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Democratic lockdown, forced digitization and mixed participation of young citizens


The lockdowns imposed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic have profound effects on many areas of society. Paul Jacobsen and Professor Dr. Norbert Kersting from the Institute for Political Science at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster write about their study on the political participation of young people during the lockdown in Germany on offline elements.

Broad political participation is seen by many as the “life giver of democracy”. It strengthens the legitimacy and stability of democratic regimes and acts as a bridge between the people and their elected representatives. However, since the COVID-19 pandemic forced an abrupt standstill in social and public life, many aspects of local political participation are hindered in Germany as elsewhere:

  • Registering political parties and candidates for local elections has become a tedious task, especially for small parties that often withdrew from elections. This led to a far-reaching dominance of executives and an enormous advantage for the established companies.
  • Campaigns were mostly organized on digital channels, which also benefited larger political parties and wealthier candidates.
  • German municipal councils and committees continued to be held, but the new participation instruments introduced in the 1990s with a focus on deliberative democracy in an advisory capacity were completely discontinued.

This blocking of essential aspects of democratic engagement as a reaction to the pandemic intensified the digitization processes and became a stress test for the existing digital political infrastructure. In the sense of a participatory democracy, a new discussion about the future of online participation and whether this should be organized according to the concept of blended participation in a hybrid mix of online and offline instruments is sparking off (see Figure 1 for a selection of different offline instruments and online tools).

Our study, which focused on the immediate consequences of the lockdown on young people’s online political participation, confirmed that successful and sustainable online participation must be linked with offline participation instruments. After a preliminary novelty effect at the beginning of the German lockdown, online participation has not increased significantly, which in our opinion is due to the fact that it could not be organized as part of a blended participation that enables the strategic merging and sequencing of online and offline Participation instruments.

Examples of online and offline participation

There are four key areas of political participation: representative democracy (e.g. participation in elections), direct democracy (most often in connection with referendums), deliberative participation (e.g. open forums or citizens’ assemblies) and demonstrative participation (e.g. . Protest or online.). Newspaper comments).

With the “participatory diamond” shown below, actions and instruments can be classified between the poles of “invented” and “invited” space. Participatory instruments from the invited area are planned top-down by state institutions, heavily regulated and constitutionally secured. On the other hand, invented space is developed from the bottom up by the citizens and is less subject to formalization and regulation.

Figure 1: Participatory diamond

Digital youth participation in Germany

As Kersting argues elsewhere, broad youth participation is seen as a key contributor to the political challenges of today and tomorrow, and various studies have shown that young people are already relatively heavily involved in both digital and analog political participation.

However, the way in which young people participate differs significantly from that of older generations. Studies have shown that young people prefer thematic, time-limited, project-oriented engagement. They also favor dialogic and discursive instruments of participation, are increasingly breaking away from conventional forms of representative democracy and are only occasionally involved in long-term parties. Rather, they are involved in demonstrative forms of participation (e.g. the Fridays for Future protests since 2018) and are increasingly involved in social and economic engagement such as boycotts and crowdfunding.

The usual offline participation channels of young people have been blocked by the government’s COVID-19 containment policy, particularly the prominent mass demonstration Fridays for Future. Then young people tried out new forms of pandemic-friendly public offline protests as well as digital platforms to channel their protests. In Germany, high hopes were generally placed on online youth participation mechanisms, which were assigned a catalyzing function as a result of the pandemic. Young citizens appeared to be well positioned with the resources for online participation: in 2020, 99% of all households in Germany with 12-19 year olds had wireless internet access and 94% of young people had their own smartphone. There is evidence that virtually all young people are online several days a week: in 2020 they were online for an average of 258 minutes a day. The internet has become a ubiquitous tool for young people.

Online tools during the pandemic

The present study compared the traffic on the online youth participation app PLACEm before and during the lockdown. PLACEm is a German participation app that invites young people to participate in their environment. It is intended to be used by municipalities or local institutions to encourage the participation of young people and to renew politics. The app offers a platform on which various participation providers (e.g. youth clubs, youth centers, youth parliaments, schools, the volunteer youth fire brigade, sports clubs, etc.) can create their own spaces, invite their members and organize their participation online. These so-called places are the heart of the app: Within places, information can be shared, members can be interviewed, surveys and quizzes can be created and ideas can be submitted.

The study found that the lockdown triggered a large increase (353.28%) in traffic to the participation tools. Most of the surge was concentrated in the first two weeks of lockdown (see Figure 2).

Figure 2

Overview of the weekly number of posts issued by administrators on PLACEm, 2020

Youth institutions have been better able to increase their presence and activity with online participation tools, while schools in general have not been able to switch to online tools. In contrast to the conditions before the lockdown, predominantly participatory platforms were used to provide information during the lockdown.

The study results suggest that the lockdown triggered a novelty effect rather than a long-term use of online participation instruments. Even innovative formats such as PLACEm with its gamification mechanisms could not retain their users in the long term without a connection to offline participation instruments. The forced digitization made it difficult to establish blended participation by completely stopping offline participation. Other trends in Germany create additional barriers to online youth participation. These include general reservations about digitization due to security and data protection concerns, deficits in the digital infrastructure and a lack of commitment to youth participation – Germany is one of the least developed countries in Europe when it comes to digital infrastructure and digitized politics and administration.

Our study makes it clear that the increase in online participation due to the pandemic should not be taken for granted and sequencing of participatory instruments). The government, municipalities and the various youth organizations should sensibly invest in institutional support and extensive efforts to implement and monitor online participation instruments, thereby enabling the authorities not only to cushion participation failures as before, but also to use the promising potential of online youth participation for future engagement.

This article reflects the views of the author and does not represent the position of the Media @ LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.


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