Photo: Nick Youngson. All rights reserved. CC BY-SA 3.0
Digital society has had an impact on all political processes. So, it should come as no surprise to discover that new applications and methodologies aiming at improving the democratic system from different perspectives are currently available. The time is right for them. Stemming from a representation and legitimacy crisis affecting institutions and parties, citizen demands have led governments to try and open new paths through which to channel these demands. They have also driven citizens to design and build their own tools to improve governance. This process is known as citizen empowerment from digitization.
Two elements contribute to this empowerment. First, the political crisis, which is due to a combination of factors: the collateral damages of the global economic crisis, the increase in inequality as a consequence of globalization, and the structural wear of western democracies which, in many cases, have been incapable of updating themselves to respond to the new social and technological reality, nor of designing control tools to deal with corruption cases or political cooptation by the traditional parties.
The second key element has been the development of the network society. When we talk about the disruption caused by this new model, we often describe the role of the Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), the users’ new behaviour patterns, and the structural changes which are affecting all sectors of society in a cross-cutting way. But we also tend to forget another simpler, but equally important, aspect: the access to technology has been eased in such a way that the barriers to creating projects have fallen in all areas. This is the key element behind many of the citizen initiatives aimed at enlarging participation in public affairs.
This is the context in which the ideological checking applications come up. These are tools which an increasing number of countries activate at election time to help citizens know the electoral programs being proposed by the different political parties better, by placing them on an ideological axis – and this, as recent studies have shown, increases the involvement and participation of those who use them. Their operation is quite simple. Through a short and simple questionnaire on the users’ political position, they help them to find their location within the political spectrum by giving them information on this location with respect to the parties’ programs. This is why these instruments are often referred to as voting guidance apps or Voting Advice Applications (VAA).
VAAs respond perfectly to the scenario described above: they are a citizen-originated initiative, based on accessible technology, aiming at improving democratic processes. They also usually rely on social networks to get citizens to know about them, through a process which, in many cases, happens outside of traditional channels and actors, such as institutions and the mainstream media.
The idea of improving the citizens’ information before elections is actually an old aspiration. For the last fifty years, political scientists have shown that voters are not well informed before going to the polls, and that their beliefs may not be consistent with their vote. Much of the academic literature on the subject has dwelt on the limits that any normal person experiences in trying to follow all the political debates and the parties’ positions on all of the issues. The formula to alleviate this predicament is to be found in every person’s cognitive bias, which in the end turns up to be the mechanism by which we come to decide our vote.
This partly explains the success of the vote guidance apps, for they reduce the information costs of citizens facing elections. Just by answering a questionnaire, users can know which party comes closer to their own position. In addition, they get detailed information on each issue, so you that they can see where they agree and where they disagree with each party. Loaded with this information, it is much simpler and faster for citizens to make a decision, and they do it on the basis of reliable information. So much so, that research indicates that voters are now growing used to following the apps’ voting recommendations, provided that they are in line with their political ideas.
Another interesting aspect of the VAAs’ emergence is the extent to which these tools help us to better understand the citizens’ electoral behaviour. We know that people who use them tend to participate more than the average, but it has also been observed that the apps have a different impact on citizens depending on their level of education - and that those who benefit the most from them are the citizens with low levels of education who, after using them, show a greater interest in the electoral processes and a greater disposition to engage in them. If this evidence is confirmed by further studies, it will be a relevant finding indeed, for political participation is closely related to educational and socioeconomic levels.
Besides, citizen behaviour at the polls tend to be consistent with the results they have found in the apps. It is worth noting that only 8 % decide to change their vote when the results they get from the apps do not match what they had expected. In other words, VAAs are very effective in reinforcing citizens’ votes, but not so much in getting them to change their vote, even when the apps place them closer to other political options.
The growth and effectiveness of these tools has led some researchers to want to know better the algorithms that decide the results they give, and even to try to validate them externally. This is not a minor issue. A research carried out in 2010 in Lithuania proved that parties in this country were able to manipulate the results of these apps to their advantage.
In any case, vote guidance apps have clearly opened up the horizons of politological research. In fact, the availability of huge amounts of data is so attractive that some observers, back in 2012, were already warning about the need to study the phenomenon more thoroughly. As a result, analyses of specific cases are increasingly common – Switzerland, Turkey, Belgium, Hungary or the 2014 European elections -, asa are research projects that go into a detailed analysis of user behaviour as he or she browses, or of privacy control during the process.
As we have seen, it seems that vote guidance apps are opening up a new information channel which improves political participation in many respects. The system, however, is not free from criticism. Some authors point out that to call them "vote guiders" implies that the decision to vote can only be taken on the basis of the parties’ political positions. This would of course be a reductionist view since, by considering all parties to be on an equal footing, they do not take into account the real options that each party actually has to come to power and turn its proposals into laws of the land. All parties are labeled in the same way, regardless of their size, leadership, territorial location, government experience, or the possibility of coalitions.
We can address this problem in two ways. A first option would be to incorporate all these factors into the algorithms, so that the system would not only assess the coincidence between political positions, but offer also specific information about each party. This would not be a perfect solution, for it would be obviously biased, but the results would certainly be more realistic. The second option would be to change the narrative about these applications, explaining their purpose – information - and their limitations very clearly, so that people would not expect from them anything but context and complementary information.
In any case, this problem has surfaced due to the widespread use of these apps and their increasing importance in the electoral processes. The VAAs have moved from anecdote to consolidation in the last 10 years and have become a source of information for an increasing number of voters, a driver for electoral participation, and a supplier of quality data on the electoral behaviour of citizens. It is not unreasonable to think that their role will tend to grow thanks to the improvement and specialization of the formats, and the general access to networks by all layers of society. From the results that have been observed so far, both in terms of participation and use, it is desirable that this should happen - the sooner, the better.