Mobilized in politics for several decades (Vedel, 2006), information and digital communication technologies (ICTN), and in particular the Internet and the Web, have been fully developed since the turn of the century, especially among the general public, which has facilitated the democratization of the public space, allowing everyone to “be their own media” and to publish their content online. The new communication practices linked to this technological innovation testify to the advent of a “digital culture” characterized by values such as participation, collaboration, transparency and practices sometimes described as “do-it-yourself” (Jenkins, 2006; Cardon, 2019).
The sociologist Dominique Cardon believes that the center of gravity of Western democracies is now located in an “Internet democracy” (2010), where the Internet constitutes a space of democratic experimentation for individuals emancipated from the numerous material constraints inherent to public speaking and without waiting for the authorization of authorities and traditional gatekeepers (politicians, journalists…). While the organization of electoral campaigns and political parties have most obviously been shaken up by these technologies and the diversity of online activist practices to which they give rise (Greffet et al, 2014), representative institutions and institutional forms of participatory democracy have also been put to the test of “Internet democracy”.
Thus, since the mid-1990s, technologies were first used to equip face-to-face processes in order to enrich the functioning of dialogical democracy (Benvegnu and Brugidou, 2006; Monnoyer-Smith, 2010). Participatory forums” have been developed in an attempt to overcome some of the traditional barriers to citizen engagement and to encourage the creativity of participants and the diversification of the profiles of individuals taking part in such digital processes. Some initiatives, such as the consultation organized for the preparation of the Law “For a Digital Republic” in 2015, have had some media success (Laurent et al, 2018) but their transformative capacity on institutions remains to be assessed overall. Moreover, the effects of such initiatives on citizen participation have proven to be modest overall, and some research shows that citizen inclusion can sometimes be accompanied by a circumvention of social criticism (Mabi, 2014).
More recently, the “civic tech” movement for “technologies with a citizen’s purpose” has given new impetus to digital democracy (Mabi, 2017). Mobile apps and online platforms at the local and national level are multiplying. These actors, mainly companies, are once again betting that it is possible to use digital technologies to put the citizen back at the heart of the functioning of representative democracy and overcome the criticism it regularly faces.
Faced with the challenges of digital technology in terms of the possibilities for renewing forms of participation and citizenship, the academic literature is gradually moving away from the question of the “effects” of ICTs in order to consider the diversity of political practices that they allow. Rather than technologies, it is the practices of actors and organizations that are now the focus of attention. It is a question of emancipating ourselves from the antagonism between “permanence” (nothing changes) and “rupture” (everything has changed) that has long structured academic debates on digital practices in the political field. Also, a lot of research has focused on the characteristics of new forms of online mobilization and “connected action” (Bimber Flanagin and Sthol, 2005; Bennett and Segerberg, 2012) and allow us to account for the specific logics of the appropriation of digital participation formats, their capacity to broaden citizens’ repertoires of action (Peretti and Micheletti, 2004; Van Laer and Aelst, 2010; Vis and Mihelj 2010; Blanchard, Greffet and Wojcik, 2013; Théviot and Mabi, 2014) as well as new ways of “talking politics online” (Greffet and Wojcik, 2008). This perspective now opens the way to a better understanding of the spaces where ICTNs are leveraging transformation and innovation in the field of democratic activities.
As an extension of this work, the “Citizenship and Participation” working group would like to explore five themes in greater depth and open up a space for interdisciplinary reflection likely to nourish our understanding of the transformations underway. As an indication, we have identified a series of non-exhaustive themes that could give the first orientations to the collective work.
- New repertoires of action and analysis of citizen mobilizations. The group’s work will focus on the analysis of the transformations of citizen participation in a digital context. It will question the new frontiers of participation, the expansion of repertoires of action and open up avenues of analysis to better understand their potential capacity to transform the functioning of institutions and the way citizens perceive themselves in democracy
- Inclusion and Literacies for Digital Citizenship. Another theme we wish to explore is the capacity of digital technologies to transform the relationship between the most fragile publics and democratic activity. To what extent is the use of ICT in politics compatible with the ambition of an inclusive democracy? What are the skills that citizens need to master to appropriate participatory technologies?
- Sovereignty and the digital transformation of public action. With this axis, the aim is to question the “digital transformation” of the State and to go beyond the discourse on the imperative adaptation of the administration to new services to insist on the fact that the devices put in place, notably public algorithms, constitute new instruments of government, carrying particular political rationalities, which must be discussed and critically examined. In order not to suffer from the “digital transformation”, we propose to question the conception of the State and the project of government that accompanies it.
- Local democracy and civic tech. Numerous applications designed to promote dialogue between elected officials and citizens are being implemented at the local level, thus reviving the old and common idea that the local level is the best place for democracy to flourish. The initiatives of communities based on these technological proposals, especially of municipalities, are regularly highlighted in the press or in fairs specially dedicated to institutional communication. At the same time, the heterogeneous nature of the actors and conceptions of democracy gathered under the label of civic tech is the subject of several theorizations that are hardly based on the evaluation of the actual practices of the applications and software available on the market. Without abandoning this necessary effort of theorization, this axis proposes to question the reality of the uses of civic tech devices and the discourses of the actors – associations, elected officials, companies – that promote them in order to determine their contribution to the enlargement of the local public sphere.
- Non-democratic regimes and digital technologies. Initially, research was devoted to experiments conducted in Western regimes, but it is now gradually taking an interest in both governmental and citizen practices of digital technologies in situations of non-democratic power. Certain events such as the mobilizations in Arab and Middle Eastern countries have, since the mid-2000s, focused the attention of researchers questioning the relationship between digital communication and the effective transformation of modes of government. The more “ordinary” and less visible practices of technology are more difficult to understand. This line of research aims to examine the forms of critical expression that can be supported or induced on a daily basis by digital technology in countries whose democratic character is not proven. This axis could notably allow inviting non-French speaking researchers to share their research experience.