Harnessing technology to revitalize democracy

By Hans Kundnani

Hans Kundnani invites you to have your say as we open the black box of think-tank research.

In the past five years or so – and especially since the British people voted to leave the European Union, and Donald Trump was elected president of the United States – there has been much discussion about a crisis of liberal democracy. The development and prevalence of digital technology is usually seen as a part of this story. But the extent and nature of the role that digital technology plays, either as a cause of the perceived crisis or as a potential solution to it, is far from clear.

For obvious reasons, many foreign policy think tanks in Europe and the United States have focused on the problem of interference in elections by foreign powers, in particular Russia, and the way social media and the microtargeting of voters can be used to ‘hack’, or distort, democratic processes. There is now a plethora of projects that aim to ‘defend’ or ‘secure’ democracy. But they ignore deeper questions of whether the democratic system is working and tend to suggest that the challenges to liberal democracy within the West are external.

The reason it is so difficult to grasp the internal problems with democracy in Europe and the United States is that there is little agreement on the causes, let alone where technology fits into them. There is not even a consensus that there is a crisis – as David Runciman, the Cambridge professor of politics,  has argued, democracy working well looks a lot like democracy working badly. There is also no agreement about solutions. For example, would the introduction of more elements of direct democracy, such as referendums, make the situation better or worse?

Perhaps the most common way of  viewing the problems facing  liberal democracy is through the concept of ‘populism’ – though there is much disagreement about how to define it and about the relative weight of economic and ‘cultural’ causes.

Polling data seems to suggest that support for democracy is declining, particularly among young people. Others see a related trend of ‘democratic deconsolidation’ while there is an argument that neoliberalism and globalization –  and  the Europeanization of politics – have led to a kind of hollowing out of democracy and produced what Colin Crouch, the sociologist and political scientist, has called ‘post-democracy’ – to which ‘populism’ and apathy are responses.

Those worried about the rise of ‘populism’ tend to have the most negative view of digital technology. In particular they see social media as undermining the traditional ‘gatekeepers’ of liberal democracy, empowering extremists or outsiders who create ‘fake news’. The paradigm of ‘democratic deconsolidation’ also suggests that digital technology is part of the problem, with young people, used to the immediacy of social media, seeing democratic processes as ‘analogue’ by comparison.

However one looks at the current state of liberal democracy, digital technology may be part of the solution to the crisis as well as its cause. Whatever one thinks of ‘populism’ as an ideology, the way new parties, such as the Five Star Movement in Italy or Podemos in Spain, have experimented with the use of digital tools could help to reinvigorate political parties, long believed to be in terminal
decline. Membership of the Labour Party declined from around a million in the 1950s to under 200,000 in the Blair era – but has now increased to over 500,000. In particular, incorporating digital technology into democratic processes may help reconnect young people.

These issues are the focus of a new Chatham House project on democracy and technology in Europe. This seeks to answer three questions: What effect is technology having on democracy in Europe? Against the background of social and technological change, how can democracy in Europe be made responsive? And are there ways in which technology can itself help revitalize democracy in Europe?

The project is being guided by a commission of 15 leading figures from around Europe. But we want other people to contribute their ideas as well – a think-tank version of crowd sourcing. You can make submissions on our website and join discussion groups that will collectively produce answers to the project’s research questions that will feed into the final report. Through this process, we aim to open up the black box of think-tank research. Just think of the discussion groups as an online version of a closed-door workshop at Chatham House.


This article was originally published in The World Today.

Hans Kundnani Chatham House

Hans Kundnani is senior research fellow in the Europe Programme at Chatham House and leads the Commission on Democracy and Technology project.

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