The ubiquity of digital technologies is a constant feature of the last 20 years. They are an undeniable driver of change. Digital technologies have an impact on democratic political power and social structures. Democracy in the digital arena is closely related to political power, since technology and digital tools can be used to distribute and decentralize that power in society.
Power to the people
The new forms of political power created by technology have transformed the way that power is being exercised. First, technology has enabled citizens to have more access to information and to participate in political processes. Second, social media and other digital platforms have created new forms of communication and organizations, allowing citizens to have their voices heard, assert themselves, and achieve a greater impact on political decisions.
The downside of new technologies
On the other hand, technology has also enabled governments and other powerful actors, like large, high-tech corporations, to collect and use data to influence people's opinions and behaviors. Surveillance and control technologies have also increased the power of the state to monitor and control the population. In addition, technology may also be used to manipulate public opinion and undermine democracy. Fake news, disinformation campaigns, and other types of online manipulation potentially influence election results and public opinion.
Motivated by self-interest
By itself, technology is no guarantee of effective citizen participation. While incentives for citizen participation are diverse, these matters may vary according to the citizen’s personal interests in specific issues and the impact on their daily lives. Therefore, citizens may feel prompted to participate to secure that their concerns are taken into account.
Technology can enable participation but must be accessible
Further steps need to be taken, including educating citizens about the importance of civic participation and providing opportunities to become involved in the political life of their community. In addition, technology should be accessible and easy to use for all citizens, regardless of their level of ability or economic resources. While citizen participation and technology can complement each other and foster greater civic and political engagement among citizens, the journey is not exempt from challenges, especially when it comes to emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) or Blockchain technology.
Leveling the playing field
A key challenge is accessibility, as many people still do not have access to the Internet or digital devices, which can make participation difficult The digital divide can exacerbate economic and social inequalities, and make it difficult for some population groups to fully participate in the political and civic life of their communities. The digital divide is a reality that must be addressed to ensure more inclusive and equitable citizen participation; reducing this inequity can be a fundamental tool against political extremism.
Another important challenge is trust in technologies. Many citizens may have concerns about the security and reliability of technology, especially when it comes to new technologies. It is important to ensure that platforms and tools are secure and that measures are taken to protect users' privacy. We must also address the ongoing privacy challenges evident in social media from automated decision-making and lack of transparency in the algorithms.
e-Citizen engagement tools can help bridge the gap
Many citizens are unfamiliar with new technologies, which can hinder their participation in digital platforms and e-citizen engagement tools. Therefore, it is important to provide education and training to help citizens understand the technology and how they can use it to participate effectively.
The future of e-citizen engagement looks rosy
In spite of such challenges, the future of e-citizen engagement is exciting and full of possibilities. As technology continues to evolve, it will continue to transform the way citizens participate in the political and civic life of their communities, as well as, the way the government is operated.
Using technology to support e-citizen engagement
Two major trends are emerging in e-citizen engagement, one of which is artificial intelligence (AI). AI can help analyze large amounts of data and provide valuable information about citizens' opinions and preferences. In addition, AI can help improve the accessibility of e-citizen engagement platforms by offering personalized services to users based on their needs and preferences. Another emerging trend is the use of blockchain technology. Blockchain technology can help ensure the integrity and transparency of electronic voting processes and protect voter privacy. In addition, blockchain technology can help improve citizen confidence in the security of electronic citizen participation platforms and help with the trust issue, too.
What must be done
To reach the full potential of e-citizen participation, policymakers must work to bridge the digital divide and ensure that all citizens have equal opportunities to participate in the political and civic life of their communities. As technology continues to evolve, policymakers must continue their efforts to ensure citizen participation remains a fundamental component of democracy. Their main challenges will be to foster online citizen participation, address the digital divide to achieve equal opportunities for participation for all citizens, and support transparency, privacy, and ethics in the collection and use of citizen data.