Democracy is under threat. Following the Cambridge Analytica scandal in which the personal data of millions of people’s Facebook profiles was harvested without their consent and used for political advertising, fake news and the use of personal data for political targeting have entered the public discourse in a way not seen before.
Research by the Pew Research Center reveals a stark picture of the threats facing democracy from those who control digital technologies and the manner in which they harness data. Countering these threats are opportunities, none more so than have come to the fore during the Covid-19 pandemic with the massive switch to using digital tools to access and collaborate across the spectrum of civil society and government.
Digital disruption of democracy in the next decade
- Empowering the powerful. Corporate and government agendas generally do not serve democratic goals and outcomes. They serve the goals of those in power.
- Diminishing the governed. Digitally networked surveillance capitalism creates an undemocratic class system pitting the controllers against the controlled.
- Exploiting digital illiteracy. Citizens’ lack of digital fluency and their apathy produce an ill-informed and/or dispassionate public, weakening democracy and the fabric of society.
- Waging info-wars. Technology will be weaponized to target vulnerable populations and engineer elections.
- Sowing confusion. Tech-borne reality distortion is crushing the already-shaky public trust in the institutions of democracy.
- Weakening journalism. There seems to be no solution for problems caused by the rise of social media-abetted tribalism and the decline of trusted, independent journalism.
- Responding too slowly. The speed, scope and impact of the technologies of manipulation may be difficult to overcome as the pace of change accelerates.
- Evolving individuals. Increased citizen awareness, digital literacy improvements and better engagement among educators will be evident in the next decade.
- Adapting systems. Changes in the design of human systems and an improved ethos among technologists will help democracy.
- Enshrining values. Deep-rooted human behaviors have always created challenges to democratic ideals. Historically, though, inspired people have shown they can overcome these darker tendencies.
- Working for good. Governments, enlightened leaders and activists will help steer policy and democratic processes to produce better democratic outcomes.
- Assisting reforms. Pro-democracy governance solutions will be aided by the spread of technology and innovations like artificial intelligence. Those will work in favor of trusted free speech and greater citizen empowerment.
Source: Pew Research Institute (2020)
Socitm and its members have had a long-standing engagement in how data and digital technologies can be used to enable good governance and the integrity of local democratic practices. In 1999, together with the Local Government Association, Socitm collaborated in the production of the guide Modernising local government — moving towards e-democracy. This gave an overview of some of the opportunities of e-enabled democratic processes and offered detailed help for policy planners and ICT advisers. Original work with the British Council on eGovernance led to delegations participating in seminars and workshops in Brazil and central Asia in the early 2000s. Interestingly, during this period, Brazil had already designed and adopted electronic voting for national and regional elections in which ethical and secure use of data was a founding principle.
In 2002, the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions set out a prospectus for electoral pilots in the forthcoming local elections which trialled e-voting and e-counting methods in a limited number of local authorities. Socitm contributed to the debate with Casting the net wider: Local e-democracy 2003 providing examples of e-participation initiatives that reflected the wide range of activity at that time in councils across the UK.
Around the same time, the Local e-Democracy National Project was set up as one of 22 National Projects established by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’s (ODPM) to deliver the 2002 National Strategy for Local e-Government. Backed by £90 million of capital investment up to 2005/06, the Strategy set out a vision, implementation framework and model for a ‘Localegov’ programme designed to transform the quality of services and the organisations that deliver them (See Martin Ferguson “E-government in the United Kingdom” in Drüke, H ed. (2004) Local Electronic Government: A Comparative Study, London: Routledge ).
The Local e-Democracy Project received £4 million of funding to help local authorities in England to explore the potential of new technologies for democratic renewal. The Project generated a wide range of trials, summarised in two reports – From the top down and From the ground up.
Since then, austerity appears to have shifted the focus in local government to harnessing data in order to engage citizens and local partners in addressing deep-seated problems facing their communities.
Nesta’s 2017 paper Digital Democracy: The Tools Transforming Political Engagement shared lessons from its research into some of the pioneering innovations in digital democracy taking place across Europe and beyond.
More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic may be accelerating a fundamental shift in civil society and democratic institutions towards a more collaborative and participative model. Neil McEnvoy writes:
There is little doubt that social media has become the politician’s tool of choice to connect with and to influence voters. It is also a great way for local authorities to keep in touch with residents and their interests, whether consulting about a new planning proposal or adjusting services to reflect needs and preferences. But there is also significant scope for abuse – both intentional and unintended.
We all know about intentional abuse, including manipulating views through fake news or interference of foreign powers in elections. But unintentional bias is as problematic, where views and preferences are less objective than we believe them to be, whether in consultation methods, presentation and amplification in all forms of media or in recruitment to key design roles for systems. These biases could become more embedded as Artificial Intelligence systems begin to learn for themselves, potentially magnifying any unintentional bias that is coded into their base design.
Bodies such as the UK Parliament’s All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Electoral Campaigning Transparency and The Constitution Society for embracing the opportunities provided by GDPR, stronger government regulation and codes of conduct, encouraging greater transparency, and strengthening engagement between data and technology companies and the government to keep up with the pace of change in technology.
Alongside these developments, there is a key leadership role for ICT, digital and communications specialists in the public sector to set standards which can be used to challenge when democratic practices fall short, whether in processes of citizen engagement and consultation or in how organisations harness data and design systems in an ethical and transparent way to conduct their activities.
Principles to adopt
- Define standards and policies for objective consultation, marketing and public engagement in a digital system, including access to source material.
- Address digital exclusion barriers (rather than avoiding digital development) in support, learning and design since these can result in exploitation or disenfranchisement of groups and individuals.
- Treat GDPR as a method to improve information governance, not just a regulation requiring compliance and ensure that auditors are able to seek out digital bias and risks, not just fraud and poor business leadership.
- Ensure that standards are clear for politicians using digital media and resources, whether in times of elections or in wider promotion and public discussions, using digital means to enhance democratic processes.
- Support key areas, such as HR and Legal, so that they are aware of and training unintentional digital bias.
- Promote open government and open data in all areas to allow others to spot unintentional anomalies and bias and be quick to admit mistakes and how they are corrected.
- Begin an open dialogue with the public about open data, transparency and digital bias.