Democracies run on trust. Citizens need to trust that they have truthful information, that their governments will protect them, and that their votes matter. Digital technologies are undermining that trust. Unless we work to better govern these technologies, trust will be lost forever and the promise of democracy may be lost with it.
Effectively governing digital technologies is an urgent necessity in a world interconnected by and reliant on information and communications technologies (ICT), for both economic and social exchange. Right now, the numerous failures of governance – in terms of cybersecurity, privacy, consumer protection, antitrust and other legal and regulatory measures – have significantly destabilized institutions around the world. Even more importantly, these erosions of institutional capacity and credibility threaten to destabilize the functioning of democracy itself. In order to save democracy from our own digital tools, we need to adopt a new model of governing digitally – public leaders must take a systemic approach to these problems and collaborate widely and effectively to meet these challenges.
There are three areas where destabilisation impacts our ability to maintain a functioning democracy: in the digital public sphere, in our own personal spaces, and in the institutions that we rely on for fair elections and good governance.
Distortions in the digital public sphere: Algorithms and misinformation
Public spaces are essential
to the functioning of a healthy democracy. Given that the digital space has come to monopolise our time for significant social and political discussions (especially at a time when a global pandemic makes personal interaction risky), it’s a significant problem that the digital analogues to public spaces are, in reality, privately owned and run for profit. These digital public spaces further constrain discourse
by sorting discussions and posts in order to optimise for advertisements or sheer number of hits rather than for the free exchange of ideas.
Considering these underlying factors, both the growth in misinformation campaigns that virally spread anti-democratic ideas and the lack of serious action to combat them are entirely predictable. These campaigns, designed as they are to go viral and drive clicks and likes, are a natural fit for the business model
of social media companies
and controllers of digital public spaces. A symbiotic relationship
, between digital platform owners and misinformation purveyors, makes unilateral action by these companies, even if they are authentically dedicated to strengthening democratic norms and practices, virtually impossible.
This problem is likely to get significantly worse before it gets better. More sophisticated text and image focused campaigns are likely as anti-democratic actors refine their methodology. Innovations in video, such as deepfakes
are presenting a new weapon in information warfare that we are struggling to defuse. It’s clear that there’s a market failure (or several) here. As it stands, the free market simply does not promote truth. In order to counteract current and future misinformation trends, a robust program of education
is in order, for all ages and all life stages, so that individuals can identify and counter anti-democratic falsehood in the myriad of public spaces digital technologies create.
Democracy-eroding harms to individual rights: Privacy and free expression
Private spaces, long thought necessary to provide reflective distance and nurture thoughtful contributions to the public sphere, are threatened
just as much as public space. Here, a failure to govern digital spaces, specifically in terms of ensuring cybersecurity and updating mechanisms for consumer protection, shifts the power balance from citizens to private-for profit companies and their tiny cohort of owners. Even the most basic expectations for individual rights, from free expression
to privacy, cannot be met. Where free expression is stifled, either by allegedly neutral algorithms
, or an actor
motivated by profit or nationalism, the ability of individuals to influence public thinking is eroded. Similarly, where individuals’ privacy
is threatened, they begin to retreat from the digital public sphere, self-censoring and self-isolating to avoid harm.
for privacy and free expression online are absolute necessities to solve these issues. It is fundamentally the role of government to protect these values along the lines accepted within each polity. What’s missing is the knowledge and political will to do so, which is explored more in depth below.
Threats to democratic integrity: Hacking votes and institutions
While the harms to both the public and private sphere may seem ephemeral, cybersecurity threats to the integrity of both electoral mechanisms and government institutions are, quite uncomfortably, more tangible. At this stage, it is unlikely that a security breach has affected the tabulation of votes in a democratic election. That’s not to say such a vote-changing incident is impossible, far from it. Where we increasingly use electronic means to record or tabulate votes, those machines are eminently hackable
. The question isn’t whether voter rolls or even votes themselves will be modified by a hack, but rather how long our inaction can go on before such a calamity happens.
Conversely, it’s difficult to point to an important government institution that hasn’t experienced a breach, a malware intrusion, or been negatively affected by a DDOS attack. Each of these breaches, leaking personal data
and delaying or derailing
the provision of important government services, increases mistrust in governments and in the democratic process itself.
For fundamental acts like voting, the answer here is to eschew new technologies where possible - hand-marked paper ballots are still the best we can do. Where that’s impossible, risk-limiting audits need to be required wherever results are recorded electronically. For institutions, the answer is to shore up the cybersecurity resources and integrate security throughout agencies and departments. It needs to be clear that securing the institution is everyone’s duty, right up to the very top ministerial or departmental level.
Meeting the governance challenge
These challenges make the vital task of governing these technologies – that is to say, developing the laws, regulations, and rules necessary to make them function pro-socially – even more difficult. No difficulty is insurmountable, however, and the defence of democracy in the face of technological upheaval requires significant action on the part of leaders.
First, government leaders must recognize that this is not merely a technical challenge, it’s a systemic
challenge. All of the issues described above are amplified by failures elsewhere. Misinformation thrives because government institutions have not been able to fulfil their regulatory function. Institutional and electoral integrity are easily called into question where the public lacks faith that even their personal information can be protected by those in authority. In order to halt the feedback loops of systemic failure, we need widespread systemic change in how we approach democracy and how we protect the institutions citizens rely on. That means doing the hard work of revising our laws and regulations to make them more agile
and able to keep pace with the rapid changes in digital technologies.
Next, governments need to realize that they can’t do this alone. Allies
in innovative industries, academic institutions, and activist organisations already deeply understand the technologies undermining democracy. New and better processes of governance must bring these organisations closer to the discussion on determining our way forward, not as arbiters for how they should be regulated, but rather as guides to the technology so that elected officials can make the right decisions about how those technologies can be put to pro-rather than anti-democratic use. Many companies and industries
, especially, have already gone through significant digital disruption and have learned (the hard way) lessons about the importance of cybersecurity
and risk-based thinking in surviving technological transformation. Government leaders can use that knowledge to help protect citizens and the foundations of democracy.
Ultimately, a little bit of knowledge about how these technologies function will be necessary to govern them properly. However, it’s leadership, a vision of our systemic interconnections, and our ability to collaborate that will help us meet the current challenge and avoid the digital disruption of democracy.
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