What are some promising alternatives for democracy

The future of digitized democracy - perspectives for research


How does digital democracy work? The article examines this question with the thesis of recognizing the functional logics when considering digital democracy. Digital democracy is not compared with well-known concepts from the pre-digital era, but its new functional logic is recognized as such. A related proposal for a consideration of digital democracy addresses a comprehensive challenge with the digital divide. In addition, future perspectives are formulated that deal with the research areas of hybrid participation and artificial intelligence as a possible cure for digital divisions. Other fields that appear to be noteworthy are media functional logics, the investigation of affordances and architectures as well as the phenomenon of "dark participation". All research areas have in common that they show where, through the perspective of the digital, the changes, but also the persistence of liberal and illiberal systems, can be read.


How does digital democracy work? This question is explored in the article with the thesis of a recognition of functional logics when considering digital democracy. Digital democracy is not compared with known concepts from the pre-digital era, but its new functional logics are recognized as such. A subsequent proposal for a consideration of digital democracy deals with the digital divide as a comprehensive challenge. In addition, future perspectives are formulated that deal with the research areas of hybrid participation and artificial intelligence as a possible cure for digital divides. Other fields that appear to be noteworthy are media functional logics, the investigation of affordances and architectures, and the phenomenon of "dark participation". What all research areas have in common is that they show where, through the perspective of the digital, the changes, but also persistencies of liberal as well as illiberal systems can be investigated.

The recognition of digital functional logics as possibilities and limits of digitization

There is much to suggest that we are on the threshold of an era towards a form of democracy that will be shaped even more than before by processes of digitization and that could deserve the label “digital democracy”. Under Digital democracy In the following, the development of a not yet foreseeable variant of a democracy based on digital forms of communication and interaction is referred to. The digitized democracy on the other hand, it is a term that, in addition to the description of the state, takes the process perspective into account and helps to grasp it both theoretically and empirically. In this sense, the research findings at hand can be read as an inventory of a digitized democracy in such a way that vanishing points and perspectives are shown in which the development of digital democracy can still move.

The digitization of democracy poses challenges for political practice, but also for research. This article pursues the thesis that an adequate theorization and discussion of digital democracy can only work if one recognizes its new functional logics, instead of, conversely, recognizing the known concepts from the pre-digital era as merely "strengthened" or "weakened" by digitization understand. An (from our point of view) adequate perspective does not understand digitization as a "repair measure" for a democracy that is understood to be defective, but rather looks at the possibilities and limits of digitization itself, which become relevant when it is interlinked with political processes. Current research on digitization processes in sub-areas of democracy contributes to a better understanding of the dynamics of digitization in the context of political processes, but also shows the limits and new challenges of digitization that are becoming virulent in these contexts.

In the following, the proposal for future-oriented follow-up research is presented in two steps: Firstly, current research on digitized democracy is presented on the basis of its current theoretical perspectives and a selection of its research fields (municipal online participation, e-government, digital party research). Across the research fields, the topic of the digital divide is identified as a common challenge for democracy. This is followed by future perspectives that could deal with the research fields of hybrid participation (“blended participation”) and artificial intelligence (AI), both as an attempt to “cure” digital divisions. Other promising fields of research are media functional logic in political organizations and the investigation of affordances as well as the phenomenon of "dark participation".

Current research on digitized democracy

Theoretical research perspective

The fact that political communication and participation are undergoing massive change at all levels has become apparent at the latest with the corona pandemic. The transformative forces that are now evident, however, have been in effect for a long time. The relationship between digitization and democracy has been researched intensively since the 1970s, and that of democracy and the Internet by the end of the 1990s at the latest. In the process, a network-realistic perspective has increasingly emerged (Kneuer 2013, 2016) that does not want to make either utopian or dystopian scenarios or assumptions about the development of this relationship. Rather, it is a concern of this mediating perspective to focus more empirically and systematically on impact processes. A normative orientation with regard to the effects of the Internet on political processes and decisions is not necessarily expedient (Kneuer 2017). Basically, the representatives assume an “ambivalence of effects” (Kneuer 2017, p. 505), which in turn brings both polarized perspectives into focus.

If one then assumes a change in digitization over time and an active construction of digitization also by political actors, the normative question of "good" or "bad" effects of digitization experiences a turn: How should we construct digitization, to make them profitable for democratic processes? The processing of the ambivalent effects of digitization on democracy is in full swing - the research into intertwined digital-democratic processes against the background of the question of a layout digitization is still pending.

A next step in research on a digitized democracy would be to examine the increasingly hybrid processes, which can no longer be clearly separated into “analog” and “digital”, for the characteristics that are normatively “profitable” for democracy have proven. In terms of the co-evolutionary development process of digitization and democracy (Hofmann 2019), it is about devoting oneself to the construction of digitization in the context of democratic processes and observing the repercussions on democracy. This is also shown by a look at the current research fields of municipal online participation, e-government and digital party research.

Insight into current research fields

In the existing institutions of the political system, the corona pandemic has relentlessly brought the state of digitization to light. The need for distant, digital interaction in administration, parties, companies and even the private sector revealed how digitalized various social and political segments are already, and, much more importantly, where there is a lot of talk about digitalization, but processes are still analog are organized. Although the pandemic is also accelerating - digitization processes that have been postponed for a long time have been pushed ahead - it also reminds you once again of what the state of digitization looked like before Corona. Because the use of digital technology in political institutions has been experimented with for many years, and some trends have stabilized. This becomes particularly clear with a view to municipal online participation, the digitization of administration and the digitization of parties.

At the municipal level, since the 1990s, a criticism of the representative-democratic system has resulted in supplementary structures of a direct-democratic (referendum, referendum) and deliberative type (round tables, advisory boards, "mini-publics") (Kersting 2019, p. 108 ). Over the years, these have been digitally supplemented by instruments of mobilization and information in relation to direct democratic procedures, but also in digital form, for example in the form of online petitions or participatory budgeting with online voting options (Kersting 2019, p. 110) . The deliberative instruments have also already been tested online as discussion forums, online conferences and special discussion platforms such as Adhocracy and Liquid Feedback (Kersting 2019, p. 111).

In addition to these tools used at the level of cities and municipalities, there are drafts of the so-called that are based on the overall system Commonsthat are supposed to find a consensus deliberately (Dahlberg 2011, p. 863). This means the production of common goods in a decentralized, network-like cooperation, up to and including the establishment of a socio-economic order based entirely on it. The possibility of networking created in digital technology serves in the vision of Commons thus as the basis of a new, deliberative social order. However, this phenomenon is still waiting for further elaboration with regard to its theoretical as well as its empirical aspects. There are promising approaches (Fleuß et al. 2019; Rho 2019), but they only transfer well-known democratic-theoretical parameters and values ​​into the digital world, which does not fully correspond to this. In this respect, it is necessary at this point to clearly work out where exactly deliberative potentials lie, but where difficulties could also arise in this process.

This can also be seen in the digitization of administration, which has made a career (also since the 1990s) under the catchphrase "e-government". This was initially understood to mean a use of the Internet by administrations in the context of "New Public Management" and based on the digitization of business and trade ("E-Business", "E-Commerce") in order to simplify processes and increase savings potential use to offer interactions between authorities and services for citizens and companies more efficiently (Misgeld 2019, p. 83; Schünemann 2019, p. 17). This should avoid annoying and time-consuming official visits by filing applications online or exchanging documents by e-mail or in electronic data processing systems. Another trend that can be understood as a bridge between digital participation and e-government is what is known as “open government”. This refers to the process of transferring data that was collected by the administration and published for transparency purposes and for free use by citizens, academia and companies (Schünemann 2019, p. 27).

So far, not all of the promises made by e-government and open government to promote democracy have been kept. Many electronic services are considered to be “fragmented and different” and “incompatible with one another”, which was ultimately referred to as “insufficiently cooperative federal e-government” (Misgeld 2019, p. 83). In particular, a lack of coordination and cooperation between the federal, state and local governments have long been considered an insurmountable obstacle (Misgeld 2019, p. 84). In addition, the added value of the services offered so far appeared to be low for citizens due to complicated procedures, which resulted in low demand (Misgeld 2019, pp. 89–90). With regard to European neighbors, if one spoke for a long time that Germany had “overslept” this development, it has been taking effect since the implementation of some necessary legislative changes in 2017 (online access law) and the start of the government of the grand coalition in 2018, which declared the issue as a focus and appointed her own minister of state for digitization to get going again (Schünemann 2019, p. 19). It can be assumed that as a result of the Corona crisis and the associated forced digitization of administrative processes, this process has been accelerated.

The political parties are also showing tendencies towards the digitization of organizational structures. At the beginning of the corona pandemic in May 2020, the Greens and CSU made headlines with “digital party conventions”, the CDU with a digital district chairperson conference and in June 2020 the SPD organized a digital members' advisory board and the CDU a “digicamp”. However, these developments are not new either and are exclusively Corona-related. The utilization of digital technology in the parties has also been discussed since the 1990s with regard to the question of whether this could overcome the "crisis of the parties" characterized by a loss of membership and confidence (Bieber 2001; Gibson et al. 2003; Marschall 2001 ). A virtual party congress (the Greens), a virtual local association (the SPD) and a virtual regional association (the FDP) already existed around the turn of the millennium (Bieber 2014). Early experiments with websites, mailing lists and internal member networks, which were more likely to be used by the party leadership to disseminate information, followed with the rise of the Pirate Party, a turn towards more experimental interactivity via digital instruments (Bieber and Leggewie 2014; Klecha and Hensel 2013; Koschmieder 2016 ).

With the discussion and voting instrument "Liquid Feedback" and a "Permanent Members' Meeting" on the Internet, the pirates seemed to be changing the way political parties were organized in general. However, legal hurdles and difficulties in dealing with changed social relationships in the digital space quickly waned the demand for the apparently innovative instruments. However, a learning effect has been observed in the other parties since then. More cautious experiments with digital communication and participation continue to this day (Gerl et al. 2016; Hanel and Marschall 2014). Nevertheless, it remains questionable whether the instruments (should) effectively support internal party democracy or cement the greater control ability of the political elite at the top of the parties. The latter is clearly visible in the frightening example of the "Five Star Movement" in Italy, which promotes mass communicative exchange in a post-democratic manner, but centers decisions authoritatively at the top and thus hides an arbitrary regime behind an only seemingly direct-democratic organizational structure (Diehl 2018 ; Gerbaudo 2019).

Taken together, with a view to the digitization of the parties, it is not yet clear which of the instruments will prove themselves in the long term and what the new form of a “digitized party” will ultimately look like. However, a central and democratically relevant topic of digital party research, which can also be found in the research fields on municipal online participation and e-government, is becoming increasingly clear: the challenge of the digital divide.

Central democratic challenge: digital divide

If you look through the eyes of democracy at the state of digitization against the background of the developments described and which have been researched many times, a central challenge continues to stand out: The division of society through digitization in the political context, in research as the "digital division" or "digital divide".

The digital divide can be understood as the inequality in the participation of people in the digitized world. When the term was introduced in the 1990s, it meant the infrastructural connection to the Internet by means of a computer, the understanding changed and differentiated by the mid-2000s at the latest. On the one hand, the term “access” has increasingly also been used as “intellectual access” through digital education, “motivational access”, i. H. Acceptance of technology and digital affinity, or “social access” understood as a social support structure for access (van Dijk 2005; Yu et al. 2016). Accordingly, there was talk of a second-order digital divide. In addition, mechanisms of the participation paradox are also effective in the digital world. This describes the phenomenon that citizens only ask for participation at the end of a participation process, or although they generally demand participation, but do not use it. This can also pose a problem for digital democracy, which so far has no solutions to offer. The research differentiates here into approaches that focus on empowerment through digital techniques and tools (Lilleker 2013), mobilization and “normalization” (in the sense of equalization, if one wants to apply normative) or reinforcement (Marschall and Schultze 2012).The latter perspective is increasingly coming into focus, as social and political divisions also and especially in the digital context become powerful and intensify existing inequalities or at least not equalize or even out.

If one follows the differentiation between inclusion and exclusion, which, according to Luhmann's (2008, pp. 237–264) second concept of exclusion, is the basis of all organizations and systems anyway, digitized democracy is primarily about achieving inclusion and minimizing exclusion in return . It is necessary to re-include those who are already far away from the digitized systems, e.g. For example, people referred to as “(N) online” or “offline” (Initiative D21 2020) who have no access to the Internet or who lack knowledge of how to use it profitably. A premise for this is the respective will of the respective person to be included at all or to include himself - an assumption that has received a lot of attention, especially in research on social inequality (Kronauer 1998, 2008). But what does that mean for dealing with digitized democracy and its promises? The focus is on dichotomizing the pair of opposites of inclusion and exclusion, since the technological components, including blended participation (which will be discussed in the following section), can hinder or promote participation in digitized democracy. This is also the case, as has long been the case in the area of ​​“conventional” participation.

Inequalities were also found in the quality of infrastructural access, e.g. B. in the bandwidth of the Internet connection. In connection with this, but also beyond that, the question arises as to which parts of society are even able to use the much more sophisticated digital technology, which is often used as a platform for information and knowledge, in contrast to earlier technological innovations such as telephones or televisions, to be used in an information-related or even political and participatory way (Min 2010; Wei 2012). The legitimacy of a democracy and the extent to which it is able to involve and take away those who are not (or do not want to be) online every day, and what is increasingly becoming a polarization between digitally included and digitally, is also determined by the issues of inclusion and exclusion Shows excluded (Schradie 2019, p. 15).

The political polarization, on the other hand, takes place partly on social networks (especially Facebook and Twitter) and is caused by the echo chambers that exist thereFootnote 1 further solidified (Cinelli et al. 2020). An associated problematic phenomenon is the connection between political news usage and political interest (Dahlgren 2019). This second form of polarization forms a separate branch of research alongside the one introduced here as a digital split, but also has democratic-theoretical implications based on its technological peculiarities, which are discussed in particular with a view to digitized publics (Klinger 2018, 2020).

The following sections focus on the future of research on digitized democracy. It is about an insight into the research fields of hybrid participation, artificial intelligence, media functional logics and the perspective that focuses on digital affordances and "dark participation".

Future research perspectives of digitized democracy

Hybrid participation

Whether municipal online participation, digitized administration or digitized party: the experiments with the digitization of political institutions have made divisional tendencies even more visible. After researching this effect of digitization on democracy, it is now about researching the layout of digitization in the context of democratic processes. This is exemplified by the subject of hybrid participation or “blended participation”. Blended participation can be understood as an opportunity to align the more and more merging processes of analog and digital democracy in such a way that digitization expands democracy and at the same time the divisive elements of digitization are contained.

Blended participation is defined as a hybrid mix of different elements of political participation, which are held either offline or online depending on needs, temporality, format, target group and personnel as well as the instrument. Both forms, offline and online, are on an equal footing and are mutually interlinked. Based on Kersting's (2013) understanding of blended democracy, blended participation is a complementary meso perspective. Depending on the situation, the intended participants and the finality of the procedure or its course, the relationship between online and offline can be weighed up. This results in a flexible and adaptable possibility, for example, to introduce older people to digital tools by means of mentoring by younger people in mixed formats or to make almost impossible encounters tangible again through digital formats due to contact restrictions.

In the sense of a future research field, blended participation can thus serve as an example of possible interlinked and mediating instruments. A holistic view of the constellation of digitization and democracy (Hofmann 2019; Berg et al. In this issue) takes political processes into account in such a way that both the design of democracy and the design of digitization are considered possible in order to create new orders and To produce formations. The preferential treatment of people with a digital affinity or the distorted participation in the direction of male, younger people in the digital space can be avoided with the aim of a democratic design of digitization. The advantages of digitization, such as spatial and temporal delimitation or storage and duplication of data, can expand democratic processes, while the disadvantages of digitization, such as digital divide, but also tendencies towards hatred and agitation in digital mass communication in the democratic sense can be avoided through controlled digitization should. To what extent this can succeed, future research on digitized democracy should look theoretically and empirically. A hybridity of participation and communication processes can be regarded as promising for the time being, which, with carefully considered programming, also applies to algorithms that can be used as artificial intelligence against digital divisions and polarization.

Artificial intelligence

In recent years, the area of ​​generating and processing socially and politically relevant data has developed massively. On the one hand, large and ramified data sets have emerged - as a result of the increasing digitization of social interactions. The fact that numerous social communications and transactions now take place in digitized form and online and are ultimately potentially visible and can be documented for an indefinite period of time opens up new possibilities for observing, predicting, and manipulating potentially politically relevant behavior. On the other hand, new methods of processing and evaluating data have been developed. The debate about the role and power of algorithms plays a role here, which has led to the thesis of a political rule of algorithms (Hofstetter 2016). These “calculation rules” are based on an evaluation of the available data, which in turn suggests a specific output of data or other political and social measures.

With regard to democracy, the question of the opportunities and risks of AI primarily concerns questions of opinion formation and decision-making, the integration of interests and preferences as well as the additive compensation of previous participations (Mannino et al. 2016). However, this also involves risks such as fake news, deep fakes and surveillance. AI has thus become thematically interesting and relevant for political communication and participation research, but at the same time it should not be underestimated in terms of its implications for political practice itself. Normative challenges also arise. The latest social science debates with the potential of AI show that it should be used cautiously, as algorithms cannot be value-free. New types of cleavage are also used in discriminatory algorithms, i. H. visible in applications of artificial intelligence that sometimes make unfair and non-transparent decisions (Weyerer and Langer 2020; Marcinkowski and Starke 2019).

Another normative challenge is the complex of data protection and the ethical handling of AI in view of big data and modern data analysis techniques (Larsson 2020). “Big data” is the aggregation and sum of individual-related information, which, in turn, enables the tracing and development of individual data profiles through the combination of individual data sets. The possibility of ultimately personalized profiling of people via their data-documented communication and consumer behavior is not only tempting for economic actors (e.g. customizing advertising), but also attractive for political authorities - for example in election campaigns with all the dangers of manipulation ( Marsden et al. 2020). These tendencies as well as the use of AI in warfare and public diplomacy as well as AI in digital disinformation campaigns (deep fakes, fake news, bots) have made artificial intelligence a controversial and critically viewed phenomenon (Suchman 2020).

However, this sometimes obscures the democratically relevant potential of AI. On the one hand, AI and deep learning can contribute to the development of tools that can help deliberate opinion-forming processes. On the other hand, representation and participation gaps can be closed by means of AI if the preferences of parts of the population that are not politically involved or not represented can be ascertained using data evaluation strategies and incorporated into the political process in other ways.

For political communication and participation research, AI is not only a dynamic object, but also a tool for collecting knowledge and making predictions (Blätte et al. 2018). AI-based techniques allow larger amounts of data to be evaluated in a form that goes beyond the usual tools of statistical data analysis. Machine learning in particular makes it possible to make predictions or systematic observations (including causality relationships), to learn from errors in data analysis and to optimize them. Based on learning from existing data, new data can be analyzed more systematically and efficiently. In order to use these techniques, you not only need the appropriate powerful computers, but also expertise in the field of data analytics, which is not always found in the social sciences. Cooperation with computer scientists is obvious here; this is increasingly becoming the standard in political science as well (see e.g. Wiedemann and Niekler 2016).

Ultimately, however, AI does not lead to an expansion of existing research strategies, but to a cultural change in research into political communication and participation. Methodological paradigms that have been shaped by probabilistics are being replaced by more deterministic approaches. Concepts such as sampling, significance and representativeness are becoming less relevant. In this respect, these developments pose new challenges for communication and participation research and its traditional approaches, since theories and methods from the time of analogue mass communication research are increasingly anachronistic today.

Medial functional logic in political organizations

Another aspect that will have to be examined more closely in the future is the functional logic of digital media in political organizations. Basically, it is about the stronger entanglement of the various functional logics of both the political and the media system (Tenscher and Borucki 2015). In particular, the central actors of the political system, governments and parties, are under pressure to interweave digital media logics (multi-option, simultaneity, simplification, interactivity, transparency, virality, connectivity) with their political logics of action. Multi-optionality, interactivity and connectivity are essential characteristics of digitality that go beyond traditional mass media. For organizations in digital environments, this means weighing up and translating between their own logics and the network logics.Footnote 2

The temporal dimension of mediatisation is crucial for political actors when switching between campaign logic or negotiation and decision-making logic. In addition, there is an analytical separation between the two. For digital party research, this means, for example, differentiating between membership logic and organizational or efficiency logic or network logic. Here, a party determined by its digital character shows itself to be more resilient to expectations from outside as well as from within than a party determined by formal processes and organization. However, the different logics are not to be understood as an “either-or” schematization, but as a multi-optional continuum: The concept of medialization and the associated media logics are to be interpreted as multi-optional, which means the simultaneity of several optionally usable channels and instruments.

In view of the history of digitization, it currently appears that political organizations are able to adapt, although it is late, but nevertheless substantial. Parties in particular benefit from their role as mediating authority in the (self-designed and also controlling) adaptation to the expectations arising from the media functional logic, since they are integrated both in the political system and in the media cosmos and at the same time rooted in society. Building on this, they could function as a means of transmission alongside others - especially when it comes to the merging of protest organizations into movement organizations and party-like associations that have already been “born” in the logic of digital media. This shows the hybridity between and through organizations and a possible change in form of the party in the direction of a stronger form of movement (Chadwick and Stromer-Galley 2016).

As a challenge for social cohesion - and thus for democracy - despite the adaptability and resilience of political organizations, the segmentation of political participation forms and communication remains. Digital divisions, tendencies towards exclusion and a fragmentation of communication spaces can also be seen within political organizations that have changed in the media. As a permanent task of a future research perspective on digitized democracy, this must always be considered in the research field of medialized political organizations in order not to misinterpret digitization as a simple “reinforcement” or “expansion” of already existing forms and processes of political organizations.

Possibilities of the digital: affordances and platform architectures

An interesting aspect of digital technology in connection with democracy are affordances and platform architectures. The term affordance originally describes the enabling and restricting factors of media technology (Hjarvard 2008, p. 14). A current definition (Kreiss et al. 2018, p. 12) understands affordances as "what platforms are actually capable of doing and perceptions of what they enable, along with the actual practices that emerge as people interact with them". It becomes clear that, depending on the definition, the architecture of digital platforms is closely related to affordances in the sense of options for action based on digital technology.

Dahlberg (2011) has reconstructed various readings of digital democracy as used in science, journalism and politics and described them through their conception of the democratic subject, democracy and the associated affordances of digital technology. His perspective thus makes a contribution to the theoretical conception of digital democracy both from the eyes of democracy and from the eyes of digitization - with the help of affordances, which have so far represented a rather marginal aspect of the scientific discussion of digitized democracy (for an exception see the Contribution by Berg et al. In this issue). In particular, since reflecting on the consequences of the intended options for interacting with digital technology makes it possible to see what the consequences are layout digitization has for democracy, its perspective is to be understood as an important starting point for a future academic discussion of digitization and democracy.

From the different readings of the affordances in connection with specific perspectives on democracy, Dahlberg (2011, p. 865) develops four readings of digitized democracy, which are to be understood as ideal types: the liberal-individualistic type, the deliberative type, the type of counter-publics and the autonomous Marxist type of digital democracy.The latter two also take on revolutionary, the latter partly anti-democratic traits. As the affordances of liberal-individualistic digital democracy, he mentions z. B. aggregate, calculate, vote, or compete, but also fundraise or submit applications. In deliberative digital democracy, typical affordances are e.g. B. argue, argue, agree, contradict, reflect, meet. In the digital democracy of the counter-public, however, it is z. B. articulate, protest, unite, question, organize and in the digital democracy of the autonomous-Marxist type cooperate, distribute, exchange, network, participate and share. The different spaces of possibility that digital technology provides, depending on the design, at least help to shape different forms of democracy.

An alternative to affordance is the architecture of platform media (Bossetta 2018), which rather helps to capture the nature of the digital environment. For example, Twitter and Facebook differ massively in how audiovisual content on the one hand and language is used to transport messages on the other. The architecture, i.e. the design of the platform, is the regulating mechanism, which basically corresponds to the original definition of media logics, starting with the form and format and only looking at the content afterwards (Altheide and Snow 1979).Footnote 3 The term platform and architecture becomes exciting for political scientists when it comes to regulating them (Gorwa 2019).

Although the affordances formulated by Dahlberg contain references to acting people and different understandings of democracy, the interpretations of digital democracy he presented are based largely on the possibilities for action conceived from an analog logic and spell out a networking and network logic that we have been observing for a long time and how it is described by multiple options and connectivity (Bennett and Segerberg 2012).Footnote 4

A proposal for an alternative definition of affordances - the heart of Dahlberg's readings - is submitted, inter alia. Deseriis (2020). According to his understanding, affordances, as the primary form of digital media, could lower participation costs. Like Dahlberg, however, he provides few answers on how digital divisions or discrimination through AI can be countered with the help of specific affordances. Especially when it comes to questions of online participation in the form of discussions, the assumption is widespread that there is either deliberation or deliberative discussions taking place, or a fragmentation and segmentation of public spheres can be observed. Both perspectives, deliberation or fragmentation, seem in retrospect to be similar to the woodcut like the dichotomization in utopians and dystopians of digital democracy at the beginning of the internet age. An update of such dichotomies or the attempt at detachment by Freelon (2015) by means of communitarianism and liberal individualism as well as deliberation while taking platform designs into account appears techno-deterministic. It is possible that all these approaches have little room for functionalist and instrumental perspectives, for example on the functioning of the Internet, because they argue normatively and formulate strong arguments for or against corresponding manifestations of digital democracy. However, such a normative basis is not expedient for a consideration following the net-realistic paradigm. This is to be emphasized in the sense of this section, because it can be appropriate to turn the logic around and look from digitality and its functioning to democracy and not the other way around. The final presentation of future research fields of digitized democracy is followed by a consideration of the aspect of "dark participation".

Dark Participation

A view that is complementary to the subject of affordances is that of so-called dark participation, i.e. a negative and deliberately destructive form of participation in digital spheres. The phenomenon of dark participation is understood here as apparent participation in discussions and political formats (such as comments on social media or under journalistic articles), which, however, aims to negatively influence and reinterpret or even sabotage the discourse. There are already approaches to research (Bello 2012; Casemajor et al. 2015; Helbing 2018; Armingeon and Skull 2015; Quandt 2018; Morozov 2011), but these are neither politically nor theoretically saturated. In particular, there has been little research to date on the motivations and drives to act destructively in participation formats. The classification by Quandt (2018) and Lutz and Hoffmann (2017) allows these destructive forms to be classified. And, what has already been mentioned: some actively choose not to participate. This can also be the case for the destructive forms of participation mentioned. Non-participation can also be justified by fear or unwanted exclusion - for example through digital divisions (Lutz and Hoffmann 2017; Bello 2012).

The two-dimensional space from Fig. 1 shows indirect active, indirect passive and direct active and passive practices of participation that we can observe on the Internet. The forms located in this scheme are to be understood as examples to illustrate how forms of participation could be recorded. Indirect – direct describes the effects of participatory forms on organizations or the system. In short, the citizen should be able to use the internet himself / herself as in the Athens model (Kneuer 2013, p. 16). However, and this is where dark forms of participation come into play, there is not only the problem of social selectivity and the emergence of an Internet elite. Digital communication, interaction and, above all, forms of dark participation occur at every location in this two-dimensional space, which makes it necessary to examine these as well as classic participation formats. Active forms of participation in this context can be understood as those through which an actor tries, by reflecting on his abilities, to act in a way that promotes an intended political goal. Conversely, those commitments that reflect neither the will nor the intention towards a specific political goal are passive (Casemajor et al. 2015, p. 856). Unintentional effects such as involuntary exposure, for example on a photo on Facebook, are possible in the active area. For example, Exodus means avoiding or bypassing an entire service, such as Gmail and other Google services, to avoid possible ubiquitous surveillance.

What is missing in the digital-democratic debate is a way of thinking about the other, the logics and the alternatives “on the other side”: To this extent, digitized democracy can be read as a structure determined by multi-options and network logic, whose subject - democracy - is precisely what is missing in times of crisis such as the corona pandemic is extremely fragile. Therefore, it must also be asked and discussed what happens to digitized systems that are not democratic or liberal oriented, but illiberal and autocratic - or are increasingly developing in such a direction, for example via the intermediate step of digitized post-democracy.


The aim of this contribution was to move the thesis after recognition of the digital functional logic more into the focus of the consideration of digitized democracy and to work less with traditional concepts from the analogue era. Alternative research perspectives for the investigation of the now visible digitized democracy can be identified primarily at the following points:

Hybrid participation represents an opportunity to avoid digital divisions through a careful combination of online and offline elements in participation processes. However, so far there is a lack of empirical knowledge about how the corresponding design of the processes would have to look in order to achieve the desired effects with regard to inclusive democratic participation.

In addition, artificial intelligence will become a central topic and a relevant challenge for empirical democracy research. On the one hand, algorithms effectively change power structures because they make new resources available to political actors. Digitization research - including a creative one - must take this into account. On the other hand, AI offers new instruments for opening up communication and participation. This also includes taking a closer look at questions about possible power asymmetries through and behind algorithms and thinking about the public in a relational way.

The increasing digitization of political organizations, which is also caused by the corona, will then have to be analyzed how digital media logics and organizational logics are intertwined. Digital divisions within organizations have an impact on democracy as a whole. B. Parties are to be understood as a transmission belt between society and the state. At the same time, however, their position between politics, media and society also offers the opportunity to test a functioning integration of media functional logics. Focussing the digital transformation of other intermediaries such as associations, interest groups and NGOs more strongly would provide information in a comparative design about the type of change and change process behind the digital transformation and how the organizations differ. Compared to other change processes, digital change is different in that it covers both informal and formal structures in a comprehensive, fast, multimodal and networked manner.

Ethical questions of election campaigns (Bieber 2013) do not represent a renewed occupation of digital party research. However, this field should be intensified and made clearer, what is possible with microtargeting and tracking within election campaigns with regard to the restriction of fundamental rights.

Finally, with digitization as a social practice within political organizations, an alternative position can be adopted in that digital transformation does not then act as a causal factor on parties from outside, but is carried into the parties through their members and their habits. If one followed this thesis, the parties would necessarily be subjected to a kind of makeover - or they would die out.

As a further field of research in the sense of the investigation, how digitization in the context of democracy designed can become, is that of affordances as spaces of possibility of digitized democracy. They can be understood as the missing link in the chain between technological design and human action orientations, and their research thus contributes to an understanding of how differently positioned formations of digitization and democracy lead to different socio-political orders.

This results, among other things, in the following possible follow-up perspective: Dark participation represents a problem of democracy theory both inside and outside political organizations. What should be done if participation is called for, but stalking, bullying and hate speech follow? What happens when illegal machinations continue to be rumored through legal portals of participation?

In terms of the research-oriented design of digitization, attention must be drawn to the possibilities of being able to compensate for existing democratic deficits through digitization. Nonetheless, this “democratic engineering” not only requires a systematic-empirical evaluation of success, but also a fundamental reflection on normative criteria and objectives. However, digitization should by no means be understood as a simple repair measure for democracy, but rather digitalized democracy with all its digital-specific functional logics, but also new digital divisions and distortions, should be taken seriously as a genuine phenomenon.


  1. 1.

    The empirical evidence of this phenomenon is controversial (Dubois and Blank 2018