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Anat Ben-David, The Open University of Israel Citizen Participation in Voter Surveillance: Does Crowdsourcing Democratize Political Participation?

In recent years, political campaigning adopted new voter communication and mobilization technologies (Kreiss, 2016; Mckelvy & Piebiak, 2019). These technologies, such as targeted messaging, peer-to-peer communication, canvassing applications and automated conversations, borrow their logic from existing digital marketing techniques that offer free and personalized services in exchange for the extraction and monetization of users’ data (van Dijk, 2014; Zuboff, 2019). Accordingly, these campaigning technologies collect personal data on participants and non-participants in the democratic process and use them for personalized communication, giving rise to new forms of voter surveillance, political participation, and non-participation.

Voter surveillance for digital campaigning is perceived as enacted from above, in the sense that political parties are ‘all-seeing actors’ who have access to the voter registry and who are using digital tools to maximize voter turnout based on what they know on their constituents. At the same time, relatively little has been written about new forms of sousveillance (also defined as lateral surveillance) that emerge as citizens voluntarily participate in the data collection process to help political parties achieve their electoral goals (Bennet, 2015).

This article focuses on the civic implications of voter-management applications in Israel during the four consecutive election rounds in 2019-2020. Although the Israeli law allows political parties to access the voter registry during electoral campaigns, these apps have unprecedentedly granted access to the voter registry to the general public and encouraged supporters to assist the party’s electoral success by providing information about the political views of peers. Moreover, on election day, users received real-time updates on the voting status of their friends. All this without their knowledge or consent.

In judicial proceedings against alleged privacy violations related to the use of these apps, the developers argued that instead of violating voters’ privacy, they are democratizing the electoral process by allowing political parties to reach their electorate and by using the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ to achieve this goal. This article, therefore, examines the social implications of the reconfiguration of the concepts of crowdsourcing and political participation in the democratic process through the use of voter-management applications. Theoretically, it explores these new forms of political participation in light of the existing framework of participatory surveillance and co-option. Empirically, it maps the information flows and knowledge hierarchies afforded by these apps to argue that contrary to the logic of crowdsourcing as democratizing knowledge and participation, these new architectures create hierarchies of informants and loyalties.

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