Digital technologies and the new public square: revitalising democracy?

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Over the past 15+ years, the world has witnessed an astonishing transformation in information and communications technologies (ICTs) across both developed and developing countries, including digitalization, mass-accessible internet, video platforms, smart phones, and social media. This has generated tremendous enthusiasm about the potential of ICTs – or as Larry Diamond has put it, “liberation technology” – to change the way in which people hold government authorities to account. Over time, however, unbridled techno-optimism has given way to more pessimistic appraisals about the impact of ICTs on governance and how technology may in fact undermine the quality of democratic processes and help to strengthen authoritarian practices.

So how is technology changing the ways that citizens organise, mobilise and engage politically? How have ICTs altered power relations, links between state and society, and the nature of participation, contestation and representation? These are questions that I explored in a 2018 Background Paper on “Digital technologies and the new public square: revitalising democracy?” for the Pathways for Prosperity Commission on Technology and Inclusive Development. The analysis below highlights key insights and findings from that research.

The promise of digital technologies

The promise of the ICT revolution is that more information will seamlessly lead to greater opportunities for collective action and progressive change. From this perspective, the proliferation and abundance of information provides individuals who have access to ICTs with an unprecedented number of options to exercise voice and influence in political processes. Thus, the argument goes, ICTs have great potential to enable collective mobilisation and to broaden political participation.

In principle, ICTs can profoundly democratise the public sphere because they make it possible for everyone, not just those perceived to be elites, to contribute to and shape ongoing debates. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have upended the relationship between political authority and popular will. The function of curating content has shifted from traditional mediating mechanisms or “gatekeepers” – such as newsroom editorial boards, journalists, or political parties – towards individuals and their social networks. In theory, this flattening of information hierarchies has the potential to make the political arena more open and accessible, expose people to more diverse viewpoints and enable them to connect across time and space at a speed and scale that was unimaginable before. In an age where long-established mediators, ranging from political parties and  traditional media to intellectual elites and experts, have become discredited in the eyes of populations across the world, ICTs provide innovative mechanisms to engage in the political arena in ways that transcend “politics as usual”. As the examples of movements like Black Lives Matter and Occupy illustrate, social media has proven essential in helping marginalised communities and less powerful groups to come together and make their voices heard, influence important policymaking agendas at both the domestic and international levels, and place inequality and justice at the centre of debates.

A variety of initiatives based on ICTs has also sprung in different countries and regions to promote social monitoring and greater citizen engagement and participation in decision-making processes and to foster more substantive links between citizens and sources of authority and representation. These experiences cover a diverse set of issues, including municipal problem solving (e.g. Cidade Democrática in Brazil), satisfaction with delivery of public services, complaint resolution mechanisms, and other forms of citizen monitoring (e.g. Reclamos! in Chile; Twaweza in East Africa), participatory budgeting, election integrity (e.g. Ushahidi), tracking of political candidates (e.g. Mumbai Votes), and open government (e.g. the Open Government Partnership)

Yet, for all the enthusiasm about the promise of digital technologies to transform the way in which citizens exercise voice, demand accountability, and act collectively to bring about change, fundamental questions remain around how ICTs are in fact redefining the public square. I turn to some of the most pressing ones below.

Who is talking?

There are a lot of assumptions about how ICTs are helping to foster a more inclusive, participatory and representative public square, giving voice to many that have traditionally remained more marginal. But who is actually participating, and whose voices are being heard? Available evidence suggests that, while digital technologies have empowered some groups and encouraged their participation in political processes, their democratising effects have remained limited, at least to date.

Above all, social media has been particularly transformational for young people and their political engagement. But ICTs are not reaching everyone equally, and there are still significant disparities in access and opportunity both between and within countries. Among other things, internet access remains much greater in wealthy countries than across the developing world. Moreover, within countries, power is not equal among all citizens. This means that some people and groups have greater access or are more influential through the use of ICTs than others. Emerging evidence suggests that politically marginalised groups (for example on the basis of ethnicity) tend to have significantly lower Internet penetration rates than others that enjoy greater standing, as a result of  persistent political bias in the allocation of coverage. More generally, research shows that ICTs tend to reinforce the socio-cultural, economic, and gendered environments in which they are embedded, which can entrench discrimination and social exclusion rather than increase accountability to the broader public. Not surprisingly, active ICT users tend to be urban, well-educated young men.

Let a thousand flowers bloom?

Over the past several years there have been growing concerns not only that ICTs may not be as transformational as tech-optimists had originally hoped, but that they may in fact aggravate the sense of political alienation and disillusionment that has become manifest all over the world, and actively undermine the quality of democratic politics. While ICTs have the potential to connect, unite, and harness collective action for progressive change, it has become increasingly clear that they can just as easily fragment, divide, and drive more exclusionary agendas.

One challenge is that the proliferation of views can become overwhelming. The articulation of so many diverse voices can lead to a cacophony of noise rather than the articulation of coherent ideas.  So, for instance, while citizens may be able to exert pressure on government authorities more directly and immediately, in the absence of a filter, it also becomes much more difficult to digest the volume of information and understand what issues are more pressing and why – which undermines the ability of government authorities to prioritise and respond accordingly.  Among other things, this can lead to the fragmentation of policy agendas and a focus on immediate, narrower and more personalised concerns at the expense of a more strategic and longer-term focus on the public good. There are also concerns that, by enabling direct linkages between voters and government officials, the mushrooming of ICTs may be unwittingly contributing to an ongoing weakening of parliaments and other formal checks and balances mechanisms. 

More fundamentally perhaps, two increasingly disruptive forces — anger over social changes that many perceive as a threat, and the perception that social media is upending the ways that ideas spread and communities form — are colliding. This has given rise to increasingly polarised and rancorous political climates and the creation of “filter bubbles” and/or “echo chambers” of ideologically like-minded people that make exposure to different ideas and attitude-changing information extremely difficult. These problems have been exacerbated by “fake news”.  Disinformation tends to stoke long-standing tensions and conflicts and feed divisions,  which can have profoundly detrimental effects on the quality of governance. This has been evident, for example, in the impact that “fake news” have had on electoral contests in democracies that are both more and less established, disseminating false narratives that create noise and exacerbate fragmentation and even violence. As several studies have documented, there has also been a disturbing rise in the incidence of riots, lynchings, and other manifestations of violence in countries ranging from India, Kenya, and Mexico to Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand that are instigated through hate speech, rumour, and “fake news” / (mis)information spread online.

(Financial) catch-22

While every story of misinformation and manipulation is unique, different stories share common characteristics related to how social media/ICTs can unintentionally amplify certain messages and tendencies that turn out to be dangerous. Some of these are anchored on uncomfortable tensions embedded in the way that social media platforms work given their business and financial models. As Amanda Taub explains in the particular case of Facebook: “Facebook’s news feed, for instance, runs on an algorithm that promotes whatever content wins the most engagement. Studies find that negative, primal emotions — fear, anger — draw the most engagement. So, posts that provoke those emotions rise naturally.”

This does not mean that platforms like Facebook, Twitter or Google intend to spread misinformation or feed intolerance and extremism. What they are interested in is maximising advertising revenues. Thus, these platforms are caught in a catch-22: on the one hand, there may be dismay at witnessing how social media can be exploited for unsavoury purposes – but on the other, bottom lines are improved by increasing user engagement, and people tend to be drawn to content that is more divisive. 

This puzzle of how social media giants can help to address social problems they have helped to exacerbate without hurting their revenues and growth is one of the leading challenges confronting reformers in this space. We are in the midst of a revolution in communications, and as such things feel extremely fluid and uncertain, with a tremendous amount of processing in real time as we try to adjust to shifting digital contexts. Yet, it is worth remembering that ICTs are not the first revolution of their kind to have challenged political systems. The printing press, the radio and television were all revolutionary in their day. All of those, disruptive as they may have seemed, were gradually regulated. How to do that now with ICTs has emerged as the new frontier, and as before, finding the right balance between different needs and priorities will be a matter of trial, error and learning.

Feeding the Leviathan?

It is also important to highlight that ICTs don’t only flourish in democracies or empower those with progressive agendas. While digital technologies may have helped to expose people in countries like China and Iran to banned news and critical opinions, social media manipulation has enabled authoritarian systems to continue to control political processes. They have done so not simply through more traditional – and blunt – methods like vote rigging, the cracking down of civic space, or the harassment of journalists, all of which are ongoing, but also through efforts to “win hearts and minds” and nurture popular support for the system through the use of ICTs.  More perversely, authoritarian leaders can use new technologies to track the whereabouts and actions of reform activists both inside and outside their borders., and to censor critics.  An example of this are attempts by a variety of governments in East Africa (Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania) to pass laws and impose taxes ostensibly to punish the spreading of “fake news” and to end “gossip” online. There is a danger that such measures are also intended to silence independent voices (e.g. bloggers) that may be critical of the political system.

So where does this leave us?

In his 1983 classic, Benedict Anderson argues that the arrival of the printing press in the Americas in the eighteenth century played a pivotal role in the birth of nationalism. While people across vast stretches of geographical space were not able to engage in face-to-face contact, the printing press enabled them to create a sense of nation across territories as “Imagined Communities” and to project an image of themselves as a collective. The advent of the digital revolution almost three centuries later seemed to offer similar promise to shape a new public square. In practice, however, instead of imagined communities, ICTs seem to be feeding atomised and polarised ones.

Yet reality is more complicated, and it is essential to develop more nuanced and realistic understandings of how ICTs affect governance dynamics and how they can bring about change – both positive and less so. 

Digital technologies are not responsible for creating social divides and fault-lines of conflict, and they cannot on their own solve the challenges of apathy, disillusionment, and distrust between people and those who rule them that have become entrenched across the world. Technologies may amplify or exacerbate certain kinds of social and human behaviour, but they do not create such behaviour. Rather, ICTs are but one of the many factors that shape the dynamic relationship between citizen voice, accountability and responsiveness. The crisis of the public square that we are witnessing globally  is deeply rooted in existing and underlying structures, institutions, and power relations. Getting to the core of when and how ICTs can help to make citizen engagement more effective – and for whom – means grappling with the underlying politics at play. The struggle for greater inclusion, accountability and representation is an ongoing process of negotiation and contestation; which, above all, is about altering existing power relations.

Relying on technological fixes is not enough to bring about change. The choice to engage people online or in person should not be binary or exclusionary – both mechanisms are essential and can be mutually reinforcing. As research from Kenya suggests, ICT-based solutions can widen the gap between government and citizens if offline methods to engage (around service provision, accountability, and so on) are scaled back. On the other hand, when offline approaches are combined with online efforts to reach out to those who lack digital skills or access, they tend to be more successful in terms of widening participation and becoming more representative. This can be seen clearly in examples like the Black Lives Matter and other social movements mentioned above. And as Idayat Hassan and Jamie Hitchen have noted in the case of the Gambia, social media working closely with offline structures and actors was key in bringing the opposition together and ousting Yahya Jammeh through elections in 2016.

Perhaps more fundamentally, as the Gambian example also suggests, collective organization and leadership are essential in fostering sustainable change. The fate of the failed revolution in Egypt is illustrative. What made the movement that ousted Mubarak from power strong and compelling to begin with – its diffuse and transient nature and flat structure – eventually became its weakness. Protestors, mostly brought together through online networks, lacked clear leadership and representation, which made meaningful negotiation with established power holders extremely difficult. Those who started the revolution in the streets harnessing the power of ICTs were side-lined by groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and, eventually, the military once again, both of which had much clearer and much more effective organisational capacity. This is ultimately why, in Malcolm Gladwell’s  memorable phrase, “the revolution will not be tweeted”, and the struggle for democracy, in the region and beyond, remains as traditional as ever.

Alina Rocha Menocal is a Principal Research Fellow in Politics and Governance at the Overseas Development Institute.

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