The shaky ground that digital democracies walk on
| 27 Jan 2022
By Samir Saran | 27 Jan 2022
A decade ago, the Arab Spring levelled the divide — even if briefly — between the Palace and the Street. Powered by social media, the age of digital democracy was upon us. Technology has since become the mainstay of civic activism. Not only are more voices heard, but elected governments are also more responsive to them. And indeed, in many countries, more people are participating in politics than ever before. From attitudes and approaches of platforms and governments to the proliferation of intrusive technologies that invade personal spaces, the gains of the past decade are nevertheless being undermined. The past year or so has made us acutely aware of the weaknesses and threats to digital democracies. Some of these need a coordinated global response.
First, the very platforms that have fuelled calls for accountability often see themselves as above scrutiny, bound not by democratic norms but by bottom lines. The fact is acquisition metrics and market valuations don’t sustain democracy. The contradiction between short-term returns on investment and the long-term health of a digital society is stark. If hate, violence, and falsehoods drive engagement, and, therefore, profits for companies and platforms, our societies are indeed on shaky ground.
To make technology serve democracy, regulation will have to be completely rethought. Big Tech boardrooms must be held to standards of responsible behaviour that match their power to influence and persuade. Moreover, any accountability framework must be global. The global south lives with and depends on technology platforms designed in the north. These platforms have been visibly taken to task by lawmakers and institutions in the countries of their design. Does the larger cohort of users in the developing and emerging democratic world have recourse to such action? And is this denial tenable and fair?
Second, much of Big Tech is designed and anchored in the United States (US). Understandably, it pushes American — or perhaps Californian — free speech absolutism. This is in conflict with laws in most democracies — including in the US after January 6. Most democratic constitutions around the world, while protecting expression, do so with safeguards that are meant to secure peace and co-existence in societies that have histories longer and more storied than America’s.
This American approach to freedom of expression imposed on other democratic societies, at velocities facilitated by technology, is a formula for serious disorder. If American Big Tech wishes to emerge as Global Tech, it must adhere to global democratic norms. Its normative culture must assimilate and reconcile, not prescribe and mandate. In the absence of such an understanding, a clash is but inevitable. It must be emphasised that the fault line would be social norms, not the benefits of technology.
If global democracy and global tech are to coexist, the global south must sit at the high table when regulations are designed and as ethics are embedded in algorithms. Today, the global south’s participation in policy and design decisions that shape our tech future is like the map of vaccinations in our pandemic world — significantly underrepresented in democratic Africa and Asia.
Finally, the greatest danger to the freedom our democracies enjoy is from authoritarian regimes that exploit our liberties and turn them against us. In the real world, Peng Shuai is under house arrest. But in the virtual world, she is presented as being free and happy. Wolf warriors have given a whole new meaning to the phrase “virtual reality”. Recently, an Indian speaker at a transportation conference in China found her microphone turned off because she questioned the Belt and Road Initiative. We are in an unprecedented political landscape where authoritarians weaponise our debates even as we are silenced in theirs. Would any country allow another to open an embassy if it did not have reciprocal rights in the other capital?
We are living in that perverse reality already. China’s media and government handles conduct aggressive diplomacy in our digital public sphere while we are denied the right to do so in theirs. Beijing and other authoritarian regimes are omnipresent in our digital lives. Their handles bombard us; their chosen narratives besiege and colour the truth. How can we prevent such regimes from gaming the public sphere, and from this perversion of institutions, academia, media, and tech platforms? Their presence on our platforms represents a systemic challenge and a security risk. It must be responded to.
The alleged disruption of America’s elections in 2016 will be child’s play as compared to what may happen in 2024. That year, India, the US and the European Union Parliament will all hold elections — the first such coincidence in the age of digital democracy. We face a perfect storm of misinformation and manipulation. Confronted by wolf warriors, the rest of us can’t be lambs to the slaughter. Open societies have always stoutly defended their borders. Now, they must safeguard these new digital frontlines. At the Summit for Democracy — called by President Joe Biden and addressed by, among others Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it was apparent to all that the democratic world needs to get its house in order. Even as democracies attend to this they need to ensure that other’s don’t burn the house down.
The Article first appeared in ORF
Samir Saran tweets at @Samirsaran