It is unfortunate that the term ‘digital democracy’ is often equated with social media, since if this were true it would mean that democracy is a form of government in which the vast majority of people are relegated to engaging in meaningless chatter, while an extremely narrow subset make the decisions. Indeed, according to this conception of ‘digital democracy’, democracy would be reduced to nothing more than a collection of armchair generals dispensing Twitter threads on everything from epidemiology to land warfare tactics to artificial intelligence in an endless battle of petty point-scoring.
This strange understanding of ‘digital democracy’ is all the more astounding, as, prior to the invention of the Internet, we did not view democracy purely as a talking shop. Instead, we viewed democracy as rule by the people, a form of government in which popular will was translated into policy following the ascertainment of that will by voting. While only a tiny fraction of the population took part in public debate (e.g. writing opinion pieces in newspapers or giving public speeches), in many countries 70-80% of enfranchised adults voted in elections.
My new book, Digital Democracy: Theory and Case Studies, argues that to make democracy digital does not require us to invent profit-driven online forums like Twitter or Facebook for the sake of facilitating highly asymmetrical public speech, but instead to provide a system via which popular will can be transparently measured and translated into political action.
Moving from analogue to digital
The evolution from analogue to digital is itself only desirable, because the conventional system of representative democracy, currently used in most nations, has not remained static. Instead, it has all too often been subject to capture by a narrow subset of ‘elites’ (see e.g. the infamous Page and Gilens ‘oligarchy’ study), who have successfully pushed for political decision-making to be increasingly bureaucratized and internationalized. This has relocated competency and control of political decision-making to supranational bodies (such as the European Union), independent bodies (such as the Federal Reserve and European Central Bank) and courts, while simultaneously constraining state behaviour via international treaties, particularly around trade.
This is now the case in nearly all countries, but it is particularly true of those that are less economically and militarily powerful. Not only do the people of such nations (who form the majority of the global population) have to contend with their own domestic power-brokers, they are often subject to directives pushed down on them from other nations, as well as from international organizations like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, not to mention foreign NGOs and corporations.
None of those actors work within the legal structures of democracy. Instead, they often deal directly with elected representatives behind closed doors, bringing an enormous amount of resources to bear on the situation when they do. For many countries, therefore, electing national representatives (even in a situation where we would imagine this occurring fairly and flawlessly) is not always sufficient to bring about a meaningful democracy, because once in office, even high-minded and well-intentioned representatives are subject to bribes and bullying by other forces. The general population, meanwhile, often lacks effective mechanisms to counteract this pressure.
We can see this most clearly in developing countries, which have explicitly subordinate positions at international bodies like the United Nations and IMF (where the bullying and bribing of representatives has been well-documented). However, even in Western countries, the population is increasingly losing control of their elected representatives. At least 25,000 lobbyists are registered in Brussels, the heart of European Union decision-making, alone, and they spend $3.6 billion dollars a year on their efforts to influence policy. It is not enough to focus on making elections free and fair, when those with sufficient resources can simply bypass this process and directly pressure anyone who is elected during times when voters are relegated to passivity and without the means to counteract their influence.
The accountability problem
It is this ever-widening accountability problem that is the only reason why doing things digitally is at all relevant to democracy. The accountability that elections provide was never quite enough to cope with the plethora of international actors and pressures that bring themselves to bear on decision-making. Thus, we need to shorten that accountability chain and give people a more direct route to decision-making, so that their wishes and the policy they live under line up.
Of course, it is not absolutely necessary to use technology to achieve this.
Unlike most other European countries, the Irish constitution demands that any transfer of power to the European level must be approved by the population in referendums, which occur conventionally using paper ballots. At times, such integration has been rejected, and Ireland, a country of merely 5 million inhabitants (compared to an EU population of 450 million), has been able to obtain concessions in exchange for a yes vote.
One of the key concessions has been an exception to participating in an EU army. As a formerly colonized country, generally speaking, Ireland is against colonization, against imperial aggression, and against militarization as a component of foreign policy. For the same reasons, Ireland supports peacekeeping, and is by far the most sympathetic of all Western nations to the plight of occupied peoples wherever they are.
While Ireland is far from perfect, the mandatory referendum system on this point has, thus far, allowed voters to counteract immense pressure from the EU and NATO to join military alliances. Without this system in which popular will can effectively counteract this pressure, politicians would have doubtless folded long ago and we would be living in a very different world, in which political preferences would not necessarily be reflected in actual policy.
As this indicates, it is certainly possible to have democracy without advanced technology.
Democracy, technology, and education
More important still, democracy does not demand a particularly high degree of education. At the time that the referendum system was anchored in the constitution, Ireland was one of the least educated countries in Europe. Indeed, the entire nation was considered backward, and Irish people were often explicitly discriminated against by other Europeans. Similarly, although the ancient Athenian system of classic direct democracy is admired precisely because it was sophisticated for its time, a large proportion of Athenians were illiterate, and, in fact, frequently voted by show of hands or variations of the same type of ball and urn system used for elections in Gambia today.
The level of education in most Western countries was also significantly lower in past decades than it is today – yet democracy and the state of politics generally was in better shape. The reason for this does not lie in how much people know, but in how much they are able to use the knowledge they have to affect their lives. This is why concepts that believe formal education leads to a magic tipping point at which people are ‘ready’ for democracy are so flawed – it simply doesn’t correspond to how things have evolved in real life.
While public speech, electoral representation, and education, are all important things, they are not unto themselves democracy. Democracy must include the components of mass decision-making and implementation of those decisions.
Defenders of so-called ‘elite’ decision-making often like to say that democracy is not just about the numbers, but democracy is exactly about numbers – numbers are the only thing that poor people have. They do not have wealth, and they do not have connections, but they do have a vote. The ability to exercise that vote in the interests of getting their needs and interests fulfilled, is not counter to democracy, but its highest ideal. But they need to be able to do it often enough and with enough specificity to really have an impact.
Technology, fraught as it is, with its own challenges, can facilitate that exercise, simply because it is more efficient than offline processes are by several orders of magnitude.
However, practicing digital democracy effectively means ditching the commercialized services that can be easily disrupted, and utilizing end-to-end decision-making tools that make fraudulent behaviour much more difficult. Fortunately, this is entirely possible: plenty of online tools exist that utilize rigorous identification procedures while providing paths for people to initiate measures, debate, vote and implement them bottom-up. We’ve detailed many of these tools over the years at SDI, from ManaBalss in Latvia to Decidim in Catalonia to Ethelo and Placespeak in Canada.
Some of these tools, particularly those associated with participatory budgeting, allow municipalities to decide on where to allocate their own taxes. From organizing sporting activities to making decisions on building regulations, traffic measures and poverty alleviation, to stocking libraries and campaigning for health facilities for neglected needs, those who have utilized these tools have had a measurable impact on policy. There are also tested methods for structuring participation and preventing cheating in such decisions – rapidly and randomly rotating panels of overseers, for example.
As for vote-buying, again, it is fortunate that the more often one needs to buy votes, the more expensive it gets. In Switzerland, the country often regarded as the home of modern direct democracy, with up to a dozen referendums a year, one can see large corporations spending on referendums important to them – but the more frequently they have to do it, the more their resources are drained and the more mistakes they make. Making life hard for those who would cheat and exploit the system makes a difference – it especially makes a difference over time.
The future of democracy in Africa
Like many people, when it comes to democracy, I have substantial hope for African nations, despite the fact that infrastructure of all kinds is not always as widespread as in other parts of the world. Part of that, of course, is simply the need to have some hope for somewhere in this world, and the human tendency to imbue far away places with all of the qualities you feel are missing in the ones close by. But another important factor is that at least people living in African nations realize they have political problems, and the person on the street rarely feels the need to minimize the impact of corruption or hope that things will somehow magically improve of their own accord (a common thought pattern among North Americans and Europeans). In States where elections are often openly corrupt, it stands to reason that people have less to lose and more to gain from trying something new.
Moreover, if making decisions directly and communally sounds like many traditional forms of government, including in parts of Africa, it is because it is. Democratic decision-making is arguably the oldest form of politics there is, and it has continued to be practiced sporadically all over the world throughout history. Whether a Landsgemeinde in Switzerland or an Igbo meeting in West Africa, the idea is the same: people communicate directly with each other on the issues of the day and try to come to some kind of conclusion they can all agree on enough to take effective action. Of course, some people’s community standing and thus their contributions have always carried more weight than others, but this is still very different than those forms of government where a ruler makes a decision unilaterally, and you find out about it later, if at all. It’s far better to act in your own interests even half competently than to have someone else act against your interests with great competence.
It’s become a bland truism to say that there is a lot of potential in Africa – few people would disagree with that statement. The natural resources of the African continent alone are staggering, to say nothing of a young and vibrant workforce. But I personally believe that how that potential translates into more egalitarian, wealthier, happier, peaceful societies will depend on people being able to access structures where they – and not the NGOs, foreign aid parties, or investors, however well-meaning – wield the ultimate decision-making power over their lives. And that is going to require real democracy.
Dr. Roslyn Fuller is the author of several books, including Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed its Meaning and Lost its Purpose and In Defence of Democracy. She manages the Solonian Democracy Institute, a member-funded think tank based in Dublin that promotes the research of alternative democratic practices.
Her latest book, Principles of Digital Democracy, is now available from deGruyter. Until the end of the year, those interested in the book can use code ‘PDD20’ to receive 20% off the hardcopy version or ‘PDD80’ for an 80% discount off the PDF version.