Activism and Participation in Digital Transformation

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As in all areas, global developments in the field of digitalisation are uneven. However, the new reality poses questions and challenges that are equally important for everyone. The digital transition in regard to governments has made all societies focus on security, democracy and data protection issues. In some countries, digitalisation has moved more quickly and is more widespread than in others.


Participation connects

As Ken Wilber showed us in his Four Quadrant map, there is a clear connection between our behaviour as individuals – and also in the community - and the technologies we develop (2014). In our daily life, we battle with our inner self in a constant struggle of emotions and sensations, transmitted to society through diverse cultural values. But beyond what we don‘t see, there is a whole complex scientific universe of material things that connect the individual to society. Digitalisation is a part of this process.


But while we discuss the digitisation and digitalisation differences among us, the world is subjected to a digital transformation at different scales. The access to mobile phones and the Internet has expanded over the past decade, but people around the globe are still trying to figure out new ways to deal with social constraints so that they can participate social and cultural life.

The gap in access and usage of these devices between the northern and southern hemispheres is still huge. In the south, “although young people in low-income settings indeed access mobile phones, theirs is not an experience of 'always-on, always connected” (Raftree, 2019). For most, the online experience is “mobile, rather than computer-based' (Raftree, 2019).

The youngest people are the ones who have triggered the main behavioural changes in society in recent years. Since the appearance of social networks, especially Millennials and Gen Z have mobilised thousands of people around common causes. Fridays for Future is probably one of the most recent and well-known global movements, created by the 15-year-old Greta Thunberg and other young activists in 2018. A completely analogue poster to protest against the lack of action on the climate crisis was the trigger. The young activist skipped several school classes and stayed a few days in front of the Swedish parliament. After a few posts on Instagram and Twitter, the issue went viral. The movement was born at that moment and now has more than 13 million supporters in 7,500 cities around the world.

This well-known example is evidence of the potential of the digital world. A group of a few people with a global cause created outside of the digital ecosystem managed to turn themselves into a global movement through social networks. A strong and common cause could easily create a movement and perhaps evolve into a community. Nowadays, the chance to transform into an online community has grown – and, of course, is increasing the speed of movements.

A local example during the COVID-19 crisis gathered 5,000 Portuguese volunteers online to support vulnerable people in coping with the pandemic and lockdown. Tech4Covid was born online as a small group, and two months later had created more than 45 projects and raised 210 thousand euros to fight the problem in different areas such as economics, tech and health.

Athina Karatzogianni, senior lecturer on media and communication from the University of Leicester, said that “smartphones and the internet have changed the way political events, protests, and movements are organised, helping to mobilise thousands of new supporters to a diverse range of causes. These often bypass the existing world of politics, social movements and campaigning. Instead, they take advantage of new technologies to provide an alternative way of organising society and the economy” (2016). But it doesn’t always work in this way. Trump’s use of Twitter is an example of how politics and politicians can take advantage of these technologies and new media.

On the other hand, hacktivist organisations such as Anonymous serve as a balance sheet for political exploitation, as they usually share information that has been concealed from citizens, in this case to uncover Trump’s “fascist dictatorial tendencies....where anyone can be arrested for just posting old information online” (Ashok, 2016).

Examples of leaktivism, such as the Panama Papers – 11.5 million documents leaked that detailed financial and attorney–client information for more than 214,488 offshore entities and has resulted in the arrest of at least five people in Uruguay – have multiplied in recent years. Online groups and individual activists used the internet to leak and spread confidential documents with political ramifications.


Combination of the words “hacking” and “activism” and describes the phenomenon started in the 1980s which promotes political and social change through computer-based techniques on the Web. In the 1990s, the collective Anonymous made known this practice of dissidence and social disobedience which is a continue evolution with the new form of using the technology (Romagna, 2020).


Leaktivism is the phenomenon of distributing confidential documents and information in order to denounce illicit acts affecting the socio-economic and political dimensions of social organisation. The term has been used to the distribution of Panama Papers documents and made known by Micah White, the co-founder of the Occupy movement

Hashtag activism

Refers to creation and proliferation of online activism and discursive protest on social media- through a hash-tagged word, phrase or sentence with a social or political claim – which can lead to material effects in the digital and physical sphere (Jackson et al., 2020; Yang, 2016).

The power to access digital information from anywhere set new limits on freedom of expression but also led people into a new kind of modern tribalism, where some authors believe that “human beings have evolved to live in tribal society, as opposed to mass society, and thus will naturally form social networks constituting new tribes” (McPherson, 2006).

Beyond the good examples of self-organisation, the Internet was also an accelerator for antidemocratic movements. Especially with the rise of social media, right-wing extremist groups emerged – and still emerge everyday – as a consequence of their quick understanding of digital perks and “how digital communication relates to social mobilization” (Ekman, 2014). The “dark side of online activism” is described by Ekman as undemocratic actors using the rapid advancement in digital technology. The author analysed more than 200 clips on YouTube, produced by five right-wing extremist Swedish organisations and identified “the extreme right video activism as a strategy of visibility to mobilize and strengthen activists.”

With attempts to change the historical perception of far-right events, these activists could be “understood as an aestheticization of politics”, as the platform YouTube becomes a political arena “in which action repertoires and street politics are adapted to the specific characteristics of online video activism” (Ekman, 2014).Since the beginning of the Information Age, people have tended to organise into “bubbles” and often, without realizing it, become included in echo-chambers enabled by media outlets, social networks and accepted by the majority of the society. Social media networks are probably the perfect and most recent example of this. Users are exposed to their algorithms on a daily basis and the content is filtered in real-time.

Echo Chamber

Environment where a person only encounters information or opinions that reflect and reinforce their own.

S: Oxford English Dictionary

“Our perception of reality is distorted; worse still, the built-in algorithmic mechanism only serves to exponentially filter and simplify the complex web of human understanding to understand where to place us socially and how to present us to others. For example, the more niche your interest, the less likely you are to see a wider variety of people and interests — meaning, the wider the gap, the less likely you will ever experience world views different from yours. You must actively seek it .” (Lubin, 2018).

As Lubin said, “ostensibly, algorithms thrust us into tribes”, where usually like-minded people group together the social media echo chambers are often “the most powerful reinforcements of rumors” and also the places where a sentence can simply become truth just because it is accepted by everyone in the group, with no counter-arguments (DiFonzo, 2018).

Why we Post: The Power of Social Media

The Why We Post research project of University College London (UCL) has collected evidence that validates the existence and power of social networks in some countries: “social media is being used to reinforce traditional groups, such as family, caste and tribe and to repair the ruptures created by migration and mobility”. However, despite the clear advantage these channels have in some areas, there is “overall impact on exclusion, social differences, or oppression offline”. In Brazil, for instance, “social media is a sign of upward mobility that may impress people of similar social standing, but it does not change the way people from higher classes regard a person”.

Can Offline Communities Significantly Change as a Result of Digital Transformation?

Communities and networks are a “living thing.” [...] “They emerge, sometimes rather spontaneously, from the apparent vacuum when triggered by the environment to do so. They self-organize into hierarchies that are well adapted to the environment they live in” (Portela, 2018). It has always been this way, long before the internet came along. As said before, the digital components have brought some changes in people’s behaviour and led to the appearance of new online communities, spaces and networks . However, we cannot say there is a causal link between offline and online communities. Portela said, “we all keep many stakes in numerous networks but only when we need to organize a surprise party for a friend, do these connections become ’real’ and materialize as an event in the real world” (2018). We have flash online communities, that appear and disappear in the blink of an eye; we have online communities that are truly dependent on offline content, such as the Humans of New York project that started photographing 10,000 New Yorkers on the street and now has thousands of catalogued lives replicated in more than 20 countries; and we have online communities that result in “real-life” changes.

Echo chambers, for instance, also affect offline communities. Many online users used online arguments to spread their “truth” offline at home or work. In fact, a 2016 study even claims that “Twitter users who felt their audience on Twitter agreed with their opinion were more willing to speak out on that issue in the workplace” (Hampton, 2016). We are not able to fully prove a direct cause of the main changes in offline communities‘ relationship with the online world. However, we do know that the digital era has have behavioural consequences.

Civil Engagement – Decrease or Increase?

“The explosion of technological developments coupled with a drastic economic transformation has led to a decline in civic engagement” (Kronen, 2018). Several studies have found changes in Americans’ behaviours, related to our modern way of connecting with people. A paper from the Pew Research Center said only 57% of Americans know one or some of their neighbours by name (Smith, 2010). A poll from AP-GfK, also concluded that one in three Americans believe that most people can’t be trusted (Press, 2013). In his article, Kronen suggests our “feeling of social cohesion is rapidly dissipating” (2018). Nowadays, “we attend less community meetings, join less clubs, and have less dinner parties with friends and family....It’s a vicious cycle with dangerous implications, leading to a relapse in toxic tribalism”, he concluded (Kronen, 2018).

However, Germany is an example where the proportion of volunteer activities and civic engagement increased by about 10% within fifteen years to 43,6% of the population in 2014 (Simonson et al., 2016). Not surprisingly, those between 14 and 49 years of age are the most engaged, but the most dynamic increase in Germany is taking place among those 65 years and older. In regard to digitalisation, this transformation has a strong structural impact on civil society organisations, forcing them to extend to the digital sphere. Also, new forms and topics for civil engagement are emerging. In particular, platformisation is becoming an issue in its different facets (social media, organisation, campaigning, fundraising, etc.) (BMFSFJ, 2020).

According to Eurobarometer, 47% of Europeans “engage with CSOs in some way”. The main engagement is donating money (27%). In regard to participation in public consultations, 45% of respondents said that they participated during the last 12 months in such a consultation (EU DG COM, 2020).

Positive or Negative Impact?

Is digitalisation having a positive or a negative impact on civic engagement and the development of interpersonal trust? The two examples show seemingly contradictory results. While the first position argues that digitalisation is disconnecting people from the analogue world, the German results suggest that digitally mediated social ties are evolving and mirroring social relations in new or different ways, although still in relation with individuals.


Terms such as clicktivism or slacktivism are just examples of new concepts created in an era where the word participation has reached new limits, sometimes difficult to measure. A simple click on any publication can now be considered by some as activism, which is criticised by some. At first sight, slacktivism could be conceived of as pejorative, but some argue that “if anything, the internet has a positive impact on offline mobilization” (Christensen, 2011). This new form of participation “is at worst harmless fun and can at best help invigorate citizens”.

Ladder-of-participation small.png

Traditionally, citizens‘ participation in decision making can be divided into several levels. Arnstein defined three : the level of “non-participation”, „tokenism“, and “citizen power” (1969). At the lowest level, the objective is “not to enable people to participate in planning or conducting programmes, but to enable power holders to educate or cure the participants” (Arnstein, 1969). At the information and consultation level, tokenism allows participants to hear and be heard but “there is no follow-through, no ’muscle’, hence no assurance of changing the status quo” (Arnstein, 1969). Level five, however, “allows have-nots to advise, but retain for the power holders the continued right to decide” (Arnstein, 1969). The high level of participation starts to appear in stage 6: the partnership. This can be noticed as citizens start to negotiate and engage. At the highest levels, the have-not citizens “obtain the majority of decision-making seats” (Arnstein, 1969).


Newer Analysis

But several other authors have analysed participation differently in the past years. Sarah White identified four distinct forms and functions. Unlike Arnstein, who distinguishes participation regarding to what extent it leads to (self-)empowerment of individuals, White categorizes participation according to the aims and purposes of a participatory process (1996).


The first form does not result in a change, as “less powerful people become involved in it through a desire for inclusion”. Instrumental participation sees “community participation being used as a means towards a stated end” and representative participation “involves giving community members a voice in the decision-making and implementation process of projects or policies that affect them” (White, 1996). Transformative participation, at last, empowers the involved people and changes structures and institutions.

Similarly, the International Association for Public Participation, an international organisation that promotes public participation through advocacy and key initiatives around the world, developed “The Spectrum of Public Participation”. This model differentiates between the expectations that public bodies as providers of participatory processes have and how these processes appear to citizens. Although it was developed for the analysis of public participation processes, it is to some extent also suitable for the analysis of other participatory processes.


It is evident that all aspects of the model are relevant. In particular, access to information is a condition for qualitative and collaborative forms of participation. For instance, participatory processes can be planned well according to the inclusion of groups and taking care of fair deliberation, but participants might experience a lack of informational basis and suffer from lack of transparency. In this regard, we would need not only to advocate for more involvement and collaboration but also to ensure that a solid basis of information is available such as the easy access to relevant (public) data for citizens and participants.

The model acts like an international standard to help groups define the public’s role in any public engagement process. Engagement is precisely the most sensitive topic in this equation since people’s apathy grows day by day. In his talk at TEDxToronto 2010, Dave Meslin, a community organizer and activist from Toronto, compared the way information was organised in a town hall notice with a Nike advertisement. It quickly became clear that the two publications have very different goals. The first is limited to publishing the mandatory information, without a real interest in enhancing public participation. In the Nike advertisement, the company really wants to sell and makes the information as appealing as possible (Meslin, 2010).

Digital Practices

Across the world, organisations have created e-participation tools with the same goal: to fight apathy. One of the best examples is in Estonia, where the citizen initiative portal,, allows citizens to participate by submitting concrete proposals to the Estonian Parliament. Citizens can submit proposals digitally, and when 1,000 signatures are obtained, it is submitted to Parliament. Like an e-petition, people have the chance to make real changes in the country‘s proposed laws.

The Portuguese platform is another successful case of e-participation. After five years online, Participa has established itself as an instrument for the exercise of citizenship in the context of the Portuguese Ministry of Environment and Energy Transition.

After almost one million accesses and about 1,200 public consultations, the platform is now in revision and will soon present an important innovation for the dynamics of stakeholder involvement in public consultation processes: the possibility for any entity to join the platform and gain an exclusive space to manage its own public consultations. In fact, both countries have had major e-participation developments in recent years, but that doesn’t mean an increase in citizen participation. “While e-participation platforms using new technologies have spread rapidly in developed countries in the first decade of the 2000s and in developing countries during the last 10 years, it is not clear that their multiplication has translated into broader or deeper citizen participation” (Le Blanc, 2020).

E-participation tools like Participa or Rahvaalgatus are not, in general, synonymous with inclusive participation. As we have said before, not all citizens have access to a computer or a smartphone. Moreover, despite the significant improvement at European level in recent years, the lack of digital skills is still a serious problem for a large section of the population, especially senior citizens.

On the other hand, the results of participation in these tools are often a disappointment for those who participate. Most decisions in which citizens participate are non-binding and there is a discredit in government and public tools.

But isn‘t it supposed to be easier to participate now? Yes. CitizenLab, a team of developers and citizen participation experts based in Brussels, point to four ways technology facilitates participation.

Potential of Digitally Facilitated Participation

  • Technology makes collaboration easier, helping to manage feedback from multiple departments and teams for example.
  • There is an improvement in citizens’ communication as digital participation tools can help give a platform to citizen voices.
  • Technology can also make it easier to generate insights, as citizens’ inputs can be automatically collected and processed.
  • Technology can also help public bodies to act on those insights.

Source: CitizenLab

Despite these advantages, participation rates remain generally low. “Beyond reasons related to technology access and digital skills, factors such as lack of understanding of citizens’ motivations to participate and the reluctance of public institutions to genuinely share agenda setting and decision-making power seem to play an important role in the observed limited progress.... Participation is fundamentally more difficult to manage than standard administrative transactions, because individual feedback is expected from those who participate, as well as signals that their contribution is taken into account. Because participation is voluntary rather than mandatory as in the case of digitised public services, trust in the government and public institutions play a more important role in citizen uptake” (Le Blanc, 2020).


The Le Blanc United Nations paper presents e-participation in an infographic that represents the intersection of participation and e-government, where inclusion and transparency also have a role. As we can see in the previous graphic, there is still much work to be done as far as the availability of services online and use of e-consultation and e-voting in European countries is concerned. In the most optimistic picture, some southern European countries such as Portugal and Spain and the Baltic countries are the ones that have showed some development in this area.


But as David Le Blanc says, “the boundary between old and new participation tools is not always clear-cut” (2020). There are limitations on both sides, but the new tools are often “easier to implement and provide alternative, cheaper ways of eliciting participation” (Le Blanc, 2020). The ideal e-participation scenario should above all bring more information to people and provide a decision-making consultation to the population, always based on inclusive and transparent practices. However, even with two decades of ICTs there are barriers that are difficult to overcome.

#speakup Barometer

The #speakup barometer is a Deutsche Welle Akademie project that analyses the connection between digital participation, freedom of expression and access to information. This allows access to some data on the main barriers to digital participation in eight different countries (Uganda, Ghana, Kenya, Columbia, Lebanon, Ukraine, Myanmar, and Pakistan). In 2020, there will be 15 (Deutsche Welle). The data includes the level of digital participation in each country, measured on the basis of the scores of different clusters: access, digital rights, media and journalism, innovation and society. In the list of the eight countries, Ukraine was considered the country with the highest level of digital participation. Two of the key findings are

  • digital rights are at risk and
  • the Internet has become a critical part of infrastructure.

A driver for more digital participation is innovation driven by user needs.

  • Rights, infrastructure and needs-centered methods or tools must be seen a interlinked.

Source: #speakup barometer/Deseriis & Vittori, 2019

Conclusions for Inclusive Digital Participation

There is no simple answer to this question. There are many complex factors that may contribute to making digital participation less inclusive than we would like it to be, starting with the lack of skills or access to digital tools. But the good news is that there are projects that can help engage people to participate in a digital way.


CitizenLab is a digital participation platform founded in Brussels in 2015 and provides a quick guide to making digital participation more inclusive. The first step, “the setup and communication”, gives tips “such as using inclusive language and visual material that shows as many groups of the population as possible”. The participation process should also be a mix of online and offline, and it’s recommended to have equipment specifically made for that specific process. The software should also be user-friendly, follow standards and have some visual components. At the end, we should be able to “measure how inclusive your participation process actually is”.

A discussion between social media platforms and digital democracy platforms has begun to emerge. Mainly developed as open source software, Digital Democracy Platforms are quite limited in terms of user base when compared with commercial platforms. However, despite the fact that social media platforms can “provide a common aesthetic framework for an inclusive, and potentially universal, networked public sphere”, Marco Deseriis and Davide Vittori identify a key feature of digital democracy platforms: “the potential of implementing normative criteria whereby the democratic quality of online participation and deliberation can be assessed” (2019). Nevertheless, the authors do not underestimate the power of social networks in online participation. “Social media platforms can be used as alternatives to e-government platforms based on a top-down model of participation. From this angle, a platform model is yet to be developed that may strike a balance between spontaneous participation and structured deliberation and between social movement practices and the procedural codification of such practices“ (Deseriis & Vittori, 2019).

Inequality and Divides

When we talk about inclusion, we cannot fail to refer to digital literacy. Today, 80 million Europeans never use the internet either because they don‘t have a computer or because it is too expensive, according to the 2019 Digital Scoreboard of the European Commission.

  • 57% of Europeans have basic digital skills while
  • 17% have no digital skills at all.

And though the number of ICT specialists has increased in recent years – representing already 3,7% of total employment – women ICT experts are only 1,5% of total employed women.

Unfortunately, digital opportunities and digital skills are not for everyone. In general, those who are disconnected from the Web or ICTs may now face great disadvantages. Non-formal education and some informal learning – often provided by family and friends – are often the only option left. When we talk about gender equality, the differences become even more pronounced.

In the past two decades, along with digitalisation, gender and diversity topics have gained a new dimension. With the appearance of the Internet, millions of people can now connect with each other. Many communities have been created since Tim Berners-Lee’s invention, some of them to fight for gender equality. Such is the case of Open Box da Ciência (Science Open Box), created by a data-oriented media organisation in Brazil to qualify the debate on this theme. The group mapped 250 influential women researchers in the country to alert the government to more inclusive policies and the absence of gender equality in the Brazilian science sector.

Europe is following the global scenario as women are less included in jobs, higher education and entrepreneurship in the digital sector. Indeed, according to the European Commission‘s study, “Women in the digital age”, “only 24 out of every 1000 female tertiary graduates have an ICT related subject – of which only six go on to work in the digital sector” (2018).

The Women in Digital Scoreboard 2019 went further and identified a gender gap of 11% in digital skills, higher for above basic skills and especially for those above 55-years-old.

To fight this problem, another successful community has been born in the last years, thanks to digitalisation. The Portuguese Women in Tech is a “portrait of the women that help make the difference in the Portuguese tech scene”. The group of a few hundred women was created, among other reasons, as a free mentorship programme for women, and recently launched a salary transparency project.

Digital Divide

Gap between individuals, households, businesses and geographic areas at different socio-economic levels with regard both to their opportunities to access information and communication technologies (ICT) and to their use of the internet for a wide variety of activities, in particular regarding

  • accessibility of the infrastructure (communication infrastructures, computer availability and internet access);
  • the standard of living (income) and the level of education;
  • other factors such as age, gender, racial and linguistic backgrounds and location of the households. (OECD, 2001)

Elisa Rapetti

Researcher in Sociology. PhD in Methodology of Social Research and Applied Sociology at University of Milano. Facilitator at Democracy and Human Right Education in Europe (DARE).

Ricardo Vieira Caldas

Journalist and expert for communication and participation from Porto (PT). Facilitator in the field of digital education. Website


Illustration: Felix Kumpfe/Atelier Hurra

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Activism & Participation

DIGIT-AL-Activism and participation.png

This text was published in the frame of the project DIGIT-AL - Digital Transformation Adult Learning for Active Citizenship.

Rapetti, E. and Vieira Caldas, R.(2020): Activism & Participation (2020). Part of the reader: Smart City, Smart Teaching: Understanding Digital Transformation in Teaching and Learning. DARE Blue Lines, Democracy and Human Rights Education in Europe, Brussels 2020.