Have the internet improved democracies

Online society

Beate Hoecker

To person

Dr. rer. soc., born 1954, private lecturer, substitute professor at the University of Hanover, Institute for Political Science.

Address: University of Hanover, Institute for Political Science, Schneiderberg 50, 30167 Hanover.
e-mail: [email protected]; Internet: Beate Hoecker

Publications: Handbook Political Participation of Women in Europe, Opladen 1998.

The potential of digital technology on the empirical test bench

The rapid development of the new information and communication technologies has led to some high expectations on the part of political science. The picture of a digital democracy is drawn.


"No stone will remain on the other!" Management consultant Roland Berger made this prognosis with regard to the prospects of the new information and communication technologies in the 21st century. [1] And indeed, the triumphant advance of the Internet in particular seems unstoppable. After more than ten years of presence in the media market, the digital "network of networks" is now a natural part of everyday life for many people. Messages are sent and received by email, banking is done online, and teleshopping is also very popular. Last but not least, the Internet has meanwhile fought for an almost equal place next to the "old" media - press, radio and television; yes, it even seems superior to them due to its multimedia and interactivity.

The question of the social and political consequences of this rapid technological development process has meanwhile also occupied political and administrative science and is primarily a question of the consequences of computer-mediated communication for democracy: How does the new medium affect our representative system? Can it improve the flow of communication between institutions, citizens, parties and interest groups? Will the Internet lift or at least counteract existing restrictions in the process of political opinion and decision-making? Will it encourage political participation by citizens, enable more direct democracy? Or, on the contrary, does the Internet pose a threat to democracy, for example through the dissemination of extreme political content? Do we have to fear an "electronic populism" based on information dominance and one-sided information? The answers - depending on the respective democratic theoretical point of view - vary widely and range from enthusiastic to rather skeptical or cautionary assessments. [2]

In order to obtain information about the actual or supposed opportunities and risks of electronic democracy (e-democracy) and virtual governance (e-government), the potential attributed to the Internet is to be examined in detail below on the basis of empirical findings for the Federal Republic of Germany. The test criterion is the democratic-theoretical question of whether the Internet promotes political equality and strengthens the citizens' opportunities for political information, discussion and participation. The American political scientist Anthony G. Wilhelm formulated the question as follows: "Ultimately, the question is, will the Internet bring people into the process who have been on the margins of political engagement?" [3] I. The information potential

In modern democracies, the communication of information is one of the central functions of the media, because only on the basis of information and knowledge can the individual form his / her own opinion and participate responsibly in political events. With the Internet, a new medium is now available which - according to the assumption - contributes to improving the information situation for citizens. Specific advantages are the availability, up-to-dateness, capacity and the linking of information. With its communication infrastructure, the Internet offers the unprecedented opportunity to get information from almost all parts of the world quickly, cheaply and with little effort. Last but not least, it embodies the undeniable increase in importance of the information factor in today's knowledge society. But do these advantages actually lead to a better level of information for the population? Does the mere existence of more information mean an increase in the number of well-informed people? A look at the required basic resources, the socio-demographic user profile and the usage patterns raise considerable doubts.

Basic requirement for surfing on the information highway is first of all access to a network connection. While in 1997 only 4.1 million German citizens were "online", by 2001 their number had risen to 24.8 million. The percentage of Internet users within the German population aged 14 and over rose from 6.5 to an impressive 38.8 percent. [4] Nonetheless, growth in the Internet sector has recently weakened significantly and significantly lower rates of increase can also be expected in the future. According to realistic estimates, the proportion of Internet users is likely to level off at around half of the population in the medium term. [5] Compared to traditional media (newspapers, radio, television) with a combined reach of over 90 percent, the Internet is by no means a mass medium; rather, the majority of the population currently sees itself excluded from network communication.

In addition, the socio-demographic profile of Internet users shows significant deviations from the general population. As before, the formally better educated male user with an above-average income dominates in the age group of 20 to 40 years. A minority among users, on the other hand, are older people, those with lower formal education and those who are not employed. According to the "ARD / ZDF Online Study 2001", two thirds of 14 to 29 year olds are now online. Among the 50 to 59 year olds, on the other hand, only one in three people has access to the network, and among people aged 60 and over the proportion is only eight percent. [6] A corresponding picture emerges from the differentiation according to formal school education: "Among the secondary school leavers, the proportion of Internet users is only 17.9 percent, among those with a high school diploma or university it is just over 60 percent," state the authors of the online study . [7] And while the proportion of users among the male population is around 48 percent, it is significantly lower among women at 30 percent. [8] In addition, the "onliners" are often above average politically interested and committed.

Although the socio-demographic profile of the user population has adjusted somewhat in recent years to that of the general population - the proportion of women and the average age have risen, while the proportion of students has decreased in favor of employees [9] - but there can be no question of an extensive equalization. Participation or non-participation in the Internet is rather still dependent on the classic factors of gender, age, formal education and occupation.

Another prerequisite for the development of the information potential is that political information must be perceived before it can bring about follow-up communication or participatory actions. As media analyzes show, however, political information is by no means the primary interest of users. The two strongest motives for using the Internet are: "Because I want to get information" and "Because I enjoy it" [10] but pages with current political issues Online users do not access information from home or abroad very often. The ten most frequently used application options per week are cited as sending / receiving emails (80 percent), with political issues only following in ninth place (27 percent). They come after home banking (34 percent), business and the stock market (31 percent) and are just ahead of sports news (25 percent). If you ask more generally, 34 percent of users access news on the Internet, among 14 to 19 year olds the proportion is even 41 percent [11]. However, this is likely to be predominantly the offer of traditional print media on the Internet. [12]

With regard to the perception of the parties' offers on the Internet, there is nevertheless a new development. At the end of the nineties, Lutz Hagen and Klaus Kamps stated: "The assumption that the Internet and commercial online services could help citizens to directly access information offers - for example from authorities or political parties - has been confirmed ... so far Not." [13] In the meantime, however, the number of hits on the parties' websites has increased enormously. In the (election) summer of 2002, the two large parties, the SPD and CDU, registered around 2.5 and 3.6 million hits per month on their pages. In contrast, the PDS and FDP had "only" 750,000 and 700,000 "visitors", respectively, while the sides of the Alliance Greens were only visited 150,000 times. [14] Even if the number of accesses does not say anything about the intensity of use, a remarkable interest in political information is documented here. There are some indications that these people are primarily "people who are already politically interested or the active party base and journalists" [15], but only further empirical studies will lead to reliable findings.

However, it is undisputed that the quantity and quality of the online offers place special demands on the skills of the users. Since anyone can potentially become an information provider and this option is used in many ways, the scope of the offer on the Internet is exploding. The users are therefore faced with the problem of not being able to filter out the information they are looking for from the "digital haystack" or only being able to filter them out with great effort. Professional search engines make research easier by curbing the flood of information, but the data obtained in this way are the result of selection by third parties, so that the theoretical principle of direct and unfiltered data access reaches its limits in practice.

In addition to the necessary "navigation skills", users also need skills to assess the relevance or reliability of the information obtained in the network. This applies to both the sources and the meaningfulness of the content, which the user must make an independent judgment about. In contrast to the other media, the Internet is of little help in reducing complexity. Media competence and knowledge management are therefore important prerequisites for use and are based on previous social experience and skills acquired in other contexts.

The outlined demanding competencies undoubtedly constitute a high access barrier for people with a rather low formal education, as the described socio-demographic profile of the "Internet community" is evidence of. An early technological socialization of the next generation may alleviate the problems of an efficient use of the information offer in the future; Nevertheless, the fundamental question arises as to why citizens in the digital age should suddenly develop a pronounced political interest and become well-informed and well-informed voters. Since the Internet allows the intensive pursuit of non-political interests, more intense competition in the field of politics is to be expected. In this respect, the prognosis of the political scientist Manfred Küchler that in the long term the political interest in the population will decrease rather than increase seems quite plausible: "The gap between a relatively small group of politically interested and the large majority of politically at best moderately interested citizens is widening diverge; while in the first group the average level of knowledge will rise, in the second group it will fall. " [16] The real danger of a knowledge gap between those who are well and badly informed is thus emerging and may become the central one Cleavage, on the "social class division" of the 21st century. Against this background, the fact that the majority of our members of the Bundestag do not seem to see the problem of a digital divide in society must be a cause for concern. [17] II. The communication potential

The Internet not only offers a wealth of information, but also enables direct communication due to its interactivity. Citizens can, for example, address their concerns directly to political parties, parliaments, administrations or their members of parliament; They can search for a chat in (party) forums or discuss political issues with like-minded people in loosely structured virtual communities. This truly new achievement marks the fundamental difference to previous technical innovations - especially telephones and television - and has led to high expectations in some cases.

Political decisions would therefore no longer primarily be made by the political actors, rather they would be the result of a broad, objective discussion on the most varied of levels of our political system. In addition, the political influence of the individual would be greater, which would result in "heightened democratic awareness and sense of responsibility and, overall, improved citizenship" [18]. In general, politics would gain legitimacy through the discursive character of the formation of political opinions and will. The model of one that goes back to Jürgen Habermas deliberative Democracy thus seems within reach. [19]

If you check these expectations, however, there is hardly any empirical evidence for this. The previous knowledge points rather in the opposite direction:

First of all, it should be noted that the reservation mentioned above with regard to access to the network as a source of information also applies to network communication. As before, the vast majority of the German as well as the world population are offline and thus excluded from this new form of communication. The onliners themselves have shown only moderate interest in direct communication, for example in the public party forums or with the MPs. Although the number of participants fluctuates between the parties and depending on the topic of discussion, it is ultimately only a small group of people who actively use this opportunity. [20] Since forums such as candidate chats are usually also moderated, the theoretical principle of equality does not apply in practice: "Everyone can express their opinion, but not everyone has a say. ... The moderator chooses what is answered by the well-groomed and cherished candidate and then flutters onto the screens. " [21] In this respect, there can be no talk of an open and critical discourse between voters and political actors. Other studies also state that the political actors are generally only very reluctant to engage in bilateral and less asymmetrical communication; Rather, their handling of online communication primarily serves to present their own public image. [22] The interactive potential for intensifying the representational relationship between voters and elected thus (still) remains largely unused.

In addition, the effects of their communication are hardly noticeable for the participants. With regard to the forums of the Bundestag parties, Arne Rogg states that "the majority of the forums are accompanied editorially, but are not really evaluated and that even where this evaluation takes place, it is not conveyed back to the forums" [23] . This observation points to the general problem of how virtual communication can be integrated into the real institutional building of representative democracy. According to Rainer Schmalz-Bruns, due to its high degree of fragmentation, internet-based communication is hardly able to "sort topics and opinions according to priorities and then address them to the political system in a concentrated manner" [24]. In the multi-stage political decision-making process, the Internet only plays an important role in the articulation of problems; A prerequisite for this, however, is that other political actors or the traditional mass media take up the topics and opinions negotiated on the Internet. [25]

Finally, if you look at the quality of the discussions on the Internet, then there is disillusionment here too. In particular, the assumption that due to anonymity only the rational argument counts and no longer the social status of a person has proven to be a fallacy. According to Hubertus Buchstein, anonymity acts rather as a "protective shield against verbal cruelty", [26] and it is not uncommon for a competition to take place on the Internet in which the "most hair-raising, provocative and craziest point of view" [27] wins.There are indeed many convincingly presented opinions in network communication, "but little informed dialogue and, above all, hardly any dialogues that are oriented towards the search for a consensus" [28]. Other empirical studies come to similar results; [29] So far there can be no question of a factual discussion that leads to a public opinion backed up with good arguments in the case of network communication. III. The participation potential

Another hope linked to the Internet is aimed at strengthening the participation of citizens in political events. Proponents of an electronic or digital democracy based on the American model want - in a fundamentally representative system - not only to improve the information situation of the population and to stimulate political discussions with the help of the Internet, but also to use the Internet as an instrument for political decisions and elections to the people's representative bodies as well as voting on political issues. They also want considerably more votes to take place than before and that citizens are asked more frequently about political issues and that their opinions flow into the process of political decision-making. In this way, democracy could become "more direct" and thus stronger. Such a democracy would consequently be more fun again; Disenchantment with politics and parties would be reduced and participation in (electoral) participation encouraged. In addition, voting from the home computer is not fraught with the risk of counting errors and fraud - an argument that has gained in importance in view of the problems with the counting of votes in the context of the American presidential election. [30]

As fascinating as this picture of digital democracy may seem, there are serious concerns. These relate on the one hand to electoral aspects and on the other hand to the assumed participation-promoting effect of the new media. A computer-aided voting process can only be used if it is at least as secure as the previous election regulations, i.e. the principles of general, equal, free and secret voting must be guaranteed. However, these conditions are currently still causing problems, especially with regard to the confidentiality of the voting decision. [31] Nevertheless, the technical requirements are likely to be met in the foreseeable future; Corresponding test and pilot projects are already being carried out in Germany as in other countries. [32]

In contrast, the objection as to whether an election via the Internet can actually increase voter turnout appears to be more important. The same applies to the expansion of voting matters desired by the advocates of digital democracy. Do more votes on political issues inevitably lead to a higher participation of citizens in the political decision-making process and thus to more democracy?

According to critical voices, the thesis of the participation-promoting effects of the new media is based on the false assumption that the previous non-participation was primarily a technical problem. [33] On the other hand, we know from empirical participation research that political activities obviously "do not take place self-induced in a socio-political vacuum" [34] but are subject to numerous influencing factors. Situational and motivational factors, but also subjective attitudes from the field of political culture, play an important role.

Beyond these influencing factors, however, it is first and foremost the individual resources that have a massive impact on the chances of political participation. That from Sidney Verba and Norman Never The standard model developed in the 1970s and still valid says: The higher the level of education and the more qualified the job, the greater the chance for political participation. [35]

Against the background of these results, it seems extremely questionable whether resource groups in particular can be mobilized and integrated into the political process solely on the basis of a new technology. As long as the social prerequisites for this are lacking, the previous patterns of political participation can also be expected to be reproduced on the Internet - "on a new technical level and possibly with an increasing unequal distribution of participation opportunities" [36]. In this respect, the political scientist Claus Leggewie has to agree when he states: "The democratic capacity of the Internet can hardly be higher than the‘ offline readiness ‘for political engagement." [37]

However, it is also questionable whether online elections exclusively from the private PC are at all desirable, as going to the ballot box is the only form of political participation for the majority of people. To relocate this completely into private space would be the principle of the public Violate democracy. This objection applies even if voters have the option for face-to-face voting or Online voting. In this theoretical case, the "users" would vote at home with a click of the mouse, while the "loosers" would meet at the polling station - and thus in public. A falling voter turnout would be very likely in this scenario.

While there are no reliable empirical findings with regard to online elections and voting, initial studies on user participation in mailing lists, newsgroups or projects confirm the connection between online and offline participation. The participation offers usually meet with only moderate interest; moreover, it is mostly not a question of sustainable and long-term participation, but rather of an ad-hoc participation. As long as the political effects of online engagement remain unclear, it is difficult to motivate citizens to participate politically. [38]

The above-mentioned objections to a primarily technology-determinist view of political participation undoubtedly also apply with regard to the proponents of direct democracy. Anyone who wants to transform representative democracy into direct democracy must not only be able to answer the democratic theoretical question of how, in a complex democracy characterized by specialization and differentiation, an ambitious decision-making process that takes into account the balance of social interests can be guaranteed, but also the required high willingness to participate the citizens can justify well. In any case, the empirical results so far speak rather against the thesis of an infinite willingness to participate politically on the part of the population.

In summary, it can be said that the Internet does provide a large number of information, communication and participation offers, but these offers - at least at the moment - correspond more to the needs and skills of a small minority of mostly well-educated people. Those who are already politically interested, motivated and active are also tapping the new potential of the Internet; But those who have not been politically involved up to now can neither motivate nor mobilize the new technology alone. In this respect, the Internet carries NotAs hoped by many, it contributes to more political equality, but rather reproduces, indeed exacerbates, social inequality. IV. E-Government

The expectations and objections to the Internet, which are primarily presented from a political science perspective, also largely apply to the relationship between citizens and public administration. E-government is generally understood to mean "the optimization of administrative processes through the use of modern information and communication technologies in the public sector" [39]. With the help of the new technology, administrative action should be "dusted off" and, overall, closer to the citizen, more effective and more transparent - and last but not least, more cost-effective. Embedded in a fundamental administrative reform, e-government aims at a modern, customer- and service-oriented administration whose online offerings are geared towards the needs of a thoroughly demanding citizen with regard to information, communication, services and participation opportunities. [40] However, the practical implementation of e-government solutions in Germany - in contrast to other leading industrial nations - is still in its infancy. There is no national action plan that promotes and coordinates corresponding applications at the various levels (federal, state, local). [41]

Since September 2000 there is at least for the Federation the "BundOnline 2005" program, according to which all internet-enabled services of the federal administrative institutions should be available online by 2005. [42] At the level of the countries So far there are only partial funding programs or pilot projects to implement e-government applications in administrations. In contrast, the communal level especially with their "virtual town halls" a little further; Almost all cities, but also numerous small municipalities, currently have their own internet presence. [43] Nevertheless, these websites often only have the character of a presentation platform, that is, they put opening times of the offices, services of the city administration, forms for downloading or tourist information on the net, while the interactivity is only partially realized. Lothar Beyer demands: "Instead of the sparse communication offers on today's websites ... secure and legally binding transactions on the Internet must be possible." [44] Because only when the Internet application saves going to the administration does it really make sense for the citizens, they will benefit from it. [45]

However, such transactions have so far been lacking; In addition, there are still considerable doubts among the general public about the security of personal data transmitted online, such as credit card or bank account numbers. "85 percent of German citizens consider the Internet to be too insecure to use official services online"; This is the result of the representative study "Government Online 2001" by TNS EMNID. [46] In addition, participatory offers, for example in the form of citizen participation in municipal planning processes, have so far only been available at certain points and no doubt still need to be expanded. [47]

It should be noted here: The Internet also offers new opportunities for civic empowerment with regard to the interface between citizens and administration. At the same time, the interactive potential in particular is far from being exhausted; Administrative processes must be able to be handled completely electronically, and real influence on the part of social actors must be wanted and implemented on the part of the administration. "E-government can only be realized if this process actually leads to a‘ reengineering of the public sector ‘and the use of modern information and communication technologies is seen in connection with the financial and organizational reforms of public administration." [48] ​​As long as half of the population is offline, traditional and new digital communication channels must also be offered in parallel in the future. V. Consequences

The German consensus and negotiating democracy is marked by a clear skepticism towards the information and even more the participation claims of the citizens. In contrast to the USA, but also to Sweden, the following applies freedom of information not yet as part of our political culture, [49] and consequently plays citizen empowerment only a minor role.

The basic requirement for "more democracy via the Internet" is therefore the political will to involve the population more in the political process. With regard to the new information and communication media, this has the following consequences:

(1) One of the most important political challenges is to ensure that all citizens have equal opportunities to participate. Since only a minority is currently networked and can inform and articulate themselves under the new conditions, politics must first enable universal access to information and knowledge. Central aspects of this "basic information supply" are the dismantling of financial and technical barriers to access.

(2) An approximately equal supply of modern media infrastructure is an important prerequisite, but in no way guarantees equal political and media opportunities. In addition, targeted efforts to impart specific media skills are required.

Political media literacy generally means the ability to act critically and reflective, self-determined and responsible in the media world and to use the media for independent opinion-forming as well as independent action. Such media competence is based on a basic knowledge of political relationships and the role of the media as mediators and actors in the political process; As a key qualification, it is therefore an integral part of a democratic citizen's competence. [50]

The new options opened up by the Internet will only be democratically used when dealing with them meets new skills to apply them. Political education in particular is called upon to develop and implement appropriate concepts and measures.

(3) In addition to these consequences, politicians and administrations must also positively accept the new technical possibilities and integrate them into the political design process. Specifically, that means:

- The range of information must be expanded and completed; Political planning and decision-making processes must be used to create greater transparency, for example by making previously non-public or semi-public parliamentary discussion and voting processes more accessible to the media. Attention should be paid to a presentation that is understandable even for interested laypeople, which not only presents facts, but also explains contexts.

- The most far-reaching democratic potential of the new information and communication technologies, however, lies in the participatory and interactive possibilities that have so far hardly been implemented. If the participation claims of the citizens are actually to be taken into account, then the political institutions must firstly offer more interactive offers on the Internet, which instead of "top-down communication" enable influence from "bottom" to "top". Second, quality assurance mechanisms and a thematic focus of political communication flows in the network are required. Well-designed and expertly moderated discussion forums could contribute to this. And thirdly, the question must be asked and answered how digitally conveyed participation inputs can be transformed into decision-making alternatives. Political discourses and participation that take place for their own sake and have no discernible effect on the decision-making process ultimately represent participation without consequences and are hardly suitable for sustainable mobilization of citizens.

Politicians are therefore faced with the challenge of developing the existing democratization potential of the new information and communication technologies and integrating them into our political system in a way that is democratic. No one can say today whether the end result will be a digital democracy and what it will look like in practice. In any case, the options for "more democracy" are there.