Conceptualizing E-Participation in the Public Sphere

Conceptualizing E-Participation in the Public Sphere

Jenny Backhouse (University of New South Wales, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-159-1.ch007
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This chapter reviews the current understanding of the role of e-participation in democratic processes, in particular emphasizing the deliberative aspects of participatory democracy and the factors that impinge on successful participation initiatives. It considers what lessons can be learnt, if any, from related aspects of e-government and from e-business, in order to refine the concept of e-participation. The chapter concludes that e-participation has a role to play in a modern society where the Internet is increasingly the medium of choice for social communications. However, e-participation projects need to be appropriately developed so that they truly engage the citizenry and encourage meaningful participation in deliberative facets of democracy.
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The presidential campaign of Barack Obama in the United States in 2008 successfully integrated the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) into the campaign strategy, serving to involve and engage citizens in the campaign on a scale not seen before in electronic media election campaigning (2009, p. 12). This success has renewed hopes for a broader rejuvenation of citizen interest in political interaction and deliberation in the public sphere, supported by the use of ICTs (Garrett & Jensen, 2009).

However, election campaigning is only one aspect of democratic participation. To date, the mass appeal generated by the Obama campaign has been a high profile exception among the many well-intentioned initiatives developed using ICTs to support citizens' electronic participation (e-participation) and engagement in various facets of democracy and democratic processes (Garrett & Jensen, 2009; Gronlund & Astrom, 2009). It is clear that, if we consider that a vibrant democracy needs to engage its citizenry and that freedom and participation are key features of democracy, we need a better understanding of what role, if any, e-participation might play in encouraging this engagement.

The modern proliferation of ICT tools and technologies such as social networking has opened the possibility of a new virtual 'public sphere'. Habermas, who popularized the term 'the public sphere', explained the concept as private individuals freely assembling to “express and publish their opinions – about matters of general interest” (Habermas, 2001, p. 102). In sophisticated societies, this public sphere requires media, such as newspapers and television, to communicate these deliberations. The Internet, along with its associated 'e' technologies, provides an additional medium for “transmitting information and influencing those who receive it” (Habermas, 1991, p. 102). It also means that such assemblies of private citizens can now be virtual as well as physical.

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