From technical limitations to restrictions on digital rights: With better access, non-technical aspects are becoming more important for digital participation in many countries.
In an interview with #speakup barometer, David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, defined digital participation as “the ability and capacity of any individual not only to access online space, but also to participate in online debate and express themselves through online forums and the like.”
In line with that definition, the #speakup barometer project examined eight countries across five thematic areas, talking to more than 150 experts and users. The research is based on our model of user-centric digital participation.
We discovered just how diverse and complex the issue of digital participation truly is. Technical Internet access is just one piece of the puzzle – the necessary prerequisite for using all the opportunities offered by the Internet. Digital participation takes place on many levels. It transforms societies, gives people a voice, helps to create greater gender equality, closes the digital divide, creates job opportunities and much more.
Kenya’s 2017 general election, for instance, marked an important turning point for civil engagement in digital rights. Amid rumors that the Kenyan government was planning an Internet shutdown at the time of the vote, Kenyan citizens took to the web to voice their opposition. Using the hashtag #KeepItOn, thousands called for the government to back down. In the end, they succeeded. The communications regulator promised to keep the Internet up and running throughout the election. The #KeepItOn movement clearly demonstrates not only the power of networking, but also the uncertainty of the powerful when suddenly faced with a population that raises its voice online.
In our analysis, we came across more than 50 factors that limit digital participation – and almost as many opportunities for its promotion. The major reasons why people cannot participate are spread across each of the thematic areas. Correspondingly, the measures to promote participation must therefore be just as diverse.
Digital rights are at risk
In terms of issues that limit participation, non-technical factors have gained in significance. Governments in some of the countries surveyed are confronted with a dilemma: they recognize the importance of the Internet for the economic development of their country and therefore invest in its expansion, but their aim is to create an Internet for consumers rather than a platform for connecting citizens, making digital media accessible and encouraging freedom of speech. As a consequence, one of the most important findings of our study is that restrictions on digital rights increase as access increases.
Over the course of this shift, new forms of censorship and suppression of opinion have also emerged, although they are not immediately recognizable. In Uganda, the government has introduced a new tax on the use of social media platforms and messenger services. More than 60 online platforms, including Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter, are affected. To date, millions of users have logged out of these services because they can no longer afford them. Their ability to participate has been curtailed; digital rights are at risk.
Internet as critical infrastructure
It turns out that the Internet has become a critical part of the infrastructure in all countries under review. It is essential for startups and small entrepreneurs. The same is true for the media industry and journalists, who are shifting to online publishing. They’re doing so to meet the needs of younger citizens – the majority of the population in most of the countries under review – who use online media exclusively. While this is an opportunity for the media to achieve greater reach, it is one that is rarely optimally exploited due to a lack of business models and qualifications.
At the same time, this dependency on the Internet makes societies more vulnerable to manipulation, including from outside the country. Disinformation campaigns and hate speech, online harassment and propaganda are relevant issues in all of the countries surveyed, as is the often low level of user knowledge in terms of media and information literacy. Attempts to influence elections are one of the most serious infringements on citizens’ digital sovereignty. Authorities can sometimes respond with an Internet shutdown – a drastic measure and the greatest possible restriction on digital participation.
Innovation as a catalyst
But how can digital participation be promoted? Most experts agree that the key is in interlinking digital participation with innovation. Greater opportunities for digital participation are only possible by focusing on innovation driven by user needs. In Kenya, for example, the banking service M-Pesa was a catalyst, sparking excitement among urban and rural Kenyans about the possibilities of the Internet. The increased use of M-Pesa has led to the increased use of smartphones. In the process, people gain access to other components of the digital world – new sources of information and new ways of communicating.
Fostering participatory media is the other side of the coin. Citizen journalists and bloggers fulfill a crucial function in strengthening digital participation within society. Especially in those places where traditional media fails to take full advantage of the digital world, the activities of new media actors have become more important than ever. In our research, we encountered shifts in power dynamics as young people become bolder. The proportion of young people in our study countries is high, and we must find new ways to reach and motivate them. In terms of digital participation, it is time to change the paradigm: Not only tools and devices but also skills, media and information literacy, motivation, digital rights and social factors determine levels of digital participation. Each of these components must be developed further. The benefits of digital participation must be made clear; the skills necessary for participation must be developed. It must also be made possible to participate within protected spaces without harassment or the risk of endangering one’s digital security.
The #speakup barometer is a DW Akademie project that examines the connection between digital participation, freedom of expression and access to information. Learn more at www.dw.com/barometer