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E-campaigning Will Lead to a Stronger Democracy

A modified version of this article was published in What Makes Us Sick, it is also available in pdf

National and international systems of governance are failing to fulfil their promises. The system, described as “representative democracy”, is intended to achieve rule by the people; the citizenry should direct government and hold it to account for its decisions. Unfortunately national governments increasingly flout their responsibilities, whilst international bodies from the UN to the WTO fail to offer the public representation at all. To exacerbate matters, citizens have become dangerously accepting of government policy. One indicator of this is declining turnout at elections –in the UK voter turnout between 1955 and 1992 was stable at 75%, but this fell to 58% in 2001[1]. As a result, many decisions are made in the interests of the powerful, rather than the people. In 2001 just 11% of the British public supported privatisation of public services[2], but the government carried them through anyway; it now has its sights on the NHS. The war in Iraq is another case where interests of powerful forces in both the US and UK seemed to dominate over public opinion. Meanwhile in the International arena the WTO, IMF and World Bank force countries with delicate economies to open their markets, and the people most affected are powerless to stop them.

One of the most compelling reasons for citizens’ incapacity to hold governments to account is that individuals find it difficult to know how to respond to these failings. Structured channels of feedback to the government are not immediately accessible, and they do not help form communities of understanding. Campaigns are in part a response to this failing. They help inform, connect, involve and mobilise individuals[3]. They form a deliberative channel of communication between the people and the government, and in doing so fill a void in the democratic structure. As campaigners, it is important that we understand and respect this role and our concomitant duty to run campaigns accessibly and democratically.

In order recognise how campaigns can help achieve these goals, it is important to understand the relationship between the campaign itself and its participants. How campaigns reach and influence people depends on how this target audience interacts and engages with those campaigns. The research project Participate[4] is an excellent resource for understanding the different modes of participation. The research project shows that different types of interaction indicate different levels of commitment and roles as a participator. The practices of listening and watching are at the bottom of a hierarchy of involvement, followed by giving money, providing information, “being there”, giving time and starting something new. The actions at the bottom of the hierarchy tend to be mass ones, involving large numbers of people – these are the happy bystanders. As you move up the structure you find increasingly more committed people who are willing to deal with more niche issues: starting with the reluctants, and moving through followers, evangelists and instigators. Key motivators for participants are a sense of belonging to a community and the idea of the cause, followed by (in no particular order) passion, altruism, reward and specific good. Important barriers meanwhile are apathy, cynicism and triviality – the sense that a contribution is too trivial to be a valuable contribution. A successful campaign will capture large numbers of people at the bottom of the hierarchy of involvement, and use the motivators to push people up the ladder.

Hierarchy of Involvement

Adapted from slide 60 -  Participate Online - User Motivation in Mass Participation

Understanding this participation model can help you ensure that your members contribute to the best of their ability. In order to allow campaigns to fill the democratic void in deliberative communication with government however, they need to find ways to increase the levels of participation by the happy bystanders, reluctants and followers. This has always been a difficulty for campaigners, but I believe the current wave of social innovation in the Internet is opening up exciting, dynamic and innovative solutions to the problem. The Internet creates the potential to open up a dialogue with a massive audience across economic and geographic borders. Never before has it been possible to speak freely to so many different people, whilst avoiding the constraints placed by funding bodies and censorship. Now modern “Web 2.0” sites are making it possible to build communities around this global conversation. Ricken Patel of the international online campaigning group describes this as “the public square moving online”. The potential impact of this is massive, and the responses by economic powerhouses to global movements such as to the global environmental movement are indicative of this. Global public opinion, in Avaaz’s words, is “becoming the new superpower”.

So what is the evidence for all this potential? The Internet is replete with examples of organisations which have exploited modern communications to instigate and accelerate successful campaigns. The most exciting aspect of this is not that there is a large collection of resources to learn from, but that every day people are finding new applications of the technology. One of the pioneer campaigning websites,, was founded after an email demanding American politics move on from the Clinton-Lewinsky affair was sent to 100 people, and reached 100,000 people within a week. Greenpeace’s incorporated unedited articles and imagery contributed by users in its successful campaign to get Apple to reduce the environmental impact of their products. The website was stunned to reach its target of lighting 1,000,000 online candles for the victims of child pornography in just 60 days. is another impressive innovator, creating new convergence opportunities between online and offline spaces. Their recent live webcast of a talk by the new Foreign Minister David Milliband allowed them to open direct communications between their international membership and a member of the British Cabinet.

The greatest Internet opportunities however are still unknown. The World Wide Web is currently going through a minor revolution, with a battle going on over how best to build trusted, authoritative, accurate and dependable resources. The notion of crowdsourcing – the idea that contributions from a large community of committed people can produce better solutions than trained individuals – has had an incredible impact. The collaboratively built Wikipedia has not only proved that the concept cannot be ignored, it has also shifted the entire culture of the web: people are no longer browsers, but contributors. Nowhere has this new wave of user contributed content been more pronounced than in the Social Networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook – which is attempting to shift the platform for the web from individuals and companies to networks.

The challenge now is to exploit these new “Web 2.0” practices to achieve an equivalent browser-to-contributor-shift in our democratic practices. If we can do this, we can move from a representative democracy to a participative democracy. Now wouldn’t that be something?


[1] International IDEA Database,

[2] Private sector plan ‘more unpopular than poll tax’, Patrick Wintour, 12/07/ 2001, The Guardian

[3] Web Campaigning, Kirsten A. Foot and Steven M. Schneider, 2006

[4] Mass Participation Review, Participate Online, 2006,

Posted in Democracy, ecampaigning.

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