This research area deals with the question of how participation processes in contemporary democracies change fundamentally and over the long term under the influence of digital technologies and how this development affects public opinion-formation and discourse. The problems and consequences of digitalisation for political life in Germany are manifold and have numerous implications. They concern, for example, the role of social media and their use in election campaigns, the information behaviour of Internet savvy or apolitical target groups, the description of swarm intelligence in political scandals, the dynamics of political mobilisation through clicktivism, the role of digital networks in political protest and outrage dynamics, the consequences of propaganda and extremism on the Internet, the dissemination and use of political content on the Internet in connection with depoliticisation, radicalisation, and mobilisation processes. Through digital platforms, blogs, and social networks, political actors and citizens alike are the target of criticism, hate comments, lies, and manipulation. At the same time, they cannot do without online media, Internet appearances, and social media when it comes to their information, observations of the public sphere, and their participation in public discourse.

At the Weizenbaum Institute, there are four research groups in the area of democracy, participation, and the public sphere:

 

Digital communication media and infrastructures have a twofold impact on the transformation of democratic organizations.  On the one hand, they expand the repertoire, resources, and processes of the democratic self-determination of citizens and political actors. On the other hand, they challenge the existing institutional structure and become themselves the subject of political consensus building and decision-making. The research interest is therefore focused on the way in which political actors, citizens, social movements, and civil society are adopting and developing digital technologies and changing in the process. The question is whether fundamentally new forms of political participation emerge to the extent that they postulate concepts of digital citizenship. The focus here is on the changing role of citizens in the digital age, which also involves problematic aspects (filter bubbles/echo chambers, use of social bots).

Finally, digitalisation fosters a change in the meaning of national spaces and borders in social, political, economic, and scientific communication processes. This creates a relativisation of spatial distance and opens up new opportunities for innovation, integration, and policy formulation. At the same time, due to digitalisation transnational communication relationships are dynamic, susceptible to disruption, and fluid, and bear the danger of political and social tensions as well as cultural misunderstandings.

Based on the work of the four research groups, a data infrastructure and competences in the field of digital and social-science methodologies will be built on in the medium and long term. The permanent establishment of the Institute will provide the basis for a data and methodological department (here, cooperation with Research Group 11 on the digitalisation of scientific value creation will be central). In this manner, interdisciplinary working groups will be formed that develop indicators of the production and use of digital political information. The projects require methodological access to data that goes beyond the standard methods of social-science research. For example, methods of automated media content analysis are to be further developed and combined with collection and analysis methods such as network analyses, multidimensional big-data analyses, and geodata.