4th Internet, Law and Politics Congress (VI). Public opinion and participation on the internet: blogs and political parties

Notes from the 4th Internet, Law and Politics Congress.
Session VI

Round Table

Public opinion and participation on the internet: blogs and political parties

Lourdes Muñoz, member of parliament, (PSC). PSC Secretary for Women’s Policy.

Politicians and their participation in the Web 2.0 is but a part of a higher goal which is the development of the Information Society.

The Web 2.0 provides new means for both citizens and institutions to have new channels to have their message sent, and their opinion heard. Indeed, there’s an increasing amount of readers and creators of blogs.

And not only opinion, but participation.

Some facts and figures about the penetration of blogs in the Spanish Congress

There is not a big difference between male and female members or the Parliament having blogs, though there is a regional difference, where Catalonia has a higher average of blogging members than the Spanish State level.

Uses of blogs by politicians

  1. Inform themselves
  2. Inform their audiences
  3. Give arguments about their opinions (e.g. the ones stated off-line in shortest timespans)
  4. Show their own ideas, especially in huge parties where the institutional voice is shadeless
  5. Show their agenda, what they do
  6. Be specific in their opinions, get into the detail of their specialty… and get feedback
  7. Listen to the ones affected by their decisions, by experts on a specific field
  8. Include the opinions they get
  9. Interact with your audience
  10. Share knowledge, especially the one that the politician has because of their privileged position
  11. Participate in other spheres and platforms

Blogs enable picking the anonymous citizenry as an aggregate of individuals, so a (more or less) personalized message can be sent.

Carles Campuzano, Lourdes Muñoz, Roc Fages
Carles Campuzano, Lourdes Muñoz, Roc Fages

Carles Campuzano, member of parliament (CiU).

The thrilling thing about blogs is that they enable a debate without boundaries: geographical, created among and within political parties, ideological, of different levels of commitment, etc.

Blogs help the free flow of ideas, breaking endogamous structures and hierarchies. Individual voices are boosted to higher levels of relevance. And this free flow of ideas applies for those having similar ideas so they can exchange them, but also for those having opposed ideas so a debate takes place.

The problem with the so far adoption of the Internet by political parties is that the message hasn’t changed: they’re used the same way the institutions have used the media to send their message out. The blogger politician should be not the exception, but the trojan horse to change the system from within.

And a caveat and a proposal: blogs enable the organized citizenry to send their message out too, but their representativeness can also be not as real as one might think. But the politician can both listen to organized lobbies and also to the individuals they supposedly represent.

The immediate response to the citizens is not only about transparency and accountability, but also to get richest feedback and act according to it.

Roc Fages, specialist in communication on the Internet.

We have to go beyond the tools of the Web 2.0, but to adopt the concept: listen, interact, create networks, etc. between people, and especially enabling the citizenry to create their own networks.

There are plenty of political blogs, but few politicians’ blogs. There’s an increasing trend where not only established politicians blog, but also the partisans of the political parties, which is a rich arena where interesting ideas are created.

Citizens are already moving on to engage in campaigns. Some politicians do have blogs. Can institutions (e.g. the Parliament) engage in the conversation and collaborate with Web 2.0 applications? Fix My Street is an interesting example.

Are politicians a brand that has to be curated on the Internet?

Another point to be made is that the Web 2.0 is a perfect bridge to reach the Nintendo Generation and hence reduce (or try to) political disaffection (they’re the voters of the future).

Key points

  • Without attitude 2.0, there’ll be no politicians 2.0
  • Individual effort will bring benefits when it brings collective benefits.
  • Offline + online.
  • Actions to dynamize the Net.
  • No fear to engage in public-private partnerships.
  • The potential of the Nintendo generation

Q&A

Marc López: What’s the role of the corporate sector? Do they monopolize the political debate leaving the citizen (individual) participation without room? CC: The big issues are discussed not on governments, but on the public arena and within the public-private debate. Web 2.0 makes it more open and transparent. RF: the problem is that firms are more flexible, but the Web 2.0 should help in bringing flexibility to the institutions.

Ignacio Beltrán de Heredia: how do we cope with the tight control parties have on the message that is sent about them and this supposed freedom of speech by their own members? LM: Parties send their “canned” message, but they’re open to e.g. the participation of bloggers in their events. So it’s true that the citizenry is having their voice heard. CC: Parties are trying to keep the control, but it’s useless. It actually is becoming the other way round: media (corporate and citizenship) are taking the control of the parties’ inner agendas. RF: A main driver for leakage of non-official information for political parties is not outsiders, but insider partisans that are not part of the powers of the party.

Some attendee: what’s the reason of the difference between political parties in Spain and the US concerning the adoption and use of Web 2.0 tools? LM: The US is doing great… for the people that already is online, but is seemingly to be forgetting about the others. RF: The pervasiveness in the US of the political discourse is absolute, and this helps to engage people to vote or to volunteer for campaigning. What is true is that spaniards use the Internet for e-commerce issues, but not for political ones. There’s an evident gap here: is it about e-readiness or about politics?

Another attendee: if the web can be used all days of the year, including pre and post-campaing seasons, or be written and read from wherever, shouldn’t we be changing some electoral regulations? Open lists, propaganda regulation, etc. LM: Of course some laws are outdated. CC: politicians are to tied to their stakeholders (the powers of the party, lobbies, etc.) and this is corrupting the essence itself of democratic representativeness. This should be changed and, maybe, the Web 2.0 can help in doing it.

Francesc Muñoz: How many citizens can engage in Politics 2.0? And not because of access, but culture, social class. Isn’t it a utopia? RF: An example: in the Netherlands, the Maghribian community gathers around telecenters and virtual communities. These virtual communities are riches in opinion about their daily lives and they do present a great opportunity for the politicians to approach that community. And the good thing about this is that people no more needs to seek for information, because it is information that does seek and reach its audience. CC: Maybe there’s not many people actually using these technologies, but they are the first wave of an upcoming, nearest, changing, future.

4th Internet, Law and Politics Congress (2008)

Blogs for e-Government: sufficient condition, but not necessary

In my conference about Digital Citizens vs. Analogue Institutions I spoke — among other things — about the importance of blogging for democracy, human rights and the development of the Information Society. And I stated that, even if we could not draw a direct relationship between all these variables — which we cannot so far —, we could set up a path where all these concepts formed part of the same equation.

Now Víctor R. Ruiz asks me to elaborate this idea.

First things first: with the data available at the moment (in this case from UNPAN — UN e-Government Survey 2008. From e-Government to Connected Governance — and Universal McCann — Wave 3 —) we cannot state that there is a close or strong relationship between blogging and the development of e-Government. In the figure that follows UNPAN’s e-Government index is compared with Universal McCann data about creation of blogs. The figure speaks (or, actually, does not speak at all) for itself:

So, what is the relationship then between blogs and e-Government? I’ll try and draw here two lines of thought, schematically for clarity’s sake (see below for references where to dig for some evidence about the following statements). Please keep in mind that when I say things like “there is a relationship” or “there is a correlation”, no explanation for causality is intended: variables seem to have a parallel evolution, but we (still) do not know whether one determines the other, the contrary or not at all. The argument is better followed by browsing through the slides I used at my conference:

Information Society, e-Governenment and Human Rights

  • Economic development is tied to the development of the Information Society (slide 3 and references below).
  • And not only economic development, but human progress at large (slide 3).
  • Part of this human progress is human rights: the maturity of the Information Society seems closely related to the maturity in human rights issues in one society or region as measured, for instance, by the degree of democracy, freedom of speech or civil liberties (slide 4).
  • The index of e-Government is correlated with ICT infrastructures, in particular, and with e-Readiness in general (slide 7).
  • And the index of e-Government is, again, related to other human rights as gender development, which, at its turn, is related to self-expression, identity, etc. (slide 8)

Conclusion? The triangle formed by e-Readiness (development degree of the Information Society), e-Government and Human Rights (especially those about freedom of speech and thought in general) is formed by three variables that seem to evolve in parallel: when one of them scores high, so do the other two.

Information Society, e-Government and Digital Literacy

  • Progress in Education is tied to the development of the Information Society (slide 5).
  • We even find that there is a general acknowledgment that the presence of computers in the classroom and teaching quality are related one to the other — we can understand this as digital literacy being a critical component of a good education (slide 6).
  • Digital literacy (e.g. being able to perform web searches or to chat online with other people) is quite related with the index of e-Government readiness (slides 9 & 10).
  • Indeed, participation itself and e-Government depends on the online experience of the user: the more they’ve been online (which should mean a more digitally literate user), the more they participate (a key for e-Government) (slide 12).

Conclusion? The triangle formed by e-Readiness (development degree of the Information Society), e-Government and Digital Literacy is formed by three variables that seem to evolve in parallel: when one of them scores high, so do the other two.

Blogs for e-Government

So, even if the direct correlation between the e-Government readiness index and the creation of blogs brings poor results (maybe because of poor data too), I wonder if we can establish an indirect relationship.

On one hand, there is plenty of evidence (see the valuable work of the OpenNet Initiative or Reporters Without Borders) that democracy and blogs make good friends, and that authoritarianism systematically persecute bloggers or, at least, try and block the access to their sites.

On the other hand (and again, the Pew Internet & American Life Project or Digital Natives project are bringing more and more evidence about it), it is my opinion that blogging is strongly related to a higher level of digital literacy, not because of blogging itself, but because of all the accompanying activities around blogging that we usually dub as the Web 2.0: editing photos and video, podcasting, uploading and sharing multimedia files, social networking sites, etc.

Summing up. On one side, e-Readiness, e-Government, Human Rights and Digital Literacy are correlated: not a development of the Information Society and e-Government without a certain degree of Human rihts and Digital Literacy. On the other side, blogging might not be enough to foster e-Government, but blogging does need a high degree of freedom of speech and political liberties (i.e. Human Rights) and quite a degree of Digital Literacy. So, in my opinion, blogging is a good proxy for both e-Readiness and e-Government. Why necessary and not sufficient? Sufficient because the existence of blogging implies that there are no barriers to the evolution of Human Rights and Digital Literacy, conditions related to the achievevent of high levels of e-Government development and a healthy Information Society. But not necessary because there might be no barriers and, actually, people not feel the need to blog, but express their freedom of thought and digital literacy in other ways (i.e. people might be digitally literate and free, but hate blogging). This could explain while there is no correlation between e-Government and a complex thing like blogging.

Further reading

Towards e-Health 2.0? Health and Web 2.0 in the Information Age

From 2005 to 2007, good friend Francisco Lupiáñez took part in a Manuel Castells’s project entitled Technological Modernisation, Organisational Change and Service Delivery in the Catalan Public Health System (aka PIC Salut).

His main findings in the Public Health system related with the adoption of ICTs are really similar to the ones I pointed at — there related to the Educational system — in my conference Opening Session: Digital Citizens vs. Analogue Institutions (indeed partly based on data from a brother project, L’Escola a la Societat Xarxa: Internet a l’Educació Primària i Secundària, also led by Castells and belonging both of them to a framework project about ICT adoption in Catalonia, Spain).

These findings can be summarized as follows:

  • ICTs are broadly considered as a promising tool among physicists and nurses, health care professionals at large (managers, the pharmaceutical sector, etc.) and patients.
  • Internet and intranets are widely used to get Health information.
  • But e-health management and service delivery systems, even if in a growing trend, they are far from being mainstream and are quite often rare.
  • ICT used is mainly focused to interprofessional use, while patients (or the direct use with the customer) are excluded from the equation.
  • Productivity, efficiency and quality don’t seem to be affected because of lack of accompanying measures in habits, procedures, strategies, policies, etc. at all levels.

Put short: information and some professional interaction, but almost total lack of communication. e-Health 2.0? No way. Interactivity does not exist and, actually, the “reputation factor” still plays a very important role that the Internet has not solved yet (i.e. who do you trust?).

More details about the results of the project can be accessed here and here.

For those who can read Catalan, this is a very interesting presentation:

On the other hand, there’s a conference at the Barcelona Biomedical Research Park on Thursday 15th May 2008 just about this subject. Please find here more information about the programme.

The relationships of Freedom and the Digital Divide or the importance of (free) Blogs

There is a constant buzz on the importance of blogs as both proxies for the freedom of speech in one country and also as the paradigmatic tool for citizen participation, activism, advocacy and so on. But, what’s the reality behind this (strong) statement? Is it just the mad dream of an enlightened digerati, or is there some truth in blogs politically empowering the citizenry?

These are some of the questions behind iCities: Primeras Jornadas sobre Blogs, e-Government y Participación Digital [First Conference on Blogs, e-Government and Digital Participation]. Preparing the opening speech, which I impart on Friday 9th May 2008, I found some interesting things.

Even if data have to be taken with maximum care and minimum work was performed on the statistical apparatus, it does seem that there is a relationship between the amount of existing liberties in one country and its degree of development of the Information Society. Data come from the Freedom Aggregate Scores published at the Freedom in the World 2007, and the Networked Readiness Index published at the Global Information Technology Report 2007-2008: Fostering Innovation through Networked Readiness.

First chart compares the Networked Readiness Index (Y) with the Civil Liberties score (X). We can see that, beyond a threshold (here arbitrary set at the 50% of the total score), there is a relationship where the more rights, the more developed an Information Society is. Or the contrary: as no causality has been analyzed, we can also state that the more digitally advanced a society is, the freer. Anyhow, these are two variables that do go hand in hand.

But the next chart is even more interesting. This second chart compares the Networked Readiness Index (Y) with the Political Rights score (X) — again split in two at the 50% of the total score (democratic vs. not democratic). First thing we can see is that the relationship tightens: political freedom seems to be really important for e-readiness, for the development of the Information Society. Surprising? Not really: once the main infrastructures are set, e-Readiness strongly depends, for it to increase, on market liberalization, e-Government, content, communication channels, users… If you want these variables to increase, it looks plausible that freedom and participation is a must.

But we have added, as the buble size, the Gross Domestic Product (the bigger the bubble, the bigger the country’s GDP). This gives us, at least, two more hints:

  • First one: beyond a threshold, you’re e-readiness won’t grow despite the power of your economy. The two big pink bubbles on the left are China (far left) and Russia. Their GDP is quite big (let’s not forget that there are only +120 countries plotted in this chart: most of the remaining +100 countries/territories just “don’t count” as per e-readiness matters because they are too poor to). But both Russia and China seem to have topped a crystal ceiling on e-Readiness development. Could it be because of the evident lack of liberties in these countries?
  • Second one: in the Information Society, the international environment matters. Malaysia and Singapore are the two pink dots on the upper part of the chart, almost in the horizontal middle. The first thing to say is that, even if they are but democratic, they are nor the typical corrupted and/or tyrannic system. On the other hand, they are surrounded by ICT early adopters, which is something Helen V. Milner has already pointed as being very important to set an Information Society agenda in her work The Global Spread of the Internet: The Role of International Diffusion Pressures in Technology Adoption. Nevertheless, these are two interesting exceptions that surely need deeper analysis.

Summing up

  • Are blogs a good measure of (a) the freedom in a country and (b) the degree of development of a country’s Information Society?. Maybe. What seems clear — though more and better analysis should be performed — is that these are social variables that go together.
  • Are non-democratic regimes to survive the Information Society? Who knows. But, again, it seems clear that there is a trade off between authoritarianism and digital development. The rulers — and their citizenry — will perhaps have to choose between democracy and digital development or keeping the power. But power cannot be kept at all costs and against all odds. How much will the e-excluded tolerate losing the digital train towards development?

Seminar: The Personal Research Portal: The Virtual Faculty or the Net behind the Classroom

The Canadian Institute of Distance Education Research, University of Athabasca, has invited me to impart a seminar in the framework of the CIDER Sessions about my digressions around The Personal Research Portal. The focus here will be on the educator, as I did in my article El portal personal del profesor: El claustro virtual o la red tras las aulas [The Personal Research Portal: The Virtual Faculty or the Net behind the Classroom].

The seminar will take place online — using Elluminate — on Friday 11th April 2008, at 17:00h GMT (in English).

Relevant info

Abstract

Instructional technology has suffered, in our opinion, two revolutions and a half during the last decades. The first one was, there is no doubt, the introduction of the personal computer in the educational environment. The second one, the appearance of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in a broader sense – that implied, among other things, connecting the PC to the network – and their use in teaching. The “half” left, as it actually is a corollary of the latter, the one brought by the so called Web 2.0, thus giving birth to what has been dubbed as Education 2.0.

Notwithstanding, the emphasis has been put, most of the times, in how these technologies impact the relationship between teacher and student or how these technologies whether and how enhance the learning process and its results: how can ICTs be used to improve education administration, how can they help teaching in a classroom, applications in distance learning, etc.

Our aim in this seminar is to shift out of the spotlight and focus on the “hidden” practices of education, to stress on all the tasks that happen outside the classroom – be it of bricks and mortar or virtual – before or when designing a subject or teaching it to the students, what happens after that teaching, etc. in this necessary phase of reflection and redefinition of concepts, syllabuses, practices and so on… but without students. We want to make some proposals on how educators can use ICTs in their more open, participative and social side to build themselves a place on the net, to weave their own network of colleagues, to share resources, exchange experiences or suggest doubts and questions to the rest of education professionals.

Our ultimate goal would be to highlight that we think it is possible to build a virtual faculty based on their personal portals built with Web 2.0 tools, way beyond teacher spaces inside virtual learning environments or other corporate tools from educational institutions, thus leaving room for individual initiative and, most important, digital presence and digital identity.

Acknowledgements

Sincerest thanks go to Lynn Anderson for the proposal, all the e-mailing that we’ve been having through the last weeks and the support in preparing the seminar.

The scarcely relevant practice of chat rooms and social networking sites

Manuel Castells is a scientific I admire. There are things I share — most of them — and things I don’t. Right now I’m working hard with two works of him:

Castells, M. (2000). “Materials for an exploratory theory of the network society”. In British Journal of Sociology, Jan-Mar 2000, 51(1), 5-24. London: Routledge.
Castells, M. (2004). “Informationalism, Networks, And The Network Society: A Theoretical Blueprint”. In Castells, M. (Ed.), The Network Society: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.

which I find really interesting and a recommended reading for everyone.

This is why I find so disappointing when an author of his stature can so unexpectedly slip out of the road by writing:

the Internet is quickly becoming a medium of interactive communication beyond the cute, but scarcely relevant practice of chat rooms (increasingly made obsolete by SMSs and other wireless, instant communication systems)

[bold letters are mine]

Of course, I’m not questioning him for not foreseeing that SMS would not replace instant messaging — which is what he’s actually meaning by the general concept of chat rooms —, two technologies that now live together in perfect harmony, especially in teen environments. It’s about the scarcely relevant practice of chat rooms.

This is 0% evidence, 100% value judgment.

Evidence about the relevance of such practice is way easy to be checked. First of all, we should remember the origins of both e-mail and instant messaging: high-tech scientific laboratories — there’s plenty of literature about this issue. But once it went out of the scientific environment and got popular, there’s more and more evidence about the relevance of such tools: the Pew Internet & American Life Project issued in that same year, 2004, the report How Americans Use Instant Messaging about 53 million American adults using instant messaging programs. Well, this is quite a lot of people doing scarcely relevant practices. But just at the end of last year, 2007, Garrett and Danziger analyzed how instant messaging was used at work for work purposes in their article IM=Interruption Management? Instant Messaging and Disruption in the Workplace, finding positive uses — yes, you read right: positive. So, evidence absolutely shows that there are good, interesting, useful practices around instant messaging.

What about value judgment? Well, I’d personally agree on assessing as useful, effective, efficient, etc. the use instant messaging for criminal purposes: phishing and pharming, organizing terrorist attacks, seducing minors for sexual purposes, etc. Actually, the main security concerns nowadays about the Internet are precisely in this line: how to avoid the effectiveness of tools like instant messaging, social networking sites and e-mail for criminal purposes. Hence, what is to blame is the criminal who uses these tools, but the tools are working great — even if in bad hands, because tools know no ethics, no law (well, Lessig would complain about this last point).

Summing up: a tool is useful, efficient, effective or relevant besides the fact that we like or dislike the way it is used, but based on its performance.

Same with social networking sites. In a work I’ve already talked about by David Beer and Roger Burrows, they write about Facebook. Even if they are quite open minded, there’s a full chapter about the bad uses of Facebook concerning teachers’ privacy issues which, from my point of view, is almost a digression that really does not deal with the sense of ‘democratization’, as stated in the title of that chapter.

While the authors complain — more than criticize — about the fact of having some colleagues exposed to public dishonor, they lose focus on the subject of analysis: Facebook, social networking sites, shifting towards the (bad) education and practices of such students, which was (supposedly) not the matter of debate in the article.

Day after day I am surprised by the recurrent exercise to blame on the Internet things that belong to “real” life: Law, Education, Business Management… And, even worse, to state about Internet applications and uses things that are absolutely false, taking as evidence what, all in all, was just lack of deeper knowledge and prejudice. Even in the most brilliant scientists. We all have bad days everywhen.


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Sobre Mi

    Sóc l'Ismael Peña-López.

    Sóc professor dels Estudis de Dret i de Ciència Política de la Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, així com investigador a l'Internet Interdisciplinary Institute i l'eLearn Center de la mateixa. Durant el 2014 també sóc el Director del projecte d'Innovació Oberta de la Fundació Jaume Bofill.