In this research project, we focus on the central question of how these technologies have transformed the practice of democratic citizenship in Canada.
The last two decades have seen a revolution in communication technology with the widespread adoption and use of computer networks and digital technologies. While use of such technologies has previously been confined to computers, its reach now extends to laptop computers, tablet computers, and even smartphones. There are few areas of our social, economic, cultural and political lives that have remained untouched by these technologies. In this research project, we focus on the central question of how these technologies have transformed the practice of democratic citizenship in Canada.
The research question is a pertinent one given that democratic citizenship seems to be breaking down in Canada and other developed democracies. Across the democratic world, voter turnout rates are declining, citizens’ feelings that they can change politics for the better are freefalling, and interest in politics and government is very low. From the very beginning, the digital politics literature has hypothesized about the relationship between online political activity and democratic citizenship. In this study, we explore the potential of new communication technology to temper or even reverse these worrying trends in democratic citizenship. Although there has been research into online political activity in Canada, it has for the most part not been able to address the linkage between these two central concepts.
We subdivide our broader research question of the relationship between online political activity and democratic citizenship into four more specific sub-questions. The first question looks at how Canadians are using online communication to engage in democratic citizenship, specifically to:
- gather information about politics;
- use e-government services;
- engage in conventional forms of participation such as communicating political parties;
- engage in nonconventional forms of participation such as contacting social movements;
- engage in discussion with other citizens about politics.
The second question investigates whether online political use has helped to bridge the “democratic divide,” the gaps in political participation between different segments of society. While political participation has traditionally been demonstrated in certain segments of society—men, the elderly, etc.—we wish to explore the extent to which new communication technology has opened up politics and participation to other citizens. The third question concerns the relationship between online political activity and offline “real world” political activity. The question here is whether online participation is a natural extension of real-world participation or a way to draw new citizens into the political process. The fourth question concerns citizen evaluations of the usefulness of online political activity in fostering democratic citizenship. While there is a substantial literature documenting the rise of e-government, we do not know if citizens are actually using these new technologies to access government. If they are, how could these technologies be improved to increase interactivity?
The heart of our project will be a survey of 2000 Canadians. This will be followed up by a three wave panel survey, and finally interviews and focus groups with respondents who agree to participate. This is an extensive and unique methodological approach to the study of communication technology and politics in Canada, and we believe that it will unearth important new insights into the relationship between communication technology and democratic citizenship.