Thesis Defence. Francisco Jurado: Political representation in the age of Internet. The case of Spain

Thesis defence by Francisco Jurado entlitled Political representation in the age of Internet. The case of Spain, in Barcelona at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. July 18, 2017.

Francisco Jurado: Thesis Defence. Francisco Jurado: Political representation in the age of Internet. The case of Spain

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What is democracy today? Is democracy always about being represented and some third parties making decisions in the name of the citizen? The concept of democracy has certainly shifted towards representative democracy. This specific understanding of democracy has been accompanied by laws that strengthen the idea of representative democracy and the emergence of a number of institutions to accommodate this way of working.

Initially there were three main actors — citizens, representatives and institutions — plus political parties to articulate the relationship between citizens and representatives. With the evolution of political parties, specially towards the cartel model, parties have taken the place of representatives and even embedded themselves into institutions.

Political Representation today is a legal relationship, non-disposable by the citizen, low binding for the citizen, and mediated (and conditioned) by political parties.

How is the Internet challenging this status quo? There have been many initiatives of many kinds (Decidim Barcelona, Appgree, Quorum, Qué Hacen los diputados, etc.) that are challenging the idea of representation.

Pitkin lists five characteristics of political representation that are necessarily changing with the digital revolution and the reasons behind the emergence of social movements in the XXIst century, especially after the Arab Spring and, for the case of Spain, the 15M Indignados Movement:

  • Autorization
  • Accountability
  • Representativeness
  • Symbolic representation
  • Receptivity

e.g. autorization changes meaning when people can for instance vote in primaries, or perform some degree of direct democracy within an e-participation initiative.

The potential of these tools majorly depends on usage, especially how representatives use them or allow their use by citizens.


Sebastián Martín Martín: how are this shifts affecting the definition of the people, the demos? Are we just looking at citizens as individuals only and forgetting that, since Rousseau, the people is something else, is the individuals but also the collective?

Sebastián Martín Martín: what if representative democracy is no more what it used to be, and embedding technopolitics in it is not feasible just because the assumption that there is such a represented sovereignty is not true? What if sovereignty resides not in the people but elsewhere (e.g. the European Commission) and thus cannot be devolved?

Sebastián Martín Martín: what if digital agoras are not Habermasian agoras, but places of polarization, hate speech, misinformation, etc.? What has happened elsewhere (e.g. Iceland)?

Joaquim Brugué Torruella: can we generalize these initiatives? Isn’t it too early to propose a new comprehensive model for digital democracy?

Joaquim Brugué Torruella: are we talking about Internet? Or are we talking about a new trend towards direct democracy? Is it true that “there is no way back” because of the Internet, or are there other reasons for a dire change in democracy and society? Do we need to improve representation, or intermediation, with independence of the existence of the Internet?

Joaquim Brugué Torruella: is the Internet just a new aggregator of wills, or is it something else? Do we know how many people actually want to be represented? How many people are actually disenchanted by representation and why? Is it a crisis of inefficacy of politicians, or a crisis of inability to deliver of politics?

Joan Font Fabregas: is this a research on the impact of representation, or about the possibilities or potentials of the Internet to improve democracy? Is it the same thing?

Joan Font Fabregas: it is arguable that digital tools have a huge potential for transformation, but can we tell which ones work better than other ones? What are the drawbacks? Will all of them work in the same direction, or can they produce different (even opposing) conclusions?

Francisco Jurado:

It is true that the Internet will neither solve “everything” nor will the results be independent on the specific usage given to digital tools.

It is also true that it is difficult to make some statements about the potential of the Internet in politics. Will it deliver? Will it be revolutionary? We honestly do not know… yet. The research can only point at gates that seem to be opening and peek inside to see how a probable future would be like. But it seems obvious that if something as basic as communication has so deeply changed, it is to be expected that everything that is built upon commnication — as politics — will necessarily change and quite deeply.

PS: congratulations, Dr. Jurado!


e-Participation: from capacity building to governance

Mapping and assessing e-participation: from digital skills to digital empowerment

When we aim at seeing who is doing what in terms of e-participation (and in political participation in general) it is quite usual to look at the capacities that individuals have to perform a given action and how many of these actions actually took place. In other words, and in the field of e-participation, we look at the level of digital literacy of individuals in a community and how they engaged in the e-participation initiatives that were offered to them.

This perspective has, at least, two issues that need being addressed.

The first one is quite obvious and has been the focal point of some initiatives like UNPAN’s series of e-Government surveys (UNPAN, 2016). That is, that not only citizens but also the Administration (and everything that spins around it: all other powers, political parties and lobbies, etc.) need to be e-ready. This e-readiness should, at least, be taken into consideration in two different fronts: whether there are the technological infrastructures available and whether public servants can use them and have the appropriate digital skills (Peña-López, 2010).

But these skills – both now at the citizen and the public sector levels – are not only about achieving a sufficient degree of knowledge in handling some specific hardware. First of all, there is the capacity (Sen, 1980) to make conscious and subjective choices in one’s own benefit (not just “using); second, there is the power to make choices that are effective, that can actually take place and make an impact (or, at least, increase the potential for that impact) (Welzel et al., 2003).

This is crucial, because we do know that the digital divide in politics (Robles et al., 2012) affect the outcomes of policy-making, but it is much more complex than just a matter of access (Cantijoch, 2014). We have growing evidence that the Internet and politics engage in a virtuous (or vicious, depending on the spin) circle (Colombo et al., 2012) that either leads to more empowerment and political efficacy, with an increase of Internet usage, and back to empowerment and efficacy – or just the opposite in cases of lack of Internet and/or different attitudes toward participation.

Thus, if the digital divide actually shifts to differences in usage (Van Deursen, van Dijk) and not just in a matter of intensity of engagement, it is crucial to accurately map and assess how both individuals and institutions are ready for e-participation, and how and what initiatives have been put in practice to improve the e-readiness of the actors that participate in politics.
But this is only half the equation: how ready actors are. What about what they are doing and, more interestingly, where and how they are doing it?

Mapping and assessing e-participation: from digital participation to digital governance

Chart depicting 4 quadrants, two for capacity building (institutions, people) and two for intervention (representative and extra-representative arenas)
e-Participation: from capacity building to empowerment

The other half of the equation is where would institutions and people put their e-readiness at work. But if the very concept of skills, capacities and effective usage has changed, so have the concepts of “places” and “means” in the digital age.

Many institutions nowadays have their design rooted in the scientific and the industrial revolutions. The advancements of science (including the ethics and philosophy of the Enlightenment) and the advancements of technology provided solid ground where to build, among other things, liberal democracies and the institutions that make them up: parliaments, governments, the judiciary system, political parties, lobbies and civic organizations, etc.

But most of these grounds exist no more, or at least they have been direly transformed in their inhibiting potential, especially in what implies coincidence of time, space and the cost to coordinate interactions, exchanges and transactions in general (Benkler, 2002).

In this new landscape, networks emerge instead of hierarchical organizations, creating new institutions and reshaping the old ones (Benkler, 2006). In political participation, this means the creation of new spaces and strategies for information, communication and civic action (Castells, 2009, 2012) that, notwithstanding, often fall outside of the mapped territories and below the line of the radar of democratic institutions.

These new, unmapped territories range from what has been called lurking (Nonneke & Preece, 2003) or slacktivism (Christensen, 2011) to para-institutions (Peña-López et al., 2014), but it is arguable that these new e-participation extra-representative or extra-institutional practices are as legitimate and useful as other traditional ones (Peña-López, 2013). On the one hand, because it may be interesting to approach these initiatives not as an “exit”, in terms of Albert O. Hirschman (1970), but as citizens moving away from institutions that do not answer to their needs and into other new institutions that may, that is, they are voting with their feet (Tiebout, 1956) but not in terms of municipality but in terms of democratic institutions.

Still today we see reactions (again in the sense of Hirschman, 1991) that tend to redirect extra-institutional participation towards institutions, that tend to silent these initiatives because they harm democracy or because they are useless.

We here propose, instead, to map and characterize all the initiatives that, after having built capacity on actors (individuals or collectives, institutions or distributed networks), not only aim at attracting them to traditional ways of participation but enable new spaces and actions by creating the conditions to support bottom-up distributed e-participation initiatives. Naming and framing issues, identifying the relevant actors, feeding actors with the relevant information, facilitating appropriate exchanges between approaches and positions, easing negotiation, fostering decisions, setting the ground for appropriate accountability. This landscape can but grow. The later it is appropriately measured and facilitated, the more difficult it will be to establish bridges between capacity building and intervention, and between institutional interventions and distributed and networked civic actions.


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