Beyond the Ballot Box

ballot-box

Brodie Fraser

Political participation is an important facet of democracy. In recent years there has been a rise in the study of alternative forms of political participation. There are a number of reasons for this, however the main one is global trends of declining political participation. This is said to be a “crisis of Western democracy,”[1] which has led to studies exploring alternative forms of participation that are less institutionally recognised. One of the main subsets of alternative participation is online participation. Online political participation covers a range of actions including online voting, online campaigning, and social media use. Both Members of Parliament (MPs) and the general citizenry use social media as a way to participate in political life, hence the need to take separate looks at online political campaigning and everyday social media use. As these forms of participation are growing and evolving, there are a number of gaps in the existing thought. One of the most obvious gaps is how to translate these forms of participation into engagement with formal political institutions. Another gap relates to online voting. Voting is regarded as the pinnacle of political participation; online voting is then the main form of online participation we think about. However, much of the literature about online voting focuses on why it will not work; we fail to look for solutions to the issues online voting poses. There is also a gap when it comes to the ways in which politicians use social media platforms such as Instagram. Social media is an important tool in promoting policy, personality, and a party’s brand, so it needs to be studied in depth.

While political participation is synonymous with voting, it does include other forms of engagement. It encapsulates voting, petitions, protests, and engagement with Members of Parliament, amongst others. As Riley, Griffin, and Morey note; “Political engagement has traditionally been thought of as a set of rights and duties that involve formally organised civic and political activities (e.g. voting or joining a political party).”[2] These forms of participation are institutionalised, and are recognised as being legitimate. Online voting is a form of political participation, while social media use is a less institutionalised form of participation.

Online voting is a major part of debates about increasing participation. Vesnic-Alujevic argues that the internet has the potential to attract citizens and widen participation.[3] The internet can then be seen as an equaliser, and a platform through which diversity can be increased and upheld. Estonia was one of the first nations to adopt online voting, and studies have shown as online voting increased throughout the country, so too did voter turnout.[4] Online voting is shown to increase youth turnout, as the majority of young people have now grown up with the internet as an integral part of their lives.[5] There are also arguments against the adoption of online voting. Lust found that online voting in Estonia reinforces socioeconomic biases in voting as online voters tend to be more urban centred, well educated, and richer.[6] He argues Estonia should abandon online voting due to technological security threats, and the inequities of the medium.[7] One of the main arguments against online voting is to do with security; it is seen as being too easy to hack into and there are concerns that voting from one’s own home could result in family and friends pressuring voters to make certain choices.

Much of this literature focuses on the reasons why online voting should not be adopted. While this is a necessary and valid stance to take, there is a lack of people who are attempting to address and find ways around the issues with online voting. So much of our way of life now relies on the internet that it does not make sense to merely dismiss online voting. Instead, we must work to find creative and lasting solutions to current issues with online voting. This will result in an open and robust form of political participation. It is important we address how these issues can be rectified, rather than restating the issues with online voting.

As the internet becomes ever more important in day-to-day life, politicians are focussing more of their energy in campaigning online. The internet and social media are simple and fast ways for politicians to communicate with large numbers of citizens. Alongside this, online campaigns are often cheaper than offline ones. Facebook can be used to easily spread information and engage people in events politicians host and attend. New Zealand-based research found that while MPs think they use Facebook for two-way conversations with the public, posts on their pages suggest they predominantly use the platform to broadcast information.[8] This suggests that MPs need to reconceptualise the ways they are using social media to ensure it is being used to critically engage with their followers.  Twitter is a means for MPs to engage directly with their constituents and the public as a whole; it is frequently used to interact with the media and citizenry. Finally, Instagram can be used to convey a particular image politicians wish to present. For example, many use Instagram as a way to show the ‘behind-the-scenes’ aspects of a politician’s job. Social media is becoming an integral facet of life as an MP; it enables greater communication and breadth of campaigning.

As social media trends are constantly evolving, it can be difficult for the literature to keep up to date. One of the largest gaps in current literature is to do with how politicians use Instagram. It is being used by both politicians and political parties alike; parties use it as an extension of their party brand, and MPs use it to share visual snippets of their life as a politician. It is becoming an important part of campaigns and requires a greater focus on how it is used, the demographics it is reaching, and the influence it has on campaigns. Instagram can be used to cultivate a personal brand. It would also be beneficial to analyse MPs’ social media use through a social institutionalism lens. Social institutions “influence behaviour by providing the cognitive scripts…that are indispensable for action…”[9] This approach would provide a useful conceptualisation of social media use. We already see MPs being prevented from posting on their social media platforms on election days due to the influential nature of such posts, which suggests we need to closely examine the impact of social media use in the political sphere to ensure it is being utilised in the best ways possible.

Social media is an important facet of political participation. It has grown exponentially in the past decade and become a pervasive part of life. As forms of social media evolve, so too do the ways in which it is used. Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram can all be used as conduits of political participation. Each platform is used in different ways; thus political participation varies across them. Much political debate now takes place online, with a large portion of this occurring on Facebook.[10] Studies have found Facebook users participate in debates and share political information with their networks.[11] This is a new and simple means of opening up political dialogue. Velasquez and LaRose found that social media serves as an alternative form of collective activism, which contributes to the engagement of young people.[12] Social media has the ability to increase individual and collective political participation.

Social media can significantly alter the way we conceptualise political participation. It has rapidly become a ubiquitous part of life. There is, however, a lack of literature about whether or not social media based political discussions result in an increase in institutional forms of individual political participation, as well as the intricacies of how various platforms are used to engage in politics. As Fenton and Barassi argue, “all creative human activity has the potential for political transformative capacity but to understand how this potential can be translated into a reality requires an appreciation of enduring social and political structures…”[13] We must look at how and why current political institutions are so enduring, and find ways to translate this to online forms of participation.

Political participation is a necessary aspect of any functioning democracy. New technologies are changing the way we participate in politics, so activists, political scientists, and policy creators must ensure they work together to institutionalise them. The three main facets of online participation are online voting, social media as a campaign platform, and social media as a form of political participation. As the field is relatively new, there is a lack of comprehensive theory and literature about it. There are gaps that need to be addressed. This includes; ensuring we have the tools to translate online participation into institutionalised participation, focusing on how to remove barriers to online voting, and studying the intricacies of how social media is used in politics. In addressing these, political scientists will further institutionalise online forms of political participation and provide theoretical frameworks for public policy creators to be able to create comprehensive policy that addresses the necessity of online participation.

 

Bibliography.

Fenton, Natalie., and Veronica Barassi. “Alternative Media and Social Networking Sites: The Politics of Individuation and Political Participation.” The Communication Review 14, no. 3 (2011): 179-196. doi: 10.080/10714424.2011.597245.

Hall, Peter., and Rosemary Taylor. “Political Science and the Three New Institutionalisms.” Political Studies 44, no. 5 (1996): 936-957.

Lust, Aleksander. “Online Voting: Boone or Bane for Democracy?.” Information Polity 20, no. 1 (2015): 313-323. doi: 10.3233/IP-150373.

McCaffrie, Brendan., and Sadiya Akram. “Crisis of Democracy?: Recognizing the Democratic Potential of Alternative Forms of Political Participation.” Democratic Theory 1, no. 2 (2016): 47-55. doi: 10.3167/dt.2014.010205.

Riley, Sarah., Christine Griffin, and Yvette Morey. “The Case for ‘Everyday Politics’: Evaluating Neo-tribal Theory as a Way to Understand Alternative Forms of Political Participation, Using Electronic Dance Music Culture as an Example.” Sociology 44, no.2 (2010): 345-363. doi: 10.1177/0038038509357206.

Ross, Karen., Susan Fountain, and Margie Comrie. “Facing Up to Facebook: Politicians, Publics and the Social Media(ted) Turn in New Zealand.” Media, Culture and Society 37, no. 2 (2014): 251-269. doi: 10.1177/0163443714557983.

Velasquez, Alcides., and Robert LaRose. “Youth Collective Activism Through Social Media: The Role of Collective Efficacy.” New Media and Society 17, no. 6 (2014): 899-918. doi: 10.1177/1461444813518391.

Vesnic-Alujevic, Lucia. “Political Participation and Web 2.0 in Europe: A Case Study of Facebook.” Public Relations Review 38, no. 1 (2012): 466-470. doi: 10.1016/j.pubrev.2012.01.010.

 

[1] Brendan McCaffrie and Sadiya Akram, “Crisis of Democracy?: Recognizing the Democratic Potential of Alternative Forms of Political Participation,” Democratic Theory 1, no. 2 (2016): 47, doi: 10.3167/dt.2014.010205.

[2] Sarah Riley, Christine Griffin, and Yvette Morey, “The Case for ‘Everyday Politics’: Evaluating Neo-tribal Theory as a Way to Understand Alternative Forms of Political Participation, Using Electronic Dance Music Culture as an Example,” Sociology 44, no.2 (2010): 346, doi: 10.1177/0038038509357206.

[3] Lucia Vesnic-Alujevic, “Political Participation and Web 2.0 in Europe: A Case Study of Facebook,” Public Relations Review 38, no. 1 (2012): 466, doi: 10.1016/j.pubrev.2012.01.010.

[4] Aleksander Lust, “Online Voting: Boone or Bane for Democracy?,” Information Polity 20, no. 1 (2015): 316, doi: 10.3233/IP-150373.

[5] Lust, “Online Voting: Boone or Bane for Democracy?,” 466.

[6] Ibid., 320.

[7] Ibid..

[8] Karen Ross, Susan Fountain, and Margie Comrie, “Facing Up to Facebook: Politicians, Publics and the Social Media(ted) Turn in New Zealand,” Media, Culture and Society 37, no. 2 (2014): 251, doi: 10.1177/0163443714557983.

[9] Peter Hall and Rosemary Taylor, “Political Science and the Three New Institutionalisms,” Political Studies 44, no. 5 (1996): 948.

[10] Vesnic-Alujevic, “Political Participation and Web 2.0 in Europe: A Case Study of Facebook,” 467.

[11] Ibid..

[12] Alcides Velasquez and Robert LaRose, “Youth Collective Activism Through Social Media: The Role of Collective Efficacy,” New Media and Society 17, no. 6 (2014): 914, doi: 10.1177/1461444813518391.

[13] Natalie Fenton and Veronica Barassi, “Alternative Media and Social Networking Sites: The Politics of Individuation and Political Participation,” The Communication Review 14, no. 3 (2011): 194, doi: 10.080/10714424.2011.597245.

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