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nt. J. Electronic Governance, Vol. 6, No. 4, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Inderscience Enterprises Ltd.
Online participation: from ‘invited’ to ‘invented’
University of Muenster,
Institute for Political Science,
Scharnhorststr. 100, 48151 Muenster, Germany
Abstract: As a result of growing protests and demonstrative participation,
new forms of participation are being implemented by government (invited
space) and by the civil society (invented space). These democratic innovations
mix conventional representative forms of participation with new direct as
well as deliberative participatory instruments (hybrid democracy). Democratic
innovation is also characterised by new digital, online instruments.
Additionally it comes to a mix between offline instruments and new online
instruments (blended democracy). Online participation often lacks quality in its
discourse. Research shows that it is frequently not an open reciprocal
deliberation. It is more often ‘third space discussion’ and ‘enclave dialogue’.
Here the argument is that some online participatory instruments, which were
originally developed for deliberation and dialogue, seem to refocus towards the
function of demonstrative participation (internet metamorphosis). They are
more oriented towards the constructions of identity and community building
than towards political dialogue and deliberation.
Keywords: participation; deliberation; quality of democracy; identity; protest;
Reference to this paper should be made as follows: Kersting, N. (2013)
‘Online participation: from ‘invited’ to ‘invented’ spaces’, Int. J. Electronic
Governance, Vol. 6, No. 4, pp.270–280.
Biographical notes: Norbert Kersting is holding the chair for Comparative
Politics Local and regional politics at the Department of Political Science
at the University of Muenster (Germany). From 2006 to 2011 he was holding
the “Willy Brandt Chair on democratic transformation and regional integration”
at the Department of Political Science, University of Stellenbosch. He was a
fellow at the Institute of Political Science at the University of Marburg. He was
visiting Professor at the University of Koblenz-Landau and the University of
Kassel. He is chair of International Political Science Association’s (IPSA)
Research Committee 10 on ‘Electronic democracy’.
Democracy is under distress in the younger democracies as well as in old, established
democratic systems. The end of the Cold War introduced a number of new democracies,
but the critique of electoral democracies started after a short ‘democratisation-honey-
moon’. In Africa and Asia, the predicted ‘End of History’ (Fukuyama, 1992) and the
Online participation: from ‘invited’ to ‘invented’ spaces 271
victory of democratic systems seemed to be a myth. The often problematic nation-
building has not yet ended, and with the breakdown of some dictatorships, ethnic
cleavages have led to civil war and segregated authoritarian sub-systems. This rapid
breakdown of some democracies and the phenomenon of failing states were not obvious
at the end of the 20th century. Younger democracies are often regarded as having
degenerated into purely electoral democracies. But the older democracies also show
symptoms of a participatory crisis and a legitimisation crisis of the political system.
Is there a legitimisation crisis of democracy of democratic systems or a crisis
of political parties or politicians? Globally, electoral representative democracies are
highly criticised. Voter apathy and cynicism are growing. Conventional political
participation is decreasing. Political parties are seen as empty railway stations or
abandoned piazzas, in which political debates are lacking (see for this metaphors used by
Touraine (1971), and Kersting et al. (2009). The growth of non-voting is a complex
phenomenon that continues to lack adequate explanation (LeDuc et al., 2010). The
decline of traditional social and concomitant political ties, such as class and church, may
be factors. Post-materialist values among the younger generation may be part of the
explanation, leading to a preference for unconventional channels of participation such as
demonstrations. The feeling of civic obligation that has so far characterised the voting
habits of the older generations is on the wane in other groups (Wolfinger and Rosenstone,
1980). The dominance of political parties is also highly criticised (Dalton and
Wattenberg, 2000). It has led to political apathy as well as to cynicism.
Political dissatisfaction is not only based on political apathy but also on political
cynicism (Kersting, 2012b). It is no longer political apathy and lack of knowledge of
politics which are seen as the main reasons for non-participation. On the contrary, better
knowledge of some aspects of politics, as a result of an improved educational system,
comes with political cynicism; a feeling of little political efficacy and a high level of
dissatisfaction with the political system and political parties (Kersting and Cronqvist,
2005, p.28; Scarrow, 2010). But unconventional participation is also facing a crisis.
New social movements often seem to deteriorate into violent meaningless protest.
The de facto reduction in pure electoral democracies (ballot option) and the escalating
political violence (brick option) are both criticised. Are there any alternatives to the brick
and the ballot? Is there a new cleavage in the field of new media, from which new
political parties can emerge?
Some authoritarian regimes reacted to the legitimacy crisis and protest by using
repression. Most governments reacted by providing more democratic space and
implementing new instruments for participation such as invited spaces (Barber, 1984;
Budge, 1996; Kersting, 2008). Political systems implemented new invited spaces such as
referendums, round tables or forums. Some of these new experiments were dominated by
political parties and formal institutions. In this case, the people were still not satisfied,
and found their own channels to express their interest using invented spaces as an answer
to this hierarchically dominated intervention. New forms of protest and participation were
developed as a kind of public counterweight to existing structures. They were used to
challenge existing power structures and dominance by the old ruling elites. The question
is whether these new structures can become sustainable forms of deliberation and open
This paper will focus on two aspects: what are the types and functions of online and
offline political participation? A new typology will be presented, which includes new
participatory instruments. Secondly, the question derives: is online-participation changing
the characteristics of democratic participation? Here some ideas and issues specific to
online activities and devices will be presented.
2 Spheres of political participation
In general, political participation has to be defined as an act to influence political
decision-making (Barnes and Kaase, 1979). In this regard, all forms of civil engagement
such as communal self-help cannot be classified as political participation, because
these focus on the production of certain services and often do not include any kind of
decision-making competencies. Civic engagement is not primarily oriented towards the
influence of decision-making. Civic engagement as co-production however has an
important social function especially when it comes to the development of social capital
(Kersting et al., 2009). Political participation can be divided into four different political
spheres: participation in representative democracy, participation in direct democracy,
deliberative participation and demonstrative participation. Therefore, in the following
article, online and offline instruments of political participation as well as their main and
collateral functions will be described using a model of participation with four spheres
(see Figure 1).
Figure 1 Hybrid and blended democracy
2.1 Representative democracy
Participation in representative democracy can be seen as the default case of liberal
democracies. Representative parliamentary and presidential systems are primarily based
Online participation: from ‘invited’ to ‘invented’ spaces 273
on the competition between political parties and political candidates. The institutions of
representative democracy are mostly highly formalised and defined in the constitution or
in a legal framework. In modern democracies, all other forms such as direct democratic
instruments, deliberative instruments as well as demonstrative forms of participation are
subordinated. In representative democracy elections, the different levels of the political
subsystems are the central instruments. Representative democracy is characterised as
numerical democracy where delegate trustees are chosen by a majority; meanwhile,
minorities’ rights have to be protected. The definition of delegates – as representatives for
particular interest groups – and trustees – as a representative for the common wealth – is
characterised differently in different political cultures. Besides elections, representative
democracies allow different forms of participation, for example by direct contact with the
incumbents. It includes forms of participation such as membership of political parties,
campaigning, candidature for political mandates and so on (Gibson et al., 2003).
As a kind of conventional participation, organised interest groups and political parties
play an important role. In general political parties and political actors are crucial, but the
ultimate decisive selection is made by the people.
The selection of the incumbents is the central function in representative participation.
Communication between the electorate and the incoming elected political elites as well as
control functions is secondary compared with the principle of voting (vote centric).
Elections have a demonstrative function on the individual level to express citizen rights.
The demonstrative symbolic voting procedure on election day is important for certain
groups, as in the examples of the symbolic ‘vote’ in France or the family voting in
Germany (Kersting and Baldersheim, 2004).
Online instruments in representative participation range from voter information
(voting advice application such as smart vote) to control instruments (candidate watch)
online voter registration or electronic voting (internet voting, voting machines). Most of
these instruments are developed congruently and in parallel to existing offline
instruments. For example online voting, like in Estonia, Switzerland, and Norway for
instance, has to fulfil the same legal requirements. Here problems of secrecy,
manipulation and trust are highlighted (Kersting and Baldersheim, 2004). Some of these
online instruments, such as candidate watch, are only possible with viral, many-to-many
communications, and transformed by the online crowdsourcing. Some, like voting advice
applications, would not be possible without data processing functions of new information
and communication technologies (Ladner and Fiaz, 2012).
2.2 Direct democracy
Participation in direct democracy focuses on direct decision-making and on making
thematic decisions directly, and not on the election of incumbents. Direct democracy
is part of electronic democracy and is also vote-centric, andexcept in Switzerland, it plays
a subordinated role (Qvotrup, 2013). Also communication and social contacts in
referendums have become secondary: in Switzerland, approximately 90% of the people
vote by post. The common experience and the demonstrative symbolic voting procedure
on election Sunday have become less important (Geser, 2004).
More en vogue in the last decades globally (including some countries in Latin
America, in constitutional review processes in Africa) are mandatory referendums and
plebiscites, organised top down. In some European countries, direct initiatives, organised
bottom up, seem to boom at the local level (Schiller and Setälä, 2012; Qvotrup, 2013).
Referendums can be binding or consultatively determined by constitutions or electoral
law. There are different defined legal settings such as quorums, time frames and other
legal requirements for direct democracy. Petitions are also included in the field of direct
democracy, because they can be seen as numeric vote centric democracy and they
focus on certain policy fields and topics. Petitions have become more of an online
instrument: electronic petition boomed in Scotland, Germany and other countries
(Hansard Society, 2011). Conversely, ordinary referendums and initiatives are only
sporadically implemented as an online instrument. But here voter registration, voter
information and the initiative were reinvigorated by online instruments (see for the Swiss
experiences, Serdült and Welp, 2012). In addition, new forms of suggestion boxes such
as in participatory budgeting processes have been created. They are open for suggestions
from the citizens, and offer ‘vote’ and ‘like’ functions to prioritise certain suggestions
which are transferred in a consultative process toward the decision-making bodies such as
councils and mayors. In some countries such as Germany, this is now mostly organised in
online participatory budgeting processes. Implementing city administrations prefer this
online instrument because offline forums were cumbersome, costly and lacked broad
2.3 Deliberative participation
Dialogical democracy often develops a path to come from conflict to consensual
deliberative decision-making. These new interactive participatory instruments are often
implemented as open dialogues (Kersting, 2008; Sintomer et al., 2010). Since the 1990s,
there has been a trend towards more dialogue-oriented political participation. It has been
called the ‘deliberative turn’ (Dryzek, 2002; Goodin and Niemeyer, 2003; Kersting,
2008; Kersting et al., 2009). Instruments such as open forums are consensus-seeking.
As open instruments, they engage organised interest groups as well as individual citizens.
Besides these forums, nowadays, new representative mini publics (citizen juries) choose
representative random samples out of the citizenship and use these participants for
discussion on certain political and planning issues. By using these instruments, organised
interests such as political parties and representatives of new social movements are
often excluded. Instead, new modern forms of advisory boards represent particular
interest groups, such as in youth parliaments or advisory boards for old people,
for neighbourhoods, for foreigners, to mention a few. In recent years, particular groups
have had the possibility to discuss their own issues internally. Deliberative instruments
are mostly informal and non-constitutional, which means that they are often lacking a
Deliberative democracy focuses on communication and community building
processes. It allows the development of social capital within the group. It forms part of
the decision-making process and is important for agenda-setting and articulation of
protest. However, because of the non-representativeness and the lack of legal
requirements, its results are non-binding and consultative. Normatively, the deliberation
should dominate, in which case the individual expressive functions are secondary.
Online deliberative participatory instruments range from online forums and online
conferences (open space online) to e-mails. Recent research shows that web forums and
blogs as well as social media lack the quality of adequate deliberation in terms
of argument, respect and reflexivity; they have more aggressive dialogues or pure
monologues (Kersting, Norbert 2005: Kersting, 2012a). Furthermore a trend to exclusion
Online participation: from ‘invited’ to ‘invented’ spaces 275
and enclave communication is obvious. Although the quality is enhanced with
authentication, the quality of discourse is still miserable. Owing to this fact, social media
are positioned in the sphere of demonstrative democracy.
2.4 Demonstrative participation
Demonstrative democracy can be seen as informal participation. This encompasses
political demonstrations but also letters to the editor, as well as other forms of expressing
one’s own will. Beside these legal forms of demonstrative democracy, there are also
illegal forms of violent protest against people or against public or private goods.
New social movements have led in some cases, to violent demonstrations such as in
London (2011) and in South Africa (2008), but also to non-violent protest that
subsequently turned violent such as in Stuttgart (2010) and in Istanbul 2013 or to
nonviolent demonstrations such as the Occupy movements in 2012. The new political
movements use online and offline instruments, for instance in the case of the Arab spring
Demonstrative democracy is focusing on symbolic participation and expressivity.
One of the goals is to show political positions and to express the belonging to a certain
political group. Communication, i.e., talk centric democracy, and voting, i.e., vote centric
democracy, are less important and predominant at this stage. Although some of the
demonstrations try to initiate communication and to influence political decision-making.
But in general, in demonstrative participation, the idea of belonging and identity is
Demonstrative democracy includes forms of participation which are not always
instruments of the invited spaces produced by government or political parties, but are
sometimes introduced and invented by civil society. New forms of demonstration include
civil society protest, flash mobs, as well as citizen information systems organised by civil
society groups, protesting against or in favour of certain policies. They indicate problems
of corruption and mismanagement as well as local, regional, and national best practices.
Demonstrative participation is more related to the invented spaces and less determined by
political parties, political parliaments and political administration.
The critique against representative forms of democracies is characterised by the
distrust of trustees and delegates dominating the invited space. This leads to new forms of
symbolic politics and political demonstrations. Research into participation shows that
individualism and new lifestyles distract people from commitments to long-term
engagement in political organisations. People prefer short-term symbolic events where
they can express themselves.
Demonstrative participation includes a number of online instruments ranging from
flash/smart mobs, carrot mobs to shit storms. As mentioned before, because of their lack
of discursive quality, social media and web forums are predominantly positioned in this
sphere. Web forums and blogs are mostly monologues and participants are not expecting
answers or discussions. These internet debates are not the expected third space as an open
inclusive agora but a third space which is less of a deliberative arena (for the deliberative
atmosphere the idealistic metaphor of an early 20th century Vienna Coffee house,
Kaffeehaus is used) and more of an exclusive ‘pub talk’. Nevertheless, the latter is
important for deliberation and belonging and the former for deliberation. Statements in
social media (Facebook, Twitter) are less focused on discussion but they have a more
expressive demonstrative function. They are meant to show someone’s position, his
identity and his belonging to a certain group.
2.5 Blended democracy
In the last decade, a democratic renewal has become obvious (see Dryzek, 2002; Fung
and Wright, 2003; Kersting et al., 2009; Smith, 2009). Nowadays, democratic innovation
seems to be generated mostly in the global South and in the young democracies.
For example, Brazil is exporting participatory instruments such as participatory
budgeting instruments to the old democracies in Europe and Northern America. Two
trends can be observed.
On the one hand, democratic innovation leads to hybrid democracy which includes
elements of these different forms of participation (Kersting, 2012a). In most recent
decades, the different forms of political participation (representative, direct, deliberative
and demonstrative) have been intermingling, resulting in overlapping tendencies.
For example, new forms of participation have tried to connect deliberative and direct
political participatory instruments, to “first talk, then vote” (Goodin, 2008). In British
Colombia, a deliberative minipublic was combined with a referendum on a new electoral
system (Warren and Pearse, 2008). In constitutional referendums, reach out programmes
and national conferences try to harvest ideas regarding the new constitutions, like for
instance in Kenya and Iceland (see e.g., Landemore, 2013).
On the other hand, new information and communication technologies include online
instruments often intermingling, interdependently in blended participation. Some of the
online instruments are online imitations of existing offline instruments and in some cases
enhance the quality of offline instruments.
3 Issues of online political participation
Democratic renewal seems to lead to new forms of open innovation (Smith, 2009). This
can already be seen in new instruments for collecting ideas and suggestions from the
people within open government, participatory budgeting, and neighbourhood committees
among others. New internet technologies and mobile phones with geo-location systems
provide further opportunities for a comprehensive multi-spatial suggestion box (Kersting,
2012b). Empowered with augmented reality information, people might give their advice
and their ideas regarding numerous problems and issues in their neighbourhoods.
Suggestions made by citizens and related to different issues and problems might enhance
the knowledge of public administration and politicians. Online complaint management
and online suggestion boxes, like websites such as ‘fix my street’ in the UK, give
constant information about the problems and the demands of the public. This process of
open innovation by the people can be scrutinised by other citizens. In online polls, the
citizen can vote in favour or against these suggestions. These new invited and invented
spaces have strong consequences for the representative system. Representation based on
paternalism might be reduced. Politicians might have to act under constant scrutiny and
be subjected to the exercise of accountability. A critical public opposes mainstream
media as a means of control. The internet might be used as an instrument for mobilisation
and as a counter-public (Fraser, 1990).
Online participation: from ‘invited’ to ‘invented’ spaces 277
However, certain questions remain open when it comes to the quality of online
participation. There are some empirical studies highlighted, but further research is still
3.1 Qualification of participation: manipulation and netiquette
Social media is firstly an instrument for mobilisation and secondly a tool for
communication, political deliberation and an arena to exchange ideas. Internet
communication is open for misuse and manipulation. Acceptance of the new online
instruments depends on their authenticity and trustworthiness. Because the manipulation
of information is easy within online instruments such as wikis, the wisdom of the crowd
cannot always correct this manipulation in good time. Users create and use information.
But is there an appropriate quality control? Even political organisations such as political
parties in some cases try to manipulate this freedom of exchange of ideas, for example,
by using anonymous participants to influence the discussion or using political ‘spies’ or
‘moles’ for negative campaigning in the opposing party blocks. This misuse destroys the
credibility and the legitimacy of the internet, as well as all political parties. Trust is one of
the central prerequisites for e-participation, in the case of the secrecy of the vote as well
as in the privacy and authenticity of e-deliberation. Preventing misuse and generating
trust in appropriate use of data is crucial for the success of a participatory instrument. The
intended or unintended misuse of data against data protection regulations can harm the
legitimacy of the instrument (Kitchin and Dodge, 2012). Can an appeal for netiquette,
political correct behaviour in the internet, be introduced and controlled by self-
regulation? Is there a need for a stronger control of government and private data
protection to avoid the misuse of (Big) data and internet communication? (Wojcik, 2012).
3.2 Internet metamorphosis
The quality of online deliberation is often weak (Kersting, 2005; Kies, 2010). Studies on
the deliberative quality of the internet have shown that web forums are not operating
according to Habermas’ criteria – they are not argumentatively-respectful, and
consensus-oriented, but are often pure monologues and frequently aggressive (Kersting,
2005). This leads to the new trend that offline instruments developed for face-to-face
contacts – such as participatory budgeting, forums and so on – are changing their
character and are confronted with a process of metamorphosis when moving online.
Contrary to its deliberative offline version, online participatory budgeting process,
for instance, has become an instrument that is vote-centric and where people make
suggestions and other people can vote for these. They have more of an online suggestion
box character combined with an opinion poll (vote-centric). Instruments for dialogue
such as forums offer less of a deliberative exchange of arguments. Instead, they are a
demonstration of individual opinions in a series of monologues, an expression of
positions and interests. In other words, the talk centric deliberative instrument changed
online into a vote-centric direct democracy instrument. In the latter example, a talk
centric forum became a demonstrative instrument of expression.
3.3 Third space as enclave discourse, deliberation or identity
Stromer-Galley (2003) argues that participants in online discourses look for social
diversity and heterogeneity. Citizens seem to be more interested in peer websites and
mini spheres than in contradicting viewpoints. Recent studies show that ideological
segregation (Genzkow and Shapiro, 2010) is strong. Different opinions are rejected and
the net-users seek over the web support their own position. Traditional media such as
television channels and newspapers often had oligopolistic or even monopolistic
characteristics, but they covered heterogeneous groups and produced networks,
confrontation, and protest. It is argued that new digital media contribute to higher civic
apathy. The plurality of the media which was always a criterion for its quality is
diminishing. Owing to the fragmentation and balkanisation of the media, people are no
longer limited to the leading media (TV), but can select for themselves and filter
information according to their interests. Because of self-selection within the small
homogeneous networks, participants exchange fewer opinions. The discourse in the
different subgroups and in the fragmented public spheres within the internet is often seen
as an introverted political discourse. With the self-selection of the internet group,
individuals can choose their own preferences and it is often argued that they mostly
choose ‘friendly’ forums to avoid cognitive dissonance. This can produce a phenomenon
of ‘groupthink’ where people avoid taboos and where those looking for consensus do not
criticise and question each other’s arguments. Here users are avoiding conflicts and
contradictory interests. The segregated, separated and fragmented public sphere becomes
an information bubble. The introverted milieus and public spheres define homogeneous
networks, where criticism and confronting arguments are diminished.
Participatory crisis leads to democratic renewal and to the implementation of new offline
and online participatory instruments. Online participation seems to lead more to a
blended democracy and not to a fully virtual political life in the internet. Blended
democracy describes the interaction between online and offline participation and online
and electronic democracy. E-democracy produces an invented space and a broad range of
third space (Wright, 2012). This does not seem to develop as enthusiastically expected as
open agora or the open arena (Austrian Kaffeehaus) with deliberation between different
groups which was championed during the euphoric phase of the introduction of the
internet. Internet produces fragmented information and communication bubbles. This
space is important for community building and group identity as well as individual
identity. But with its lack of openness, it is more the closed space of a club (pub group,
‘Stammtisch’) where other groups and arguments are excluded and outgroup hostility
occurs. Deliberation is not important here, but self-affirmation predominates.
Inclusiveness is lacking and outgroup hostility leads to an exclusion of the other. Bonding
in these groups is strong, but bridging to other social groups can be easily avoided. The
question is: is there a chance to overcome these fragmentation and fallacies? Bridging is
easier in offline participation, although online instruments are more effective in
mobilisation. Most of the electronic democracy instruments are based on or might head
towards offline participation in the real world. Cyber democracy in the form of a pure
online participation is not the future, but a blended democracy combining online and
Online participation: from ‘invited’ to ‘invented’ spaces 279
offline instruments might be. The newly invented spaces organised by policy makers and
administration nowadays focuses on ‘cheap’ online instruments and tries to avoid
cumbersome offline meetings. This might become a problem for public administrations
which focus predominantly on online participatory instruments.
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