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Dossier 15/11/2016

Democracy and the Internet

With just a few months left before the French presidential elections, a new expression is creating a buzz online and in the media: civic tech. It refers to a new generation of sites, applications and digital systems which aim to transform politics and policy. More broadly, how is digital changing citizen involvement, engagement, and participation?

This topic, with articles slated to be published from mid-November through mid-December 2016, explores these new forms of social and political expression, consultation, and protest. It also seeks to clarify the concepts that give them meaning in the digital era. To start the series, this introduction will cover the most important question of all: democracy.

Few technological innovations have ever carried as much political promise as the internet. Decentralization, horizontality and self-organisation: the form given to the network by its creators was an open invitation to imagine new paradigms which could renew the archaic-seeming forms of representative democracy. At a time of mass digital usage and an all too commercial web, those hopes have been dashed. The disillusion of the pioneers of the web has not, however, blunted younger generations' imaginative enthusiasm for the development of civic tech, with endless original experimentations on both global and local levels. The gears of democracy, which seem stuck to older generations, are turning in new and younger spaces. How can we develop a clear understanding of all of the initiatives on the internet? And what image of democracy do we see reflected in these new services and uses, which promise transparency, citizen initiatives, and even counter-democracies?

The two spaces of democracy: restricted and open

To answer these questions, we must first distinguish between the two meanings of democracy, one broader than the other. The full meaning of democracy, that of equality, emancipation, and empowerment, is far broader than the restrictive understanding used today, which refers only to the representative sphere of leaders and elected officials. Historians of democracy often highlight the contingent nature of elected representation, which was invented in the 18th century. Many philosophers, like Jacques Rancière, take a broader view of democracy, defining it as the space of equality and "government by anyone."

It is our obsession with centralisation and power that has led us to reduce the idea of democracy to elected representation, limiting the promise of emancipation in all areas of our collective life to our choice of political leadership. Between elections, however, representative democracy leaves an opening which we never quite know how to describe, and which is often referred to as "the public square" or "civil society", a space which concentrates a society's collective initiatives and is the scene of democratic expectations that fall outside the sphere of power and institutions.

In fact, digital tools do not so much "democratize" the constraints of representative democracy as they more broadly emancipate areas for expression by civil society. The outward shift in democratic possibilities away from the centres of power which is generated by digital raises questions about the interaction between these two spaces: the restricted space of representative democracy and the wider public square. Are they two totally separate worlds, or should we look for other connections - and if so, what kind of connection, to ensure that citizens' involvement or engagement through digital technology impacts its representatives?

The different emerging aspects of participative democracy tend towards a holistic dynamic which combines representation and citizen participation, broad debates and local actions. To clarify the debate, we propose three ideal types of democratic space: representative democracy in the strictest sense (the restricted democratic space); the democratization of civil society (which, in this context, we will refer to as internet democracy) and, between these two forms, participative democracy, which seeks to make the voice of the public heard in political decisions outside electoral periods (see Figure below). Last but not least, outside the strictly political sphere is the social tech movement. Driven both by the desire to develop new forms of social solidarity and the need for concrete actions to fill the voids left by institutions, it completes the overall panorama.

The great divide: internet democracy vs. representative democracy

It is a paradox which has been frequently discussed. The Internet has done far more to democratise society than it has to shake up political competition within representative democracy. This paradox must first and foremost be interpreted in light of the libertarian origins of the internet and its founders' ambition to "change society without taking power."

Internet pioneers had a broad understanding of the ideals of engagement and politics, and encouraged systems for individual expression, sharing and resource pooling. Elective, cooperative, self-organised communities emerged as the main figure in digital's contribution to horizontal social mobilisation aimed at producing knowledge (Wikipedia, OpenStreetMap), common resources (free and open sources software), and networks of commitments (the alter-globalization movement, Education without borders, etc.). Individuals' enhanced ability to act "from the bottom up" and often in networks has led to an endless variety of expressions of the democratic possibilities of the internet.

In response to the strength of Internet democracy, representative democracy players have gone digital. For example, Barack Obama's emblematic first presidential campaign in 2008, which used data analytics and massive social media efforts, is now often used as the basis for traditional parties' strategies. However, the political internet (in the sense of representative democracy) has not kept its promises, and seems to simply be an enhanced version of traditional campaign targeting and communications tools. Political parties have tried, mainly unsuccessfully, to broaden their influence beyond card-carrying members. Activist bloggers and party websites are only really active during campaign season. Twitter and Facebook activism centred on politicians, or the political TV shows they appear on, generates buzz but essentially preaches to the choir. While digital technology has contributed to renewing certain aspect of political competition (micro-financing, the faster pace of political commentary, new ways for candidates to communicate, etc.), its contribution does not appear to be decisive. The endless debates over e-voting are proof of its limitations. With the exception of Estonia, remote voting has only been seen in a few local elections.

These observations highlight an opposition between the broad and restrained concepts of democracy. Internet's natural purview is a society made up of individuals, rather than the political space. By networking a society of increasingly individualised individuals, digital technology encourages self-organised production of "commons." Politics are no longer the central focus, and many of the richest collective phenomena created using digital technology are indifferent or even hostile to central institutions. By expressing itself, by coordinating, and by making noise, society send signals which, like public opinion with without the representative nature of polls, can be used in the media and in political decision-making. But these two spaces, with their very different principles of legitimacy, remain entirely separate.

Taking part in public decision-making

Participative democracy projects have sought for years to lessen the impact of this divide by developing a forms of operational cooperation between the public and elected representatives. Whether to encourage participation, consult the public, or consider a question, local consultation, forums, popular juries, neighbourhood committees and surveys are intended to get the public involved on government decision-making outside election season.

In light of the now-structural drop in "physical" participation in these initiatives, digital technology offers a way to bring participation back up. However, the results of these initiatives are mixed. They highlight a disconcerting paradox. Initiatives which emerge spontaneously can generate extremely strong movements in the least-likely corners of the web. Examples include the movement against the European constitutional treaty initiated by a text by Étienne Chouard; the movement on deep sea fishing sparked by Pénélope Bagieu's cartoon blog; the Facebook page calling for clemency for a jeweller who shot and killed a burglar; or a petition calling for protests against Myriam El Khomri's labour reform law. These phenomena, highlighted by the success of petition platforms like or Avaaz, rely on the conversational, horizontal nature of the internet. In certain situations, collective movements can go viral online and create massive mobilisation. It seems as though the sparse participation in targeted initiatives exists in opposition to the unpredictable yet prolific political conversation on the internet.

Understanding this phenomenon requires clarifying the common points which underlie all of the emerging forms of political engagement in developed societies, which are mainly relayed by the internet. The networks of individuals which form these "spontaneous" movements are extremely attentive to points of procedure. These collectives of individuals are committed less to a political programme or ideals than to the procedures implemented to ensure that the full range of opinions receives equal representation. Wikipedia, free software collectives, and the Indignados, Occupy and Nuit Debout movements are prime examples of this. They believe that discussion can lead to a consensus and avoid the divisions produced by majority votes. A third dimension of these movements is their rejection of the idea of representation as incarnation. The freedom to decide and choose is erected as a central value, and cannot be delegated or invested in the forms of personalisation which are so often accepted by representative democracies. Finally, as a direct consequence of the previous three points, the core value of these movements is freedom (of expression, to cooperate, of choice, etc.), rather than justice, which limits their active social base and in the long-term makes it difficult to form democratic alternatives.

The promises of civic tech and online democracy

All of these very different initiatives, which are grouped under the term civic tech, reveal the expectations which correspond to the three forms of democracy addressed in this introduction. The first group aims to enhance the mechanics of representative democracy by developing a virtuous model for electoral decision-making. Examples include the platform comparison tool and the ingenious site developed by the NosDéputé collective. These initiatives are grounded in a sense that their creators serve the public good (and that elected officials no longer do), evoking an enlightened ideal of informed, rational voters - which the theories of democracy have not dared to do in a long time. Others are more pragmatic, with a focus on fund-raising or mobilising party members and supporters during campaigns. The vast gulf between the idealised notion of voter decision-making based on the candidates' platforms and the strategic use of political marketing signals the disorientation caused by the crisis in representative democracy.

A second set of civic tech initiatives aims to provide the procedures involved in representative democracy with participative resources intended to expand the small circle of representatives to include more extensive public involvement. Examples include democratie.os and While these initiatives are successful only with a small, very select public, the French government's recent consultation on the bill "Law for a Digital Republic" revealed both the potential and the limits of this type of initiative, colliding with the classic games of political pressure, as we will discuss in our final article on this topic.

The final group of civic tech services aims to transform - in fact it promises to hack - the procedures involved in representative democracy. Their objective is either to apply pressure or to foster the emergence of candidates with a non-political background, who have not gone through the political party selection process. The idea is for citizens to make their voices heard or even join parliament while remaining "ordinary" connected citizens thanks to digital technology and the interdependent structures of civil society, in order to avoid falling prey to party politics. This is the aim of citizen movements like, or

Beyond civic tech and its hypothetical extension into a broader "social tech," digital is radically changing all of the spaces which are more or less involve din the democratic process: cities, naturally, but also businesses and all kinds of organisations. Key concepts like transparency, empowerment, or the commons are combined with active strategies to provide varying degrees of support for these changes. But how far can we really go? Is the dream of a transformation of our democracies, sparked by society, being catalysed by the internet and re-emerging? That is the question at the heart of this topic on new forms of citizenship in the digital era.


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Eric Dyran
Eric Dyran 15/03/2017 21:30:15

Oui, je pense que le monde doit s'attendre à un grand bouleversement pour 2017 !

Herve Dussaert
Herve Dussaert 24/02/2017 12:02:50

Merci à vous pour votre article, L'année 2017 va à nouveau nous apporter son lot de surprise électorale !

Thierry Taboy
Thierry Taboy 13/12/2016 14:30:14

Merci à celles et ceux qui ont déjà réagi au dossier. N'hésitez pas à apporter votre contribution .

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