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Digitalisation offers opportunities in several aspects to improve the quality of democracy. It enables the three central phases of direct-democratic decision-making processes to become more efficient, be it through the electronic collection of signatures for initiatives and referenda (e-collecting), through voting and election via the Internet (e-voting) and through the broad formation of opinion in the expanded digital public sphere (e-discussion).
Especially the latter alternative aroused great suspicion in the past years given the Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Social media and other platforms are being discredited for deliberately undermining the public opinion-forming process in an intransparent way. In this way, it is argued that external powers get the opportunity of covert political influence and generally are responsible for the emergence of populist movements. “Fake news”, “filter bubbles” and “echo chambers” are the buzzwords of the moment that are associated with this. Nevertheless, do these accusations also apply to Switzerland and do social media not offer advantages for the formation of public opinion instead?
The discussion about the negative effects of social media is mainly influenced by foreign countries with other forms of government that are more prone to manipulation. The extremely federal system in Switzerland, which follows the principle of subsidiarity, makes it difficult to bring the population into line because of its diversity. In addition, Switzerland follows the principle of concordance: all major parties must be involved in government responsibility. Switzerland is therefore better protected against extreme populist trends than other countries.
Social media, however, are becoming more and more important for obtaining information and forming opinions. No other medium allows users to communicate and interact more directly, quickly and cost-effectively with their target audience. With the help of “microtargeting”, users can be divided into small (psychometric) segments based on the combination of their personal data, which can then be served with tailor-made arguments. As a result, a much larger potential electorate can be targeted – i.e. even with contradictory arguments.
This manipulation scenario is not very promising for Switzerland, especially since the voting and election campaign is rather local due to the federal structure and the physical presence associated with the election campaign is still essential. It is difficult to control electoral behavior through manipulation via social media, because it depends on numerous factors such as income, age, profession, etc., which cannot be influenced via social media.
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What is certain, however, is that voters can be mobilized with targeted political advertising (“microtargeting”). The dispersion loss of messages is significantly reduced. Since younger generations in particular participate below average in elections and votes and are often particularly disinterested in politics, it is only beneficial to address and activate this group via social media.
Digitalisation also facilitates access to sources of information for the opinion process. This process is complex and does not take place exclusively via social media. Young people are more likely than adults to rely on social media, but overall they have more confidence in traditional media. The Internet is the most frequently used medium in Switzerland, where daily newspapers and Swiss Television are the main sources of information. Social media are the main source of information for only 9% of the population. In any case, the official “voting booklet” is the most important source of information. Thus, public opinion formation cannot be manipulated by social media platforms in Switzerland given the diversity of the sources of information.
In summary, digitalisation does not endanger the democratic opinion-forming process in Switzerland. Rather, it enables efficient mobilization and expansion of the electorate.
This text is based on Ammann und Schnell (2019): Digitale direkte Demokratie, Avenir Suisse, Zürich.