Democracy disrupted: when technology meets democracy

By Namita Kambli

Technology is a significantly large and difficult term to define in the context of democracy. From everyday online services to disinformation, algorithmic decision-making to civic tech, through to the use of sensors in ‘smart cities’, technology criss-crosses our lives in innumerable ways.

Each brush with technology has both positive and negative implications for our democratic principles and processes, accordingly producing both opportunities and challenges. While it is crucial that we enable many of these opportunities, we must be especially mindful of the challenges, and of the potential threats to privacy and individuals that an increasingly digitised surrounding, government, and private sector pose through both the present, or potential future, use of data.

Below we outline some of the ways in which technology is impacting our democracies in Europe.

 

1) Civic tech

Civic tech can be referred to as any technology that is used to directly improve or influence governance, politics, or socio-political issues. It encapsulates a wide range of tools, including, but not limited to, petition sites (to support advocacy), citizen portals (to improve government efficiency and service delivery), and civic engagement platforms (to enable deliberative and participatory engagement).

Coming out of non-governmental initiatives and funding, civic tech has the potential to respond to, and positively influence, system needs that the status quo resists. Tools such as FixMyStreet and WhatDoTheyKnow make it easier for citizens to directly use existing rights with their local authority, with some civic tech tools becoming directly embedded in government systems. These include Delib’s Dialogue platform, and others created by Citizens Foundation, which are increasingly being used to support consultation and engagement activities around Europe.

Views on civic tech range from the techno-utopian (‘technology will save democracy’) through to despair (‘this technology doesn’t add value’), but neither view is fully accurate. While there is justification for some skepticism – digital participation may backfire if not implemented well or decision-makers don’t act upon what is heard – it should be noted that this is not just the case for digital engagement. It also applies to the ever-increasing number of offline participatory and deliberative activities taking place.

However, there are several – as of yet unknown – externalities that should be taken into account: Are there potential negative impacts in creating an ever-larger number of civic tech sites that do not have a specific route into the decision-making process? Do these risk creating more cynicism with respect to existing democratic process, or will the growing number of opportunities create sufficient pressure for these to change? From what we have seen to date, in many instances, these tools are not sufficient to drive change (especially against government systems which have an inertia to change), and risk reaching only a small number of already engaged citizens, thereby amplifying those voices that are already heard.

 

2) Digital and online communities

It is undeniable that social media – digital platforms that allow the creation, location, and exchange of content – are entwined with the everyday lives of citizens [1]. These media have created spaces for citizens to communicate with each other, self-organise, and to create campaigns, in many instances, with democratic institutions and elected representatives. Where this latter takes place, it also provides opportunity for citizens to directly participate in decision-making by giving people a platform to make their voices heard. There are, however, risks here that not all citizens are treated equally.

Social media platforms are in themselves not equal. Some, such as Twitter, enable individuals to engage with almost anyone they come across online, whereas others, such as WhatsApp, are designed for smaller peer-to-peer conversations with those already known to us. Additionally, the voices of under-represented groups (along the lines of gender, race, religion, ethnicity, and socio-economic level) risk being not heard or actively silenced in these conversations. This is in part due to unequal access to technology and differing use of each platform, but also partially due to the challenge that these groups may pose by deviating from the expected roles – and norms of dialogue – one is supposed to adhere to in traditional engagement. Studies have shown, for example, that many women, especially those of colour, do not participate online as much as they would want to for fear of online abuse [2] . This means that they are a lot less likely to use social media platforms to raise their voices with the institutions and individuals who have historically suppressed them from speaking up.

Social media platforms – while allowing communities to gather and form in new ways – have also fractured existing offline communities. This is largely due to the business model of “surveillance capitalism” [3] whereby platforms which are effective monopolies, such as Facebook and Google, are incentivised to show us algorithmically selected content that is tailored to our individual likes and dislikes so as to hold our attention and keep us online. This results in a situation in which we no longer consume collective information like we would have in the form of traditional print media or public broadcasters. Whereas technology allows the voices of a wider range of individuals to be heard, it also, paradoxically, discards any semblance of shared politics on which to base political discussions. This is because greater access to information is also accompanied by greater access to false information. It can be hard to discern between the two due to the slowness of fact checking, which in turn leaves all of us open to manipulation. This manipulation has been proven to influence election campaigns and is likely to impact upon participatory and deliberative democratic activities as well.

The rise of ‘deep fakes’ will pose an even greater challenge to the strength of our democracies and the idea of facts and truth itself. The proliferation of AI-enabled manipulation might widen already-existing fractures in political discourse and permanently erode trust. It will be imperative for our democratic institutions to keep pace with this content creation and monitor this – as yet – minimally regulated digital space.

 

3) ‘Smart cities’

The idea of a smart city is not new. The concept has been around since the early 2000s under various labels such as “city of bits”, “digital city”, “intelligent city”, “augmented city”, and, more recently, “algorithmic city”. What all of these monikers have in common is their reference to technology optimising aspects of urban living, often with increased efficiency as a defining factor. A ubiquitous network of sensors, cameras, and wifi trackers that continuously gathers data equates to more effective traffic and energy management, better environmental monitoring, timelier infrastructure repairs, and easier access to online governmental portals, among other useful services. All of these points are rightly reflected in the EU’s definition of smart cities [4].

The essential element of this conversation comes as soon as you move beyond the blandly technocratic word, “efficiency”. While efficiency is an admirable objective with multiple clear benefits, we have to ask, efficiency for whom, and with what long-term cost? We need, in the case of smart cities, to understand the type of data that is being collected, what it is utilised for, who it is shared with, who it is managed by, and how it is stored. Both city councils and citizens underestimate how and when data is collected as we move about the city [5] [6]. More problematically, data is also spoken of as a broad, single entity, whereas data and data collection can be classified into multiple categories such as environmental, geo-spatial, behavioural, etc. It is the behavioural category that poses the greatest risk to a more democratic form of digital transformation [7].

The smart city model, as it currently stands, is predominantly technocratic, with the human element being relegated to the background. In this tech-knows-best model, citizens play a minimal role as either consumers or generators of data with little or no agency. All of this data in turn generates private – not public – value that goes towards reinforcing the power of large tech corporations. There is therefore a need to make smart cities more civic by exploring how new technologies can be embedded into our cities with the intention of creating public value.

 

[1] Margetts, H. (2018). Rethinking democracy with social media. See: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-923X.12574

[2] Amensty International (2018). Toxic Twitter. See: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/research/2018/03/online-violence-against-women-chapter-5/

[3] Zuboff, S. interview with Naughton, J. (2019). ‘The goal is to automate us’: welcome to the age of surveillance capitalism. See: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/jan/20/shoshana-zuboff-age-of-surveillance-capitalism-google-facebook

[4] European Commission (n.d.) Smart Cities. See https://ec.europa.eu/info/eu-regional-and-urban-development/topics/cities-and-urban-development/city-initiatives/smart-cities_en

[5] Degli-Esposti & Ahmed Shaikh (2018). With smart cities, your every step will be recorded. See the conversation: http://theconversation.com/with-smart-cities-your-every-step-will-be-recorded-94527

[6] Naafs (2018). Living Laboratories: the Dutch cities amassing data on oblivious citizens. See the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/mar/01/smart-cities-data-privacy-eindhoven-utrecht

[7] Wylie (2018). How to build a democratic smart city. See Centre for International Governance Innovation https://www.cigionline.org/multimedia/how-build-democratic-smart-city

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