FRI 16 - 4 - 2021
Nov 26, 2020
The Daily Star
Democracy in the digital era
Dima El Hassan
Digital technology has made our lives much easier, more open and just. But at the same time, it has affected our privacy, choices and liberty. The internet has increased our distraction, isolation and dependence to the extent that it changed how we interact with the world. It has increasingly shaped political action and how democracy works.
Democracy is about liberty, people’s choice and equality. It is based on the concept that the person is sovereign and free to think on his own. And that’s what digital technology targets by reshaping how people look, feel and think.
The report on “Digital Globalization: The New Era of Global Flows,” by McKinsey Global Institute on March 2016, emphasizes that while we are entering a phase of “digital globalization” defined by the flows of data and information, digital data generates more economic value than physical goods in global trade. This implies enormous changes. Anyone with access to internet can enter the global market. The McKinsey report shows that total cross-border bandwidth used has increased 45 times since 2005. However, only few tech leading corporations possess the data, often with their supported governments.
As such, human privacy is threatened by the “digital surveillance” infrastructure. From computers to mobile phones to sensors at homes to satellites, it seems impossible to avoid surveillance by governments and/or their corporate tech partners. While it can be beneficial to the economy and national security this “digital surveillance” can easily lead to our privacy getting exposed. It can even create a monitoring system that may keep every citizen under observation for 24 hours per day, like in China. People who intuitively accept the “digital transformation” of themselves become mere data, programmed and controlled by the hands of a few. And since tech corporations and governments often have agendas that serve the goals of those in power rather than democratic ones, this data can be easily exploited to serve to that end.
Robert Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology emphasized in a canvassing by the Pew Research center in 2019 that national elections in the world are being determined by Google’s search engine. He even shows that Google search results can simply “shift 20% of undecided voters - without their knowledge - to up to 80% in some areas.” If this is so, then by 2030, the citizens of the world will no longer determine who wins an election and how democracy is run, since the search engine can be manipulated to favor a certain party.
Digital technology also affects the democracy process by influencing political mobilization and campaigns, creating political polarization, and manipulating people’s choices and opinions. Social media and big data for instance have played a crucial role in the US elections for more than a decade. The 2020 elections can easily be named a digital election. It has changed the way political actors mobilize support and conduct their campaign as well as the way people form opinions and vote.
The digital divide can also fuel political polarization between winners and losers. Polarization affects how citizens make decisions by reducing the range of opinions one is exposed to. In fact, leading corporations such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and others use artificial intelligence algorithms to collect data on people’s activities, then personalize the information each person is exposed to, according to his/her interests, and needs. While people may think that this process is made to ensure the person gets only what conforms with his personality and desires, saving him time and effort, it has actually isolated people in information “filter bubbles” in which they are only exposed to what they believe in, and never to opposite views. What is worse is that it forces people to believe that what they see is the undeniable truth, reinforcing differences between parties and making no room for compromises. This can lead to a total collapse of the society at large.
“Technology such as social media lets you go off with like-minded people, so you’re not mixing and sharing and understanding other points of view,” said Bill Gates, Microsoft’s chief executive officer, in a recent interview with Quartz electronic journal.
Nevertheless, if we are to live in a digital era that also promotes democracy with all its means, then laws must be created to govern the digital world, driven by the partnerships among governments, businesses and civil society. Finland, for instance, has been the first country in the world since 2001 to make “broadband internet” a legal right for every citizen. Internet services as such are no longer just for amusement, they enter in every aspect of life, and a Finn’s privacy is respected by law.
No doubt that digital technology has become an essential element in our lives; it has facilitated collective action in many countries, especially in the staging of protests, from the Arab Spring revolutions to the recent protests following the death of George Floyd in the United States. It connects people together, enables them to talk, share their views and be heard. However, it can also manipulate them and shape their thoughts and perceptions, threatening the core principle of democracy. To remain a powerful tool for the masses, it has to be framed as an international law protecting the right of every human to be a human.
Dima El Hassan works at the Hariri Foundation for Sustainable Human Development.
The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the Arab Network for the Study of Democracy
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