, despite whether it is made with web 1.0 or 2.0 applications.

Ismael Peña-López: does Politics 2.0 require a lot more effort/work or can it be mainstreamed in every day’s politics? Ricard Espelt: more than a matter of workload, is a matter of attitude, whether one wants to engage with the citizenry or wants to be pro-active in politics, or just sit on the City Council.

Q: How does participatory politics fit with a party system, closed, not really representative, power centred, top-down managed, etc.? Why should I speak with a politician, interact with them, if they are wired to/by the party? José Antonio Donaire: I’m absolutely for open lists in elections. But, but this radically change the scenario? It might make the individual politician more responsible, but the change of paradigm goes way beyond that. A representative system is efficient, but it does not necessarily require that it is the party/government who decides both the agenda and the results of the agenda setting. There is an urgent need to recover the debate, the collective finding of the truth, the enlightenment.

Albert Batlle: What happens with the profile of satisfied citizen but not active/engaged? Marta Cantijoch: this profile perfectly fits within the Institutionalized group.

Albert Batlle: How do we scale up the Copons 2.0 model? For instance, from the local to the national or the international level. How do we reach consensus there? Ricard Espelt: We have a low sense of the common good and of the community. The problem of scalability is most probably not a matter of size, but of consensus. Big participatory projects do not work not because they are big, but because they are top-down. José Antonio Donaire: Maybe what works is common interest. If Copons 2.0 works it might be because the small town is thematically coherent. We thus can build bigger communities that, notwithstanding, have a common thematic core. And the politician should have channels so that they can practice an active hearing, a way to gather knowledge in which to base their decisions.

Q: (to José Antonio Donaire) Why should a politician want to end up politics? What does it mean ending up conventional politics? How would you then become a Member of Parliament? A: I am aware that representative politics works, but it is a fragile one, and there’s evidence of disaffection and of loss of sense of community. When talking about politics outside politics, this means not without politics, but outside of (or without) conventional politics. The idea is not throwing politicians away, but working with the citizens to set up the agenda, to decide what’s to be decided, etc.

Mònica Vilasau: How do we connect engagement and a call for participation with results? How not to deceive people? Is it easier in smaller places? Are outcomes easier to achieve at smaller scales? José Antonio Donaire: It’s better a citizen association building up a website and imagining what they’d like, than the City Council asking for ideas. A good example could be Las 1001 Ideas.

Ana Sofía Cardenal: For a deliberative democracy, we need a genuine motivation. But there are demagogues that want to manipulate the public arena. What to do with them? José Antonio Donaire: On the Net, reputation is very transparent. In a network of people it is more difficult to be cynical.

More Information

5th Internet, Law and Politics Conference (2009)