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Understanding turbulent political times through innovative EU-funded research

The 2019 European elections will possibly be viewed by future historians as a landmark election for the EU due to the extraordinary political context in which they’re taking place and the challenges to democracy this involves. This is why innovative social sciences research is vital in helping us understand the shifting patterns of democratic participation in the 21st century. As such, this Results Pack features 11 EU-funded projects that have been working to help us better understand our complex political world and how citizens view their continually shifting place within it.

SOCIETY

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2019 is a busy year for democratic elections – in Europe alone, aside from the European Parliament elections, various national elections (local, regional, parliamentary or presidential) will be taking place in at least 15 EU Member States. Further afield outside the EU, elections have already taken place or are still scheduled in Argentina, Australia, Canada, India, Indonesia, Israel, South Africa, Switzerland and Ukraine to name but a few. The United States will be, by the end of 2019, already gearing itself up for its 2020 showdown election between President Donald Trump and his Democratic opponent. So, measured in terms of electoral processes, democracy appears pretty robust and better than any alternative.

The challenges of the age

At the same time, especially since 2016 several elections and referenda have been characterised by relatively unprecedented misrepresentation and ‘fake news’ campaigns that undermine the notion of informed participation. More generally, democratic politics has witnessed a surge of protest and so-called ‘populist’ politics that have redefined the political space in many democratic countries and what it means to participate politically as a citizen. Some of the roots of these political trends can be traced back to the late 2000s’ financial and economic crisis which exacerbated inequality levels, drove many governments to pursue austerity policies, led to stagnant living standards and resulted in a strong distrust by many citizens of the supposed ‘political elites’. The role of new technologies in reshaping democratic participation in the modern world is worth special attention. Social media has connected billions of people in ways that were unimaginable a few years ago, allowing news (including ‘fake’ stories), opinions and messages to spread worldwide in a matter of minutes. Technology is even changing the mechanics of democratic participation, such as the introduction in many countries over recent years of e-voting machines that have replaced the traditional pencil ballot, the increasing popularity of ‘direct’ forms of democracy that could be facilitated through digital advances and engagement with social media platforms concerning stronger checks on deceptive bots and the spread of fake news.

Innovative research for better understanding, outcomes and policy

In such a turbulent political environment, it is essential that innovative social sciences research can provide facts-based neutral analysis, devise innovative solutions to improve democratic systems for the better, and assist in the formulation of evidence-based policy. The EU’s Horizon 2020 programme, including through the European Research Council (ERC) and Marie Curie fellowships, is thus fully supportive of nurturing Europe’s most gifted social scientists. In this Results Packs dedicated to Elections and Democratic Participation, we showcase 11 EU-funded projects that are contributing to a better understanding of the factors and forces that are right now shaping the scope and future direction of democratic participation. Highlights include the POLPART project that has been dedicated to understanding how and why people become engaged in politics and what this means for ongoing efforts to strengthen and preserve our democracies for the future. The POLCON project cast a wide net to find out how the 2008-2009 Great Recession impacted on the development of political conflict in Europe. Meanwhile, the ERC-funded SEEVS and its complimentary proof-of-concept project SEEVCA have developed a truly innovative new e-voting system that if widely adopted could go a long way to restoring public trust in the democratic process in an age defined by citizen scepticism. In the same vein, the civiciti project has trialled and successfully rolled out its own e-voting technology currently in wide use in many Spanish municipalities and with expansion also planned into Latin America. Successfully integrating today’s young people into democratic society has also been the focus of the CATCH-EyoU, PARTISPACE and PROMISE projects, particularly when it has been Europe’s young people who have suffered most in the post-crisis world. Finally, BOTFIND has developed its junk news aggregator (JNA) that displays articles from unreliable sources as they spread on Facebook, with its project team hoping the tool with help tackle the growing phenomenon of misinformation on social media.