| Glossary | Communication & Society | Digital participation

Digital participation

Definition and delimitation

Participation generally refers to access to and the (active or passive) involvement or inclusion of individuals, social groups, collective and corporate actors in social processes, in particular in decision-making, decision-making and opinion-forming processes. One can speak of digital participation if digital information and communication technologies (ICT) play a central role in the articulation of participation wishes or in the organisation of forms of participation.

From a political science perspective, a distinction is usually made between two central contexts of digital participation. One is specifically about political contexts. This generally refers to “all activities” of citizens “with the aim of influencing political decisions” (van Deth 2009). In this case, we speak more specifically of political participation (Lorenz et al. 2020). In this context and with regard to political citizen participation processes, a distinction is made between different degrees of participation based on the so-called participation ladder (Arnstein 1969), e.g. information offerings, consultations, cooperation or participation in decision-making as initiated by the state and transparency offerings, activism, campaigns and lobbying; petitions as participation initiated by civil society (Oertel et al 2017).

In a broader sense, we also speak of social participation, which refers to various forms and possibilities of social engagement, from activities in and for organisational decision-making processes to association activities and social engagement in general, which goes beyond the purely individual, private sphere (Roßteuscher 2009, Gabriel/Völkl 2008). In a narrower sense and with a view to decidedly disadvantaged or marginalised population groups and their concerns, the term (lack of, inadequate) inclusion is also frequently used, e.g. when there is a lack of barrier-free access to social and cultural facilities for sick, disabled or elderly people. The aim here is to realise participation in social life for these groups of people as unhindered as possible (see the articles in Diehl (2017) for different groups). In educational science, inclusion is usually spoken of in relation to children and young people (Löser/Werning 2015).

Sociologically, participation is treated in a more general (and less normative) sense with the distinction between inclusion and exclusion in order to do justice to the extremely complex phenomenon in terms of social theory (Stichweh 1988; Nassehi 1999), as the question of participation arises much more fundamentally and ultimately for all (individual and collective) actors and with regard to all areas of society (such as the legal system, the education system, health care, the local social environment, etc.). Not all actors can and want to participate equally in social processes. In this respect, professional performance roles have historically developed in central social subsystems (doctors, judges, teachers, politicians, etc.) and corresponding complementary roles(audience roles) in which all people can potentially participate (patients, clients, pupils, voters, citizens, etc.). In order to mitigate the resulting unequal distribution in the intensity of participation and the associated unequal power relations – performance role holders have significantly more influence and decision-making powers than people in audience roles – so-called secondary performance roles (Stichweh 1988) have been established in the various sub-areas, which can expand participation opportunities between performance and audience roles (e.g. amateur scientists in the field of scientific research (Dickel/Franzen 2015). Fundamentally, this sociological perspective is concerned with understanding the forms and functions of inclusion (participation) within the framework of a differentiated, modern society (Burzan et al. (2008) speak of “inclusion profiles” and “inclusion relationships” in this context).

Discussions about a lack of or insufficient participation and corresponding demands to rectify this are ultimately fundamentally linked to normative ideas (of problematic social inequality). From this normative perspective, it is primarily a matter of the common good (as opposed to merely strengthening individual, purely interest-based concerns), strengthening democracy (as opposed to more exclusive forms of rule), integration (in the sense of excluding marginalisation and the associated risks of disintegration) or similar.

One can speak of digital participation if digital information and communication technologies (ICT) are used in connection with questions of participation. Both in terms of political participation (Roleff 2012) and in relation to social participation, there are (normative) expectations of facilitating, expanding and strengthening participation, which are fuelled in particular by the possibilities of digital ICT. First of all, digital ICT facilitates participation, as participants can take part from the context of their lives and their social environment. If there is technical and infrastructural access to participation offerings, this can remove or reduce spatial and social barriers for disadvantaged groups, e.g. for population groups with low economic capital or those who have difficulties participating in offline participation formats due to physical impairments.

However, digital ICTs also potentially create new inequalities, as both access to digital ICTs and the skills to use them are not equally distributed across all population groups. Although the resulting digital divide in society (Zillien 2009) has not yet been resolved globally, it has been greatly reduced within western industrialised societies.

History

The opportunities for digital participation do not yet have a long history due to the relative novelty of digital ICT from a historical perspective (for literature with historical references, see Kronauer 2010). Norbert Kersting (2019) also makes historical references with regard to online participation. The literature often distinguishes between different phases in relation to technological development in general and digitalisation/digital media in particular. To name just one example: Michael Seemann (2020), for example, divides recent past and future developments into five phases (1985-1995: The early network utopias; 1995-2005: Remediation; 2005-2015: Loss of control; 2015-2025: The new game; 2025-2035: Restructuring). In general, these phases can also be associated with rather time-diagnostic, either utopian or dystopian observations regarding their transformative power – also with regard to participatory possibilities.

A very rough distinction can be made between an early phase of digital participation efforts within the framework and by means of the so-called Web 1.0 in the mid and later 1990s and the expanded technical-media, more interactive possibilities of Web 2.0 since the 2000s. Whether and to what extent the current expansion of digital ICT with regard to various immersive media (keyword metaverse) and generative AI (keyword chat GPT) will also exert a greater influence on digital participation opportunities remains to be seen. A history of political or social participation in general would be a very long one, which cannot be mapped here to begin with.

Application and examples

Due to the diverse reasons and framework conditions for participation demands and endeavours, the corresponding implementations are also extremely varied. The applications and solutions differ greatly depending on the area of society (politics, media, science, law, etc.), the types of actors (collective, corporate or individual actors) and the temporal and spatial perspective (global/national/local, permanent/one-off/one-off) in which participation is addressed. In this respect, participation issues are also, and often especially, about gaining (public) attention for the concerns of the respective stakeholders and stakeholder groups. After all, it is not a given – even in a democratic society – that institutional-political actors (can) take equal care of the participation concerns of all citizens and population groups and provide appropriate opportunities for participation from the top down, so to speak. Power relations and the associated (possibly problematic) power asymmetries play a more or less explicit role in participation endeavours. Values and concepts such as justice, equal opportunities, representativeness, transparency, education, democratic control, civic engagement, etc. primarily provide the backdrop against which (more or different) participation is demanded, sought and then, if necessary, implemented (Dickel/Schrape 2015).

From a sociological perspective, an ongoing social negotiation process crystallises which people or population groups are considered disadvantaged or insufficiently included and whether and to what extent social efforts (should) be made to change existing conditions. A distinction can be made here between invited and uninvited participation (Wehling/Viehöfer 2013; Wynne 2007). Invited participation usually takes place through established (political) actors who set up specific formats and procedures for (citizen) participation. Uninvited participation is organised by civil society (e.g. in the form of protests or citizens’ petitions) or develops spontaneously and in a correspondingly unorganised manner (e.g. during uprisings, revolts). Depending on the context, demands for participation are articulated and organised despite massive resistance, which can go so far as to threaten the life and limb of those involved (e.g. in the context of revolutionary efforts in totalitarian political systems, such as the Arab Spring).

Forms of invited participation are often used specifically by political actors as part of special procedures – in Germany at municipal or state level. Participation opportunities are created for citizens in the context of participatory budgeting, public hearings or petitions. Digital ICT can have a supportive effect here(e-participation, open government), as it can facilitate the participation process and minimise potential hurdles that would exist with purely offline variants. An early example of participatory budgeting supported by eParticipation is provided by the city of Cologne in 2007 (Vorwerk et al. 2008; Taubert et al. 2011). Participatory processes can also be set up outside the political sphere with the help of digital ICT, thereby lowering potential barriers to participation, e.g. by organisations in the context of company co-determination processes.

In particular, forms of uninvited participation can be realised to a greater extent with the help of digital ICT than was possible before the Internet age. Social network sites, blogs/microblogs, chats, internet forums, websites, video platforms and other social media offer ubiquitous opportunities for communication. Existing access restrictions, disadvantages and corresponding demands for participation can thus be articulated by virtually anyone. Digital ICT can therefore play a central role in mobilising public attention and thus the needs and concerns of potentially disadvantaged groups can become (more) socially visible. Whether, in what form and to what extent this actually influences (political) decision-making processes are questions that are not easy to answer and must be addressed in the context of empirical research.

Criticism and problems

The connection described above between power relations and participation on the one hand and the general potential of digital ICT for more participation on the other can tend to lead to the (hoped-for) effects and (desired) benefits of digital participation being assumed without scrutiny. However, digital participation can always have undesirable side effects or be strategically misused. J. H. Schmidt (2018), for example, analyses the downside of participation in social media under the term “participation paradox”: For example, providers of participation offerings can tap into data and analyse it in the context of undesirable contexts. Furthermore, labour can be exploited free of charge in the context of such offerings and thus endanger jobs (e.g. citizen scientists in science) (Mirowski 2017). Generally speaking, the participation of users can thus be restricted within the framework of commercialised or undemocratic structures or contrary to their interests, e.g. by platform operators or by supposedly participatory grassroots movements that merely feign motives that are supposedly oriented towards the common good in the sense of astroturfing.

On the other hand, the effects of digital participatory offerings are often assumed in an untested manner and their use is generally demonised, for example when it is assumed that large population groups are deliberately influenced (manipulated) through manipulation or so-called microtargeting in social media, thereby deciding political election outcomes (such as the 2016 US election or the Brexit vote in the UK in 2017) (cf. Lobo 2017; von Lindern 2020). One frequently expressed opinion, for example, is that unregulated participation leads to echo chambers and filter bubbles, thereby jeopardising the public opinion-forming process, social cohesion and ultimately democracy. However, current research does not confirm these effects – despite all the difficulties that the business models of platform operators and the spread of fake news and disinformation entail (Fletcher 2020).

There is no doubt that new opportunities for participation and opportunities for individuals and social groups to express their opinions are emerging. In individual cases, this also enables individual users to achieve exceptionally high reach, for example in the role of influencers. Digital technologies also enable new forms of organisation of interests and protest, which can network and mobilise online with the help of social media and thus generate (supra-regional) attention at a comparatively rapid pace. Examples of this include the so-called Arab Spring, the lateral thinking movement and Fridays for Future. However, digital ICT is also creating new gateways for direct or covert influence (e.g. through nudging) and opportunities for abuse from various (governmental, economic, political, etc.) sides, even in democratically organised societies. The way in which this leads to a structural change in the public sphere and the effects that the new modes of participation ultimately entail is the subject of intensive disciplinary and interdisciplinary research. However, the further shaping and formation of productive (digital) participation opportunities and the containment of the associated dangers are a task for society as a whole with a currently open outcome.

Research

At bidt, research is being conducted directly on the topic of digital participation in individual projects. In the DFG project “The Evidence Culture of Citizen Science. Standardisation, evaluation and control of participatory research“, the effects of digitalisation on forms of participation in science were examined (Wenninger/Dickel 2019; Altmann/Wenninger 2023). The project “Digital communicative strategies in social media for the inclusion of people with disabilities” examines whether and to what extent so-called minority issues are given reach by the advancing digitalisation of communication and what influence this has on the social, political and economic participation of these people. The junior research group Digital Democratic Mobilisation in Hybrid Media Systems (DigiDeMo) investigates the question of which conditions play a role in successful political campaigns in a hybrid media environment. In general, the focus here is on how digitalisation can be used to promote democratic developments. As part of Magdalena Obermaier ‘s project from the start-up funding entitled “Digital, civil – courageous? A simulation study to explain digital civil courage in online social media using the ‘Truman platform’ (DiZiCou)”, the factors that favour or hinder digital civil courage – i.e. the active participation of third parties in online situations to help others – are being investigated in an experimental setting.

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