Background paper

Digital technologies and the new public square: Revitalising democracy?

Rocha Menocal, A. Digital technologies and the new public square: Revitalising democracy? Pathways for Prosperity Commission Background Paper Series; no. 17. Oxford, United Kingdom

Over the past 15 years, there has been astonishing progress in information and communications technologies (ICTs). This has generated tremendous enthusiasm about the potential of ICTs to transform the way people organise and mobilise to exercise voice and hold governments to account. Over time, though, unbridled techno-optimism has given way to more pessimistic appraisals about the impact of ICTs on governance. There are increasing concerns about how ICTs may in fact undermine democratic practices and processes and help to strengthen authoritarian regimes.

Drawing on emerging literature on the impact of digital technologies and governance, as well as available examples and initiatives, this paper explores the possibilities and limitations of digital technologies in creating a new public square of engaged citizens. It finds that, while ICTs can be useful to amplify existing strategies for participation and political mobilisation, they constitute only one of many factors that shape the relationship between citizen voice, participation, accountability and responsiveness. ICTs alone are not, and cannot be expected to be, the answer to the need to revitalise the public square within a context of growing polarisation and dissatisfaction with ‘politics as usual’ within and across countries.