Despite it being a debated issue in recent decades, there is in fact no consensus regarding the potentialities of the Internet for the strengthening of citizens’ political participation and – by extension – of democracy itself. Nonetheless, this “new medium”, and, in particular, its Web 2.0 version has become the cornerstone of communication strategies for both political parties and their candidates.
Several questions emerge from the debate about the impact of the internet on political participation. First of all, the very concept of political participation.
Despite its importance in the theory of democracy, this concept is not always easy to define with rigor particularly when it comes to the form and boundaries of such participation. Actually, the ultimate issue is whether we are currently witnessing a “crisis of participation” or quite the contrary, the rise of alternative forms thereof. Secondly, the debate about the so-called “crisis of democracy” is also central when thinking about political participation in our times. Democratic societies are experiencing a democratic deficit, to a large extend a crisis of confidence in traditional political parties, by which citizens feel misrepresented and hence alienated from righteous participation in their political destiny.
These and similar questions are the pillars of an ongoing research project, entitled “New media and politics: citizen participation in the websites of Portuguese political parties”. Developed by a team of researchers from LabCom – a communication sciences research center located at the University of Beira Interior, this 3-year research project is funded by FCT, the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology. We consider that in the new media context, political parties’ websites might very well be a microcosm worthy of analysis. The websites have evolved through various stages and it is important to establish how these steps can be characterized and what the main differences to be found between them are. We anticipate to find that Web 2.0 contributed to a radical change of/in the structures and functioning of political parties’ websites; nevertheless, the ultimate question is whether Web 2.0 did indeed change the way citizens use those websites and ultimately how we participate in the building of our political destiny.