The old flag of the European Parliament on a blue wall.

The Wisdom of the European Crowd

The European public has had little opportunity to be involved in COVID-19 policymaking. Yet there are many routine ways of obtaining rapid public input that require minimal effort, says Anatol Itten.

Precisely 15 years ago, with the financial crisis just in the making, I prepared my departure from Sweden. Packing my bags from the Erasmus exchange, I found the time to write one last paper with my friend Robin Karlestedt. As young Europeans, we thought deeply about what it would take to create an European Demos, that is, a transnational political relationship between individuals. It was mostly a niche debate back then in the wider realm of the EU’s democratic deficit. As we were researching the negative referenda against the European Constitution in 2005 in the Netherlands and France, as well as recurring protests of European farmers in Brussels, we concluded that a social contract has never really been established between the EU institutions and their citizens.

Social contract theories postulate that individuals have consented, either explicitly or implicitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit them to an authority (in this case the European Union) in exchange for protection of their civil rights and the rights of others. If the authority fails to satisfy the best interests of society, as for example written the ‘general will’ of Rousseau, citizens can withdraw their obligation to obey, or change the leadership through elections or other means, as symbolised by the mutual commitment of the social contract.

Being firm, but somewhat naïve students of European integration, we believed that the protests that mobilised all sorts of farmers from all parts of Europe as well as the two negative Dutch and French referenda could actually spark a momentum for a new social contract. If the EU were able to endorse adversarial movements against plans of theirs, so we thought, it would actually help the EU to shape their policies in accordance with what citizens were willing to give up to the EU (in terms of freedoms) in return for personal or social benefits. To achieve this, we reflected, the EU members would need to boost citizen participation and deliberation on EU policies that directly affect their constituents’ lives.


Instrumentalising the Crisis

Fast forward to the present. Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the first quarter of 2020, European governments have been constantly operating in emergency mode, concentrating decision-making power at the top of the pyramid. Virus‐related policies were negotiated ad hoc, largely bypassing parliamentary systems. Scholars like Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist who focuses on political extremism and populism in Europe and the United States, warned about authoritarian power grabs, for example by the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, who used the coronavirus to ‘push the final nail in the coffin of the country’s bruised democracy’.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the first quarter of 2020, European governments have been constantly operating in emergency mode, concentrating decisionmaking power at the top of the pyramid.

Unsurprisingly, considerable differences in people’s attitudes towards COVID-19 policies began to mushroom. Opaque, inconsistent and hasty decisions across Europe resulted in a political cacophony that delivered discomfort and disorder in the European sphere. Fancy a few examples from the last year? The severe protests in Serbia blocked plans to enforce a second lockdown, the German government announced an Easter lockdown and revoked it in a flash, and in Italy demonstrators hurled Molotov cocktails and rocks against riot officers firing teargas. The good thing is that we can learn a few things from this messy European approach.

  • First of all, while protest might be an effective way to show discontent, we should not be blindsided and believe that these protests really represent the preferences of society at large (at least until that is really proven).
  • Secondly, the constant switch from total lockdown to total reopening (only to reinstall lockdown) around Europe caused an arbitrary view and political disaffection. People around the continent pointed to the pros and cons of the Swedish laissez-faire approach, the stricter French measures, or the mass testing of Slovakia.
  • Thirdly, and most importantly, involving the European public in a meaningful way in COVID-19 policymaking has been notably absent. Even routine forms of obtaining rapid public input requiring minimal effort were seldom deployed. This is all the more remarkable after reading that public participation is in fact repeatedly recommended in health disaster literature.

Statistics tell us that the chances for greater victimisation during a disaster or epidemic are unevenly distributed in society. That means, depending on your wallet, social class, ethnicity, gender, and social connectedness you are more likely to suffer harm or to recover swiftly than others. If citizens are not enabled to participate on health measures, blind spots are likely to occur as they are often taken in a one-size-fits-all approach.

Empirical evidence further shows that the general public calculates and justifies risks in their own context. For example, transport researchers at the TU Delft have found that low-income groups ignored self-quarantine orders and travel restrictions more frequently, since their relative earning losses were higher than for other income groups.

Yet citizens were anything else that impassive. Many of the problems faced by isolated and elderly households were largely tackled through self-help on the part of countless spontaneous volunteer projects. In the absence of government action, citizens decided to organise their own COVID-19 responses. It would be completely short-sighted to treat the public as a panic-stricken crowd that needs to be controlled.


On the left and right, arms with rubber gloves reach into the picture and hold a globe with the Post-it "Covid-19" .
Statistics tell us that the chances for greater victimisation during a disaster or epidemic are unevenly distributed in society, photo: Anna Shvets via pexels

In Scotland, such an exercise led to over 4,000 ideas and 18,000 comments from citizens about the lockdown. In the Netherlands, under the lead of my colleague Niek Mouter, we managed to involve almost 30,000 citizens in evaluating different lockdown relaxation measures, and in Belgium, more than a million citizens were consulted about their COVID-19 behaviour, which helped the government to fine-tune its policies.

Unfortunately, these are exceptions, mostly one-off experiments that are a rare find. Involving the public in crisis manage ment seems more like a nightmare to top public officials. They have a myriad of reasons for why that is not a good idea: citizens are ‘too self-interested’, ‘uninformed’ or ‘not interested in politics’, they are not capable of ‘grasping complexity’. People are ‘potential risks’. There you go, this is the language of paternalistic fools.

Such attitudes double-down on or dismiss widespread concerns about the world such as the concentration of financial power, mass surveillance, inequality and lack of political transparency, which, without sober acknowledgment, can lead to conspiracy theories.

In a representative survey with 1,200 Dutch citizens in summer 2021, more than a year after the start of the pandemic, we found that on average 54 percent participants believe that there is ‘a global elite who runs the world for their own interests’ and 52 percent believe that ‘government agencies closely monitor all citizens’. 36 percent believe it to more likely than unlikely that a ‘global plan called the Great Reset is underway, formulated by Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum (WEF) to enslave all of humanity’, and one in four is persuaded of the possibility that ‘the COVID-19 vaccination program is a pretext by Bill Gates to implant microchips to monitor and suppress the population’.

Fast-forward 15 Years

There is no significant difference in education, age or gender among those who answered these questions. The blur between scepticism, distrust and conspiracy can come down to every one of us, and we should not be surprised if citizens withdraw their obligation to obey amid the absence of a European social contract.

Policy decisions across Europe entailing difficult trade-offs are discussed by hundreds of thousands of people on online platforms, largely in a respectful and thoughtful manner. Based on text generation technology and natural language processing, European citizens make use of ‘text and voice filters’ (similar to photo-filters), that improve their rhetoric, the quality of their arguments, to make what they say more fluent and to narrate and appeal to other participants. Everyone can make their point by being poetic, funny, or intellectual.

Support technologies such as machine learning help manage these discussions by not only sorting vast amounts of information and topics, but also by imitating nuanced moderator interventions, such as reformulating provocative content, mirroring perspectives, posing circular questions or playing devil's advocate. To create empathy for example, an automated facilitator bot would ask participants to reflect on the needs of a resident of their community and whether they think that resident might agree or disagree with their argument.

Involving the European public in a meaningful way in COVID-19 policymaking has been notably absent. 

Moreover, to promote respectful discussions and mitigate polarisation, algorithms are no longer binary in showing or hiding content from the political opposition. They dismantle claims from the opposite side and encourage people to discuss the accuracy of such claims. Afterwards algorithms incorporate the results of these discussions into their rankings on social media to reduce the presence of disinformation.


Predictive Algorithms

Reward-based approaches are in place that provide incentives for reaching a consensus or taking collective action or to promote civility among users. To prevent the possibility of manipulation or nudging participants to politically desired outcomes, these discussion platforms are organised by decentralised networks. These networks would also provide a base for predictive policymaking: a vast amount of sentiments, values, arguments would train algorithms to predict if a certain policy would gain what kind of support in the public, under what kind of conditions, displaying which groups would be most supportive or dismissive. Even more sophisticated systems would generate a set of most-liked (or less resisted) policies.

Algorithmic argumentation and facilitation systems are not utopian but already a decade in the making. While the USA is dominant in this field of research, European scientists are active too. 

Hands reach into the picture from the left. They write so quickly that they blur.
Policy decisions across Europe entailing difficult trade-offs are discussed by hundreds of thousands of people on online platforms, photo: Cotton Bro Studio via pexels

They might finally bring about the transnational political relationship between European individuals that we were searching for as students 15 years ago. If not, at least they would provide a solid base to connect and involve masses of individuals in future crisis decisions, sourcing solutions from the wisdom of the European crowd.

Being aware that technology often reiterates society, these systems are far from perfect right now. The nature of the design process, discrimination and the inclusion of users are particularly in need of attention. There is still a great need for experimentation, co-creation and improvements to algorithmic facilitation.

Policymakers should embrace new participation and deliberation technologies to harvest the long-tail of policy ideas (a term coined by MIT scholar Mark Klein on the distribution of policy ideas), meaning a small variety of ideas is given by a majority of citizens, yet the great variety of ideas is given by a minority of citizens, thus the long-tail. These ‘small voices’ that have in the past not been heard, are an important driver for a greater diversity of ideas to shape European policy decisions in the 21st century.

About the Author
Anatol Itten
Political Scientist

Anatol Itten is co-founder of the Disrupted Societies Institute in Amsterdam, a post-doctoral researcher at the Organization and Governance section at Delft University of Technology, and a lecturer in political theory at the University of Stuttgart. His research revolves around co-creation and digital mass participation of citizens in government decisions.

Culture Report Progress Europe

Culture has a strategic role to play in the process of European unification. What about cultural relations within Europe? How can cultural policy contribute to a European identity? In the Culture Report Progress Europe, international authors seek answers to these questions. Since 2021, the Culture Report is published exclusively online.