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Political mobilization and new communication technology: a multi-level study of the digital divide (INTERMOB)

Research project TA/00/09 (Research action TA)

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Within the scientific literature, there is a broad consensus about the importance of mass participation as a defining characteristic of a well-functioning liberal democratic system. It has been stressed that, on the one hand, participation exerts socialization effects, thus intern functioning as ‘a learning school of democracy’. Civic skills, tolerance and political efficacy are enhanced by participation experiences (Hooghe 2003). Political participation also entails external benefits, as it can provide more groups of the population with access tot the political decision making process. In many respects, participation is the sole weapon of the weak. Only by relying on the force of numbers in collective participation, the weaker groups in society are able to voice their preferences effectively (Skocpol 2003).

As the use of Internet, and ICT more generally, skyrocketed since the late 1990s, various hypotheses have been formulated about the impact of Internet on participation patterns. While some authors fear that Internet will have a detrimental impact on participation levels, others argue that new forms of electronic communication will boost political participation, thus empowering citizens. Another element in the debate is the question whether Internet will mobilize new groups of the population, that were underrepresented in more traditional forms of participation ('mobilization thesis'), or whether the new medium will simply reinforce existing patterns of inequality with regard to participation ('reinforcement thesis'). The occurrence of participation, however, is to a large extent dependent on the presence and the activity of mobilizing structures and campaigns, like social movements, political parties or the mass media (Tarrow 1998). Earlier, it has been shown that traditional mobilization structures, like political parties, gradually lose their prominent role, in favour of more recent mobilization agencies like the mass media (Walgrave & Manssens 2000). A basic question underlying this research project is whether Internet, too, functions as a mobilization structure, and if so, what are the democratic consequences of this new form of mobilization. In other words whether we can expect Internet to have a positive or negative impact on the democratic character of participation and mobilization in Western societies.

Far most scholars investigating the political impact of Internet have been focusing exclusively on data on individual users, demonstrating a digital divide with regard to gender, age and education level. Yet, political participation always involves three levels. First, there is the individual level of the citizen who participates or not (micro). Second, one has to incorporate the organizational level of organizations and social movements recruiting and mobilizing people into participation (meso). At the meso-level, the question is whether organizations with fewer resources obtain more mobilization opportunities, because of the relatively low cost of ICT. The opposite hypothesis is that, given the costs associated with maintaining an attractive website presence, wealthier organizations will enjoy a competitive advantage. At this level too, mobilization or reinforcement trends might be occurring, a phenomenon that thus far has not been systematically studied. Third, there is the level of the political system that is addressed by the political participation acts (macro). At this level too, the democratic potential of Internet could be problematic. In most of the studies it is more or less taken for granted that the medium that is being used by participants to get their opinion across to decision-makers, does not have any impact on the effect of their participation act. It is, however, a reasonable assumption to expect that decision-makers will be less inclined to pay attention to messages that require little effort on behalf of the participant, e.g., like forwarding an email petition. Therefore, it is equally important to study the way government agencies actually handle the information sent to them by citizens using ICT.

The research team will address all three levels simultaneously in this study, thus arriving at a more comprehensive understanding of the political impact of Internet, than has been done in earlier studies. The general research question, hence, can be specified into three subquestions: (1) does ICT reinforce or diminish existing individual-level participation inequalities?; (2) does ICT lower the threshold for collective political actors wanting to mobilize the population?; (3) does ICT augment the impact of political mobilization on political decision-making?

The first question touches on the problem whether ICT is able to reach various segments of the population, especially the less educated and the elderly. This is the well-known problem of the digital divide (Norris 2001). The most recent studies show that, although withering, the digital divide does persist (Mossberger, Tolbert et al. 2003). Relying more on the Internet for political participation might increase inequality in stead of reducing it.

The second question is at the core of present theorizing about social movements and ICT (van de Donk, Loader et al. 2004). The literature points out that ICT, indeed, can lower financial thresholds for mobilization, since setting up a website is relatively inexpensive. ICT makes it easier for collective actors to contact and inform people about participation possibilities. There are, however, many different kinds of collective actors – ranging from parties, over interest groups to social movements. The spread of ICT has not affected the mobilization efforts of all those groups to the same extent. Since social movements are often defined as being networks (Diani and McAdam 2003), they might have profited relatively most from ICT and the Internet. Especially international mobilization and collaboration seem to be boosted by ICT (Van Aelst and Walgrave 2004; Norris, Walgrave & Van Aelst 2005).

The third question deals with the political impact of mobilization/participation. Are messages conveyed to political decision-makers via ICT as influential and effective as other forms of communication? More in general, this relates to the matter of responsive government. Government is not only besieged by all kinds of unsolicited messages from individual or collective actors, it also takes the initiative to streamline the incoming and outgoing information. It remains unclear, thus far, how this stream of information is being handled in the 'back office' of forms of e-government.

The research consists of a series of substudies tackling each of these three questions: (1) an overview of inequalities with regard to the political use of Internet; (2) an analysis of the way social movement organizations use ICT to develop coalitions and to reach out to potential participants; (3) a study on Internet as a campaign tool for political parties; (4) a study on the relation between available resources and effectiveness of website presence; (5) a comparative study on the way social movements use ICT for transnational mobilisation; (6) a policy oriented study on the organization of e-government as a way to support the communication flow between citizens and the political system. Three of these workpackages will be conducted simultaneously with an identical study in the US (as the country where use of Internet applications is most frequently adopted by citizens) as with Canada (as the country where forms of e-government are most strongly developed), carried out by our international partners. Including these comparative approaches strengthens the validity of our research findings.

This study builds on the previous expertise of all four research partners, with regard to social movement mobilization, impact of participation and political information, campaigns by political parties, and transnational social movement activism. As a comprehensive research project on the effect of Internet on citizens' participation and mobilization, this report will be relevant to policy-makers, social movements and civil society activists, but also for researchers working on political activism and political communication.

Documentation :

Politieke mobilisatie en nieuwe communicatietechnologie: een multilevel studie van de digital divide (INTERMOB) : eindrapport  Walgrave, Stefaan - Hooghe, Marc - Bennett, Lance ... et al  Brussel: Federaal Wetenschapsbeleid, 2010 (SP2196)
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La mobilisation politique et les nouvelles technologies de communication: une étude à divers niveaux sur la fracture numérique (INTERMOB) : synthèse    Bruxelles : Politique scientifique fédérale, 2011 (SP2421)
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Politieke mobilisatie en nieuwe communicatietechnologie: een multilevel studie van de digital divide (INTERMOB) : synthese    Brussel : Federaal Wetenschapsbeleid, 2011 (SP2422)
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Political mobilization and new communication technology: a multi-level study of the digital divide (INTERMOB) : summary    Brussels : Federal Science Policy, 2011 (SP2423)
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