On the Decline of Participation and Voter Turnout in Rousseau

Davide Vittori and Margherita de Candia have recently published an interesting analysis of the decline of online participation in Rousseau, the Five Star Movement’s participation platform. Their data, which shows the decline of the average number of voters in Rousseau both in absolute values and percentage values, is in line with previous data published by Lorenzo Mosca and Christian Vaccari as well as myself.

Davide Vittori and Margherita De Candia’s elaboration. Source: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk


Davide Vittori and Margherita De Candia’s elaboration. Source: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk

Vittori and De Candia do not really explain the causes of this decline. However, they seem to correlate it to a certain normalization–some may say institutionalization–of the FSM whose growing electoral consensus may curb the “participatory impetus” of the early phase of the Movement:

These descending trends and the low participation rate seem at odds with the initial claim that the Five Star Movement “has direct democracy in its DNA”. Hence, the question arises as to whether the party has become more interested in electoral consensus rather than citizens’ active participation. The former is not an unreasonable process in itself, but it shows that in less than four years the party has ‘normalised’ its participatory impetus.

If there is little doubt that the 5SM is undergoing a process of institutionalization–which is inevitable for a party that nears 30% in the polls and governs large cities such as Rome and Turin–here I would like to advance an alternative explanation of the causes of such decline.

To begin with, I do not really believe that the FSM has any interest in curbing online participation, especially via the platform Rousseau. Whereas social media posts are difficult to control and can be easily used by political opponents and the media (against any party), Rousseau has been designed to centralize several political processes–from the party primaries to forms of collaborative lawmaking to the formation of party cadres to the exchange of acts and ordinances among local and regional councilors–which are ordinarily managed separately within a traditional party. Indeed, as of August 2, 2017, the declared objective of the FSM was to grow the Rousseau user base from 140.000 members to 1 million members by the end of the year. If such objective seemed overly ambitious (and has been probably missed) it bespeaks the importance that the platform has for the FSM’s ruling group. Further, as I had the opportunity to personally verify at the 2017 National Meeting of the FSM, the MPs who overview Lex Parliament–one of the key lawmaking areas of Rousseau–voiced their concern about the decline of members’ feedback on the draft bills that the Members of Parliament post on Rousseau on a regular basis.

Once we accept the notion that the FSM leadership does not welcome the decline of participation in Rousseau we have to look for an explanation that goes beyond the normalization hypothesis. My wager is that participation in Rousseau is declining for  reasons that are endogenous to the way the platform is designed and utilized. In particular I would isolate two distinct elements:

  1. The consultations are too frequent and place a high burden of decision on participants.
  2. The platform does not allow members to contact one another and undertake initiatives in a collaborative fashion.

The notion that each decision we are asked to take (or we want to take) places a specific burden on us was extensively discussed by Cass Sunstein and Edna Ullmann-Margalit in an influential essay of the late 1990s. In this text, Sunstein and Ullmann-Margalit argue that since the costs of decision are often too high as compared to the benefits that we derive from them, we tend to rely on “second-order decisions,” which are nothing but  “strategies that people use in order to avoid getting into an ordinary decision-making situation in the first instance” (p. 3, emphasis in original). My wager is that Rousseau does not allow its users to rely on such strategies, that is, it does not allow them to avoid making decisions whose frequent and thus ordinary nature places an elevated burden of decision on participants.

Of course, one of such strategies in politics (as well as in many other aspects of daily life) is delegation. For some reason, however, Rousseau does not allow participants to delegate anyone to make decisions on his or her behalf. To be sure, Rousseau users can vote for the primaries and select their preferred candidates. But they cannot delegate other users to provide feedback on legislation they know nothing about, or to vote on their behalf on consultations they have no time or will to participate in. Because the cost of participating in each of these decisions is too high as compared to the benefits that party members may derive from them, Rousseau users participate in a few decisions they really care about while leaving their preference unmarked in most of the others.

I do not have data to back this hypothesis because we do not know how frequently individual users log into Rousseau, vote, or provide feedback on legislation. So we do not know whether this 13% of users who have been voting in 2017 are mostly activists who vote on a regular basis or “average users” who vote on a rotating basis (e.g. once or twice per year).

Either way, here I would like to argue that implementing a delegation system similar to the one that has been developed in LiquidFeedback would probably help raise participation levels. Whereas many in the FSM see LiquidFeedback (LF) as running against the principles of direct democracy, the opposite is true. Because LF has been designed to let users both give and receive delegations, users often must take on responsibilities (such as voting on behalf of others) they can instead avoid to take in a system such as Rousseau. (As Martin Haase and Marina Weisband put it in two interviews published on this blog, delegation and responsibility are inseparable aspects of Liquid Democracy.)

Second, as noted, the impossibility for users to contact one another via the platform prevents mutual involvement and therefore discourages participation. Here there is no need of citing anyone to know that if people may initially join a collective project such as a party or a movement because individually motivated to do so, they keep participating only if they feel that their participation matters not only to themselves but first and foremost to others. Whereas FSM members can easily gauge the level of mutual involvement at a local level–as physical meetings are always rich in verbal and emotional feedback–they have very few tools to give and receive such feedback via Rousseau. The fact that Rousseau does not allow users to communicate with one another may thus be another reason why they tend not to use the platform that much.

Finally, a third possible reason is that voting via Rousseau is not anonymous and supported by a highly vulnerable and obsolete content management system (as evidenced by a worrisome report recently published by the Italian Data Protection Authority). Based on my research experience, however, I would say that it is unlikely that the decline in participation can be attributed to this factor. Generally speaking, FSM members tend to trust the Casaleggio Associati–the company that originally developed Rousseau on Moveable Type–and are way more suspicious of journalists and politicians who criticize Rousseau than of those who manage it. So I would say that if the vulnerability of the platform concerns technologists (including some in the FSM) and other informed members of the general public, it is unlikely to be a major driver of the decline in participation.

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