A cyber-realist (as opposed to cyber-utopian or cyber-dystopian) perspective regarding how Internet-based communication technologies affect democracy, views empirical data as supporting promising potentiality and actuality for using ICT to enhance democratic communication. This can apply to emerging democratic systems as well as advanced network societies who have had democratic systems for centuries. Digital democracy is the use of ICT for democratic communication which empowers citizens to have more influence on governance and policies.

It must account for how social media can help democratic reforms in one nation while helping to give birth to terrorists like ISIL in another.

Freed from illusions about Twitter or Facebook revolutions, a scientific view of digital democracy exposes where the possibilities and limitations are found. Analysis of historical events such as the so-called “Arab Spring,” election campaigns, or social movements, must account for politics before technology and then how the technologies of communication were employed to enact various political goals. It must account for how social media can help democratic reforms in one nation while helping to give birth to terrorists like ISIL in another. A consistent finding in communication research is that ICT systems perform numerous enablement functions for political movements or causes. Listing affordances of ICT, which is common practice in studies of presumed digital democracy, is not sufficient to describe or explain the social and political significance of how the affordances are used. Social usage is what explains communication technology effects.

There is great confusion about macro and micro levels of change made possible by digital political communication. It is not enough to assert that micro level changes are helping individuals to participate more. What are they participating in? Who is listening? Who is responding? The power law (Pareto’s Law) distribution of online information sharing and communication does not mean that democratic communication does not occur. Equality in democratic republics such as the United States, has never been guaranteed past the point of one person-one vote, equality before the law, and anti-discrimination. Of course, European societies are more dedicated to egalitarian goals. If there are micro-level effects such as increased user involvement in digital political communication, why are there not macro-level corresponding changes such as increases in political knowledge and political efficacy? While Americans have very penetration and usage rates for Internet, websites, social networking, and smartphones, they also have persistent low levels of political knowledge and participation.

Online communication makes it easier for citizens to obtain information and contacts that are useful for political actions.

The most tangible enablers of digital communication for democracy are a) easier access to political documents and easier dissemination and storage of those documents, b) facilitation of organizing and mobilization efforts by all political groups, and c) readily available means of posting views that can generate interaction about political topics with other citizens. Online communication makes it easier for citizens to obtain information and contacts that are useful for political actions.

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Limitations of digital democracy include social class differences in who can spend the time on political communication, developing content, or mobilizing collective actions. We must ask if ICT systems are reducing or increasing the costs of political participation. We often hear success stories of movements using online communication to bring about political changes. We rarely hear about the failed online stories such as the Iranian protests in 2009. Access to online communication is easier than ever, and sources are far more diverse and numerous than ever. Still, costs for some parts of a population may be increasing. Relevant resources are income, educational level and having cognitive abilities, social networks and time to spend.

Digital skills and literacy are important for online communication in general, but online political communication also require political literacy.

Overall, there are three basic hypotheses regarding digital democracy. A reinforcement hypothesis says that digital communication simply reinforces existing participation patterns. It is assumed that those who already have communication abundance and high levels of political participation tend to fortify their privileged political positions by using ICT for political communication. The second hypothesis is an expansion hypothesis, which states that people with fewer resources that affect their political participation can use ICT to lower their communication deprivation. It is assumed that digital communication does not simply empower the already empowered, but rather brings new people in to political participation. The third hypothesis is a combination of the other two, what we might all a reinforcement/expansion hypothesis. This hypothesis says that those with political power gain more power with digital communication (the famous Matthew Effect) and those with less power can find inlets for empowering themselves in ways that were far more difficult in pre-Web days.

One of the greatest challenges in digital democracy research is in sorting our what kinds of political participation are most important for democracy. Chatting for some scholars may be significant while for others it is far less important than voting or debating. Political theory tells us that democracy requires informed participation. We must then ponder how online political communication is informed and how is emotion-driven and fact-free. Digital skills and literacy are important for online communication in general, but online political communication also require political literacy. Citizens without political literacy my be more consumers than citizens. Digital democracy must include concerns about community and political knowledge that are part of any democratic form. Self-expression and personalization of online political communication aid the technological side of digital democracy. To these, however, it is necessary to add political knowledge, political literacy, and commitment to community.

Digital democracy follows the path of democracy in general. That is, it comes from people seeking more rights of input into policy-making and governance. It depends of social organizing and such organizing takes advantage of whatever new communication technologies facilitate message distribution, interactivity, and mobilization.