By Nicolai Fast Sørensen

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This article is from the IWDK Preview Magazine.

One of the big discussions about the internet in the second decade of the 21st century is whether or not it is a tool useful for democracy or the complete opposite.

To Jacob Bundsgaard, mayor of Aarhus Municipal for The Danish Social Democratic Party and the head of The National Association of Municipalities, it is not an either or question: “While there are issues surrounding fake news and false information, new media like social media are not only negative.

It is a positive thing that you can extend the political conversation further out to people you might not otherwise have spoken to or with,” he says.  During the covid-19 crisis, Bundsgaard has noticed a specific example of the democratic possibilities of, for example, social media: “When we have had citizen meetings digitally, we have had citizens show up that we wouldn’t usually have seen. It is easier for families with young children to take part in democratic spaces like that. You don’t have to spend a lot of time on transport getting to the meeting and if your child needs something you can leave the meeting, do what you have to do and then come back,” he says. To Bundsgaard, it is interesting to see the diverse group of citizens the municipality has come into contact with because its activities have been moved online.

However, he suspects that others will struggle with that form of democratic conversation, for example the elderly. “It is a balance and that is what we’ve learned from this so far. Hopefully, we can use this experience to get better at knowing how to get certain groups to take part and then use the tools in our toolbox appropriately,” Bundsgaard says.

Campaign money on social media

Bundsgaard has been a part of Aarhus City Council since 2002 and during his time in local politics he has seen the development in political campaigning from solely being out and about on the streets and in traditional media outlets to a combination of the traditional methods and digital marketing.

“Online campaigning is becoming more and more important for every election that passes. We don’t focus solely on social media and digital marketing but it’s a given that some of the funds we spend and energy we use on social media can’t also be used on newspaper advertisements and similar traditional ways of campaigning. In that sense, the work online means more today than before,” Bundsgaard says.

He underlines that for politicians it makes sense to be where the citizens and the electorate are. “If people are sitting staring at their phones then that’s where we need to show up to get our message across so they can make an informed decision,” Bundsgaard says.

The issue of trust Arguably, one of the greatest challenges in today’s democracy is the issue of trust. To the question of whether Bundsgaard believes digital media and communication is responsible for the issues of trust his answer is clear: “What challenges trust in democracy is the fact that we have fewer public places where we can meet across groups and situations. We’ve become fragmented and increasingly only engage with others who look like us. That is what social media does: The algorithm wants to give you more of what you already like and it creates these so-called echo chambers. That is the biggest challenge for democracy in terms of trust,” Bundsgaard says.

In his own political work both as a mayor and as the head of The National Association of Municipalities he prioritises going out to physically see people when possible.

“It is important to get out and meet as many people as possible. In a municipality like Aarhus with around 350,000 citizens it is difficult to reach everyone, but the important thing is to visit as many diverse places as possible. Especially the places where people might feel far away from the power centres. It is important for citizens to feel included and see people like myself and other mayors as being present and attentive,” he says.

While Bundsgaard believes both online and physical meetings have a place in modern day democracy one cannot replace the other: “It is a different type of relation you get when you meet face to face. It is an essential part of being the mayor that you are the mayor of the entire municipality from city to rural area. Meeting each other creates trust,” he says