Let’s reset the internet and make sure it works for democracy

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Can elections be affected by advances in technology? Photo: UNDP Kyrgyzstan

Political polarization is inherent to democratic elections. In fact, elections wouldn’t be democratic in the absence of different – and even diametrically opposed - political opinions. It’s a necessary feature of healthy and open societies. Thus, it’s understood that during election campaigns, political parties and candidates compete to present the ideas they think will appeal the most.

In recent years, however, the impact of globalization and inequalities on politics and society has been the subject of many debates. According to Oxfam, for instance, the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few is entrenching influence in small but powerful political circles. In our region, Branko Milanovic has argued that when middle class citizens see the rich getting richer, they are more likely to vote for populists.

Rise of the bots

Social media is adding to this explosive mix. It comes with a ferocious manipulation of facts, underpinned by the rise of bots and rogue advertisers. These are exemplified by the recent headlines in the United States which we’ve all read.

The Oxford Dictionary considered this new trend so serious that in late 2016, it picked “post-truth” as its new word of the year, defined as “denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

Fake news undeniably threatens democracy, which relies on people knowing the facts so they can make informed decisions and have real debates, weighing the pros and cons of proposed measures. 

Online security as a prime concern

But there’s an added threat. Nowadays, many governments are willing to sacrifice individual freedoms in the name of national security. And large IT companies possess vast stores of individual financial and personal data. 

How long can it be before they decide to cooperate in pursuit of security, stability and profits? The ensuing abuse of personal data for both private gain and public malfeasance could easily mean a slide into Orwellian dystopias.

So, is the internet threatening both our security and our ability to talk to each other? The question is how to control the spread of disinformation and create a culture of trust, tolerance and security, without restricting democratic principles.

Here are a few ways in which this can be done:

  1. Many organizations now have entire teams dedicated to untangling myths. We need to invest in fact-checking as a vital journalistic function. 
  2. Hacking and interference in electoral processes should be prosecuted but the mechanisms for doing so rely on strong international cooperation.
  3. By the same token, it’s crucial nations work together to promote transparency about who advertises during elections
  4. Net neutrality - the difference between an open and free internet, and one whose content is dictated by big private companies – needs to be protected
  5. Human rights and cybersecurity need to be treated together, not separately
  6. Much of the work to promote trust needs to happen offline, by fostering a culture of communication and debate. 

Jakub Kalensky’s and Marju Lauristin’s upcoming Kapuscinski Development Lecture on “Disinformation in Democratic Societies” could hardly be more timely.

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