An online orientation tool awakens a new interest in politics

In the fall of 2002, Austria was seized by a “Wahlkabine (election booth) fever”. Links and references to Wahlkabine were omnipresent: on the many sites that encouraged first-time voters to make use of their right, in link collections provided by NGOs and civil society groups – and even in the electronic newsletter of a diabetes self-help group and a tax accountant’s customer information mailings. There was a young woman from Vorarlberg state who told a life TV audience that her voting preference at the Austrian general election on 24 November, 2002, had been decisively influenced by Wahlkabine.

In the subsequent years, wahlkabine.at was used in eight regional and one further national election, while a non-election variant was offered during the Austrian EU presidency in the first half of 2006. As of now, this political orientation tool has been used a total 1.4 million times, with 40 million questions answered and accessed several times this number, making Wahlkabine Europe’s most popular online tool of its kind. Nevertheless, the Austrian media and Austrian politics fell short of fully acknowledging this expression of citizens’ interest in political content and failed to promote it, in spite of the fact that a political orientation tool of this type is capable of fostering a broad public interest in political questions and issues, and of promoting political debates. This becomes readily evident if a closer look at the history and background of the project is taken.

Only a few days after the first Schüssel government went out of office in the fall of 2002, the Vienna-based Institute for New Culture Technologies (better known as Public Netbase) decided to contribute to the pre-election debates with an online project. Spontaneous as this decision was, it was the product of solid motivations. One of the most important insights gained in many years of work on the interface between art/culture and information and communication technologies concerned the increasing commercialization of the Internet, which lead to a more sober assessment of its emancipatory political potential. Even though at this time surfing the Net and sending emails had become common in Austrian homes, the quality of content production remained inferior. In fact, it was the online media in particular that went along with the increasing populist and personality-oriented tendencies in politics.

Against this background it became a priority to initiate a project that would allow a playful engagement with the political content represented by the various political parties, and would enable voters to identify their own political affinities. The initial challenge faced by a voting indicator tool of this type in Austria consisted in finding suitable partner organizations that would ensure an extensive reach as well as a solid implementation, combining political science expertise with software programming. In the end, wahlkabine.at was realized by Public Netbase in cooperation with the Gesellschaft für Politische Aufklärung, a NGO whose goal is the promotion of democracy in Austrian society, as well as the Austrian Society for Political Science, and the Department of Civic Education at the Center for Distance Learning. After only a few days, Konrad Becker, head of Public Netbase, arrived at this temporary conclusion: “The cooperation among independent civil society institutions has proved itself to be socially effective, and will continue to be a foremost example of cooperation within a democratic information society.” (Press release, 23 October, 2002).

From the very beginning, the wahlkabine.at project sought to reach a large audience and play an enlightening role in civic education. The 26 questions it contained not only highlighted political content that easily gets lost in increasingly noisy information environments – listing political issues also facilitated reflections as to which positions the various political parties actually occupied. Feedback provided to the editorial team indicated that in a number of users, the tool lead to a heightened awareness of the actual content of political statements, and indeed, of any lack of clarity in political positions.

One feature that merits highlighting is a link on the start page of wahlkabine.at allowing interactive contact with the organizers. Thousands of users made use of this possibility, many of them acknowledging the support the tool had provided in their arriving at an electoral decision. In many instances, users voiced their dissatisfaction with a political life increasingly out of touch with the people, and with the severe difficulties of orientation within the political system. Clearly, there appears to be an increasing need of orientation – a tendency further confirmed in feedback provided by families indicating that wahlkabine.at had provided an important lead for discussions on society and political views between parents and children.

One increasingly important indicator of the democratic quality of a society is privacy protection. Even if the general awareness of the importance of privacy leaves much to be desired, there seems to be a gradual awakening in some. After 9/11 many restrictions on privacy were imposed by governments, giving rise to a critical movement that refuses to sacrifice the most vital rights of the digital information age to a supposed fight against international terrorism.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the use of collected user data has been a prominent question in wahlkabine.at – a question addressed in many different ways. Although the start page of wahlkabine.at contains a well visible statement assuring users that none of their data will be forwarded to third parties, skepticism seems to have won the upper hand in some. As one university worker wrote: “I asked myself whether wahlkabine.at might not be a concealed micro-census, and my fear is fueled by your assurances that ‘no data will be forwarded to third parties’. Please let me have a clarification, as my suspicions concerning the misuse of the Internet are only getting worse, and I am rather reluctant to make use of your service.” In fact, none of the results and IP addresses (through which computers and servers could be identified) of any of the users were stored. Given the fact that election campaigns are currently customized around individuals’ personal data, it is not surprising that an independent political online orientation tool beyond the reach of political parties generates nervousness. With this in mind, a net culture institution such as Public Netbase, an uncompromising defender of privacy rights, and all the other collaborating civil society and academic organizations, consider the protection of these rights as fundamental.

On the other hand, all the data concerning programming and computation are entirely open: there is full information on the project’s goals, its processes and methods, the weightings applied; the parties’ positions are presented in brief summaries. From the very beginning, the project has been committed to the open source principle, according to which the human-readable source code has to be freely accessible. This opens the possibility to view the code, to modify and develop it, and to create a form of cooperation directed primarily against the mechanisms of exclusion at work in proprietary programs (where code is considered “intellectual property” and zealously protected). In the case of wahlkabine.at it is therefore not surprising that an enthusiastic user created an almost identical variant for a popular handheld device, distributing it widely through his homepage.

Understanding new information and communication technologies and their use in political contexts should not adopt a restrictive perspective. This is why Saskia Sassen, in her foreword to Politik der Infosphäre (published 2002), warns readers against focusing exclusively on the effects of new ICTs on existing structures and institutions: new ICTs “should be understood as constitutive factors of new social relationships and institutional structures, as an emerging system of order. Whoever is interested in issues of democratic participation and responsibility needs to go beyond technological performance, and effects on existing realities, and needs to look at the qualities of this emerging system of order”.

However great the success of wahlkabine.at in the 2002 pre-election period, its function and significance need to be properly assessed. The guiding idea was to create an online tool capable of awakening an interest in political content, to provide an orientation tool that makes political positions visible, and to promote reflection and debate. wahlkabine.at is not a suitable tool to examine political commitments or party memberships. Yet this is precisely the point where the project met with the suspicion of political parties. In the most severe instances, there were threats of funding cuts and litigation – clearly, attempts of censoring a tool committed to maintaining its independence vis-à-vis political interest groups. As Brian Holmes concludes: “The growing sophistication and depth of its investigations and projects was apparently perceived as a threat by municipal politicians and funding officials, unable to comprehend the urgency of supporting a critical civil society at a time when control drives are reappearing everywhere, with all their atavistic force.”

This contribution is a revised and abridged version of “wahlkabine.at. Eine Online Wahlhilfe erweckt neues Interesse an Politik”, contained in Sieglinde K. Rosenberger, Gilg Seeber: Kopf an Kopf. Meinungsforschung im Medienwahlkampf, Czernin Verlag, Wien (2003).

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