If, on this Monday in an election year, you are hopeful that technology and the internet will improve democracy in the next decade, you’re in the minority.
A new Pew Research Center report (done in partnership with Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center) surveyed hundreds of technology experts about whether or not digital disruption will help or hurt democracy by 2030. Of the 979 responses, about 49 percent of these respondents said use of technology “will mostly weaken core aspects of democracy and democratic representation in the next decade” while 33 percent said the use of technology “will mostly strengthen core aspects of democracy.” The remaining 18 percent expect no significant change in the next decade.
Since this was a targeted survey of industry professionals and thought leaders, Pew makes it clear that these results don’t reflect a consensus among a general population.
Jonathan Morgan, a senior design researcher at the Wikimedia Foundation, explained his reasoning behind why he thinks technology will continue to hurt democracy in this way:
I’m primarily concerned with three things.
1) The use of social media by interested groups to spread disinformation in a strategic, coordinated fashion with the intent of undermining people’s trust in institutions and/or convincing them to believe things that aren’t true.
2) The role of proprietary, closed platforms run by profit-driven companies in disseminating information to citizens, collecting information from (and about) citizens, and engaging political stakeholder groups.
These platforms were not designed to be “digital commons,” are not equally accessible to everyone and are not run for the sake of promoting social welfare or broad-based civic participation. These companies’ profit motives, business models, data-gathering practices, process/procedural opacity and power (and therefore, resilience against regulation undertaken for prosocial purposes) make them poorly suited to promoting democracy.
3) The growing role of surveillance by digital platform owners (and other economic actors that collect and transact digital trace data) as well as by state actors, and the increasing power of machine learning-powered surveillance technologies for capturing and analyzing data, threaten the public’s ability to engage safely and equitably in civic discussions.
Meanwhile, a respondent identified only as “an internet pioneer based in North America” had this to say:
I am deeply concerned that democracy is under siege through abuse of online services and some seriously gullible citizens who have trouble distinguishing fact from fiction or who are wrapped up in conspiracy theories or who are unable or unwilling to exercise critical thinking…
We are seeing erosion of trust in our institutions, fed in part by disinformation and misinformation campaigns designed to achieve that objective and to stir dissent.
We are seeing social networking systems that provoke feedback loops that lead to extremism. Metrics such as “likes” or “views” or “followers” are maximized through expression of extreme content. Trolls use media that invite commentary to pump poison into discussion.
Constant cyberattacks expose personal information or enable theft of intellectual property. Tools to facilitate cyberattacks are widely available and used to create botnets, generate denial of service attacks, spread malware, conduct ransom demands and a host of other harmful things. Law enforcement is challenged in part by the transnational nature of the internet/web and lack of effective cooperative law enforcement agreements across national boundaries.
Privacy is abused to commit crimes or other harmful acts. At the same time, privacy is extremely hard to come by given the ease with which information can be spread and found on the net. Nation-states and organized crime are actively exploiting weaknesses in online environments. Ironically, enormous amounts of useful information are found and used to good effect all the time, in spite of the ills listed above.
The challenge we face is to find ways to preserve all the useful aspects of the internet while protecting against its abuse. If we fail, the internet will potentially devolve into a fragmented system offering only a fraction of its promise. In the meantime, democracy suffers.
It gets worse when respondents are specifically asked about journalism. They saw no solutions to the problems caused by social media and the decline of trust in news. University of Pennsylvania communications professor Joseph Turow said customized political marketing and antidemocratic interventions will be an impossible issue for journalists to address through their reporting.
I fear that a combination of political-marketing interests and antidemocratic forces within the U.S. and outside will create an environment of concocted stories (often reflecting conspiracy theories) targeted in hyper-personalized ways. The situation will make it virtually impossible for the press and civic groups to track and/or challenge lies or highlight accurate claims effectively to the electorate because there will be so many mass-customized variants, and because news audiences will be so fragmented.
At the same time, people running for election will convince a significant percentage of the population to refuse to deal with or to confuse pollsters that don’t represent their constituencies. These long-term dynamics will undermine our traditional sense of an open and democratic election — though politicians encouraging the dynamics will insist the system remains open and democratic. I fear regulations will not be able to mitigate these problems.
David Eaves, a public policy entrepreneur expert in information technology and government at Harvard’s Kennedy School, said:
I see technology having three drivers:
1) Destroying the business model of the mainstream press and resurrecting the partisan press of the late 18th and early 19th century.
2) Social and online media, combined with polling and increasingly big data, tilting power away from representatives and toward the executive branch, which, with more relative resources, can ‘know’ more about constituents than their representatives and being able to connect directly with them.
3) Online tracking and facial-recognition software reducing privacy and thus increasing the long-term social, political and economic costs of dissenting or protesting. All of these could pose threats to our democratic institutions, but they are likely also manageable and could even be harnessed to improve representation.
You can read the full report here.