Internet, Politics, Policy (II). Political Participation and Petitioning

Notes from the Internet, Politics, Policy 2010: An Impact Assessment conference, organized by the Oxford Internet Institute, and held at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, UK, on September 16-17, 2010. More notes on this event: ipp2010.

The political click: political participation through e-petitions in Germany
Andreas Jungherr, Otto-Friedrich-Universität, Bamberg Germany

A platform where anyone can create a petition and invite others to follow, diffuse and, of course, endorse it. The difference is that several ways of participation are allowed and their evolution can be tracked.

Several examples are portrayed, being the “No indexing or blocking of websites” the more popular, but not all of the topics were Internet-related and they still got a lot of signatures. Notwithstanding, the number of signatures per petition does follow a power curve, that is, there is a long long tail of petitions thata get very low attention, while a few of them get highest rates of attention. And same happens with the users: a very small number of users signed a large amount of petitions, while most of the users just signed a few of them [curious because users could only endorse a petition, not vote for or against it].

Typologies of users (number of users):

  • New Lobbysts (269): vote intensivelly and in a long period of time.
  • Hit and Run Activists (235): voted many related issues, but in just a couple of sessions.
  • Activist Consumers (80,278): voted several issues that were not related amongst them.
  • Single Issue Stakeholders (414,829): voted just a few issues.

Broadening participation through E-Petitions? Results from an empirical study on petitions to the German parliament
Ralf Lindner, Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research (ISI), Department of Emerging Technologies, Germany

The research aims at analysing different e-petitions and see how e-petitioning affects citizenship participation, after the Bundestag’s e-petition system was set up in 2005. The reform of the petition system has six key elements: the introduction of online submissions, the creation of public e-petitions, co-signatures online, online discussion forums associated with each public e-petition and obligatory public meetings of the petitions committee with petitioners who collect more than 15,000 signatures.

The system has been growing in usage since 2006 and now reaches almost 25,000 e-petitions and public e-petitions, and with more than 3,000,000 of signatures supporting e-petitions and public e-petitions.

Results show that e-petitioning does not seem to change a lot the habits of citizens, as those who participated online were also the ones that used to participate offline, that is, the participants in the e-petitioning system were the ones politically more engaged than the general public. Thus, it failed to attract underrepresented groups. Indeed, gender and socio-economic biases are exacerbated.

e-Petitioning and Representative Democracy: a doomed marriage? – Lessons learnt from the Downing Street e-Petition Website and the case of the 2007 Road-Tax petition
Giovanni Navarria, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Westminster

http://petitions.pm.gov.uk to allow people to create new or sing up for existing petitions addressed to the Primer Minister’s cabinet. The Road Tax petition was created by Mr. Peter Roberts in November 2006 and was sent just to some 30 friends: 3 months after, it had raised 1.8 million signatures.

Once the petition was closed, it got major media attention and by the end of 2007, the then Prime Minister decided to listen “to its constituents and ditch the national road pricing scheme”.

Lessons learnt:

  • To host the service within its official website gave the new service a public seal of recognition, increasing the political weight of the petitions submitted through the site. And once the people spoke, media used that “legitimacy” of the site to push more on the Government.
  • New e-petition systems have to be integrated in the whole government-citizen dialogue structure, and e-petitions cannot “go on their own”.

Engaging with Citizens Online: Understanding the Role of ePetitioning in Local Government Democracy
Panagiotis Panagiotopoulos, Department of Information Systems and Computing, Brunel University

Potentially, e-petitioning (and petitioning in general) aims at engaging the citizen, should help in bringing more information to the citizen and in a quicker and more direct way, etc. But what is the reality like? And how does the system adapt to it?

A data collection of 13 semi-structured interview with key informants, and supported by informal contacts and documentary analysis was performed with the aim to examine the interactions between IT-related innovations and organizational changes.

The complexity and novelty of e-petition systems end up with the system being participated by many more stakeholders than usual: citizens and local organizations, the government, IT systems departments and providers, academic institutions, etc.

One of the problem that now raises is how to combine (offline) petitions with e-petitions, to decide the number of signatures that validate an e-petition (the same as offline? more? less?), etc. As a general conclusion, it seems that it is not the technological artefact the one that determines engagement and its impact, but the organizational/democratic backup it has.

Discussion

Q: How do people find the e-petition that interest them? Jungherr: Most of the times the e-petition is discussed in mainstream media, sometimes even being the story created in mainstream media, thus driving people to the site to endorse the e-petition. Panagiotopoulos: No doubt social networking sites help a lot in heating the debate and, over all, in distributing the link.

Q: Did people that initiated e-petitions had already exhausted other ways, or they directly “shopped around” the e-petitioning website? Linder: Data seem to prove that people that are active online are active offline too, and people that are active online they were already active offline.

[The discussion was rich and difficult to summarize here. Though, a personal recap of the session: online engagement is highly correlated with (prior) offline engagement; mainstream media (can) boost e-petitioning, crossmedia communication strategies might make a (huge) difference].

More information

Papers:

Internet, Politics, Policy 2010: An Impact Assessment (2010)

Internet, Politics, Policy (I). Arthur Lupia: An impact Assessment

Notes from the Internet, Politics, Policy 2010: An Impact Assessment conference, organized by the Oxford Internet Institute, and held at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, UK, on September 16-17, 2010. More notes on this event: ipp2010.

An Impact Assessment
Arthur Lupia, University of Michigan

The Internet is a new device that can be used to drive change, but still we have to find out how. Most efforts to do so have ended in sheer failure.

A lot of the debate is understood as a confrontation between “us” the people that want to shape the Internet for higher goals, and “them” people that are lazy, ignorant or apathetic to politics. With the result of failure. Guidelines should be:

  • Biology, defining the possibilities.
  • Social scientific studies of learning, persuasion, etc.
  • Political contexts, that pose special challenges.

Persuasion is a battle for:

  • Attention. Attention has a very limited capacity and a high decay rate; thus, a winning utterance must provide a large amount of pleasure/pain and prevail over proximate other utterances. On the other hand, what a target audience remembers may not be what you intended them to remember.
  • Elaboration. Learning, physically (by linking neurons), is putting close two different concepts. To be able to leave a cognitive legacy, chunks of information have to be perceived ad unique and highly relevant. The topic has to be local, make its consequences concrete and immediate, and make the desired outcome possible to achieve through actions that the audience can imagine taking.
  • Credibility. Credibility is a lot about context. Politics is not only about what you say, but about how you say it: politics yields to language indeterminacy, with words having multiple meanings, and meanings being context-dependent. For contested issues, high credibility is a must, and credibility is domain-specific and bestowed by the audience. Credibility is a function of source, message and contextual attributes and audience effects. Credibility is about setting up strategic contexts, based on a perceived interest proximity, about interactivity.

How to build trust? The Habermas’ Argument: in the absence of natural law, no common framework informs legitimacy claims. If an ideal discourse is procedurally transparent, it can facilitate collective legitimacy.

Lupia-Krupnikov-Levine (2010): an expanded domain for transparency is required for discourse to generate legitimacy. A “procedurally transparent” discourse will anyway be influenced by interruptions, the order effects on persuasion, disagreement… matters difficult to deal with. Thus, this domain of procedural transparency has to be expanded, and there is also a need for a higher commitment in measuring success and failure.

Discussion

Q: How does the Sarah Palin and the Tea Party affaire can be explained with this frameworks? A: It is about localization: the message found its niche thanks to the Internet. Before that, the mainstream media space was crowded with messages and it was more difficult to allocate yours in there.

Q: Nowadays we do build at destroying credibility and reputation, how can new media contribute in solving that? A: New media can certainly act as counterweights to the biases of mainstream media. And microtargeting, making things local, relevant to me is a way of doing things that mainstream media can compete with.

More information

Internet, Politics, Policy 2010: An Impact Assessment (2010)