30 November 2023

For most people, the first thing that comes to mind when they think of the global rise of digital platforms is probably not citizen inclusion and greater participation. The platforms are readily associated with the spread of misinformation and hate speech, in this way contributing to greater polarisation and support for populism. Addressing this decline in civics in the digital era requires us to find new ways to ensure that citizens’ voices are heard. And while digital technologies may be largely responsible for the present crisis, they also point to a potential way forward. That was the guiding thesis of the Saving Civics in the Digital Age event, part of the 2023-2024 European Capital of Democracy programme year in Barcelona. Organised by The Association Civic Tech Europe (ACTE), the event featured inputs from two ACTE member organisations, Tectonica and Osioigo.

The venue for the event, a textile factory built in 1852, was the perfect setting for a discussion focused on the capacity of technology to reshape our societies. From the height of the industrial revolution in the 19th century down to the present day, it’s clear that technology has not always promoted social cohesion. From luddite rebellions and the arms race to the era of online polarisation and hate speech, technology has arguably led to conflict more often than it has served to build mutual trust.

Yet the three panellists, Ned Howey of Tectonica and Gemma Domènech and Irene Coto of Osoigo, highlighted the ways that digital tools are currently creating new possibilities for citizen empowerment and meaningful participation.

The decline of everyday civics in the digital age

Ned Howey, CEO of Tectonica, began his talk by observing that the rules of civic engagement have been completely rewritten in the digital age. The rise of social media platforms has allowed for scale and accessibility of information, enabling political discourse to transcend traditional boundaries.

At the same time, social media has been linked to the spread of disinformation, polarisation, and other negative trends. One of the most widespread explanations for the rise of populism and far-right extremism is the short-term dopamine-driven feedback loops that social media creates.

For Howey, the fact that most online discussion spaces are shaped by market forces has led to a “trust gap” between citizens and political institutions. For everyday civics to really thrive, he argues that we need to create a situation where “people are not consumers of democracy but agents of democracy.”

Mutual accountability and citizen engagement

Gemma Domènech, head of communications and marketing at Osoigo, struck a similar note to Howey, noting that empowering citizens means finding new ways of promoting meaningful communication and human contact. The way forward involves building relations of mutual accountability, where leaders and their constituencies hold each other responsible for their actions, decisions, or commitments. In such relationships, there is a shared understanding that each party has obligations and expectations towards the other, and both are accountable for fulfilling their respective roles.

Howey insists that this shouldn’t imply abandoning traditional forms of political campaigning. Instead, it is about shifting the emphasis onto technologies that allow for engagement-based methods and distributed organising tools. For example,Tectonica has proposed that instead of basing political campaigns on signature petitions, the focus should shift to building up communities around these demands.

On their digital platform, Osoigo promotes a range of different spaces for public dialogue on questions of policy. One format involves enabling citizens to ask questions directly to their national or european political representatives. Meanwhile, the Osoigo Next tool facilitates citizen participation within specific organisations such as political parties.

Overall, as Irene Coto, the project manager of Osoigo suggested in her panel, “participation platforms should be as simple, accessible and attractive as possible so that citizens feel like their voices are heard and taken into account in public debate”.

Innovation in Barcelona

The event had a distinctively local flavour: not only are Tectonica based in Barcelona, but the Osoigo team also talked about a project they had recently carried out in the city.

Osoigo Next, in collaboration with the Association Construïm Barcelona, conducted a large-scale survey titled ‘Barcelona’s Voice’ to help understand the priorities and concerns of citizens. It aimed to be the largest consultation ever held in the city. The survey invited citizens to express their demands, covering topics such as city safety, street cleanliness, and alternative transportation options.

After collecting opinions through active listening, Construïm Barcelona and Osoigo Next used a face-to-face institutional event to announce the results. They presented a ten-point agenda of citizen proposals with the aim of encouraging political representatives’ commitment to the policy proposals.

Osoigo has also worked with the Council of Spanish Youth (CJE) on the “Break the crystal” survey. The aim was to better understand the views of young people, aged 14 to 30, regarding the upcoming general elections and their relationship to the political system. The survey, conducted between the third and fourth weeks of June, engaged over 6,200 participants. Results show that 59% of respondents feel unrepresented in the Spanish political system – but nonetheless, 86% of young voters planned to participate in the elections of July 2023.

Digital tools for democratic agency

After the panels, discussions continued into the evening on how digital participation is reshaping the face of EU politics.

One of the initiatives that stood out was Palumba EU, a project currently looking for funding to create an EU elections app inspired by so-called “voting advice apps”. The app would provide recommendations to citizens on which political party to vote for based on their political preferences. Palumba EU aims to gamify civic education and combat misinformation for the upcoming European elections.

Rather than a single tool to rival social media in its scope, the overall picture that emerged from the event was of a whole series of platforms and strategies intended to rewire the relationship between digital technology and politics in support of civic engagement, one step at a time. All in the hope of making us agents of democracy, rather than mere consumers of information.

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