October 2023

Democracy in the digital age

In its latest online debate, The Democracy Forum gathered a panel of experts to discuss the impact of the Internet, both positive and negative, on the democratic process

As the Internet becomes an integral source of news and information, slowly replacing traditional forms of media, The Democracy Forum’s latest webinar explored the role of the Net in relation to democracy, considering its role as a positive tool, a polarising force, or both.

Introducing the debate, the Forum’s President Lord Bruce spoke of the ubiquitous reach of social media into all corners of daily life, with staggering numbers accessing sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. There is little doubt that the Internet has reshaped the public arena, he added, and has inevitably led to democratisation in terms of content distribution, as well as availability of high-speed information flows. But, given the difficulty of controlling such flows, what does this all mean for the political space? Referring to research published by the Oxford Internet Institute, Lord Bruce said that the manipulation of public opinion over social media remains a critical threat to democracy: in 81 countries the Institute found evidence that ‘social media is utilised to spread computational propaganda and disinformation about politics’.

Perhaps the most insidious threat posed by the Internet to the stability of civil society, he argued, is exposed by the writer James Williams in his polemical essay ‘Stand Out of Our Light’, which examines the impact represented by the sheer volume of digital media that people freely consume, and suggests that our generation risks losing ‘the freedom of the mind… the first freedom upon which freedom of expression depends’, thus threatening the integrity of article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where the ‘Will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government’. Having also addressed the degree of social media interference in the functioning of democracy, as exposed in the US presidential election and the UK referendum on leaving the EU, Lord Bruce concluded by warning that it is no longer about if this will happen again. Of course it will – indeed, it hasn’t stopped. The question is whether our political systems, society, democracy will, or can, survive the age of Facebook.

Panellists at TDF’s Sept. 26 webinar on the Internet’s impact on democracy

Challenging some of these thoughts and going against the grain of popular commentary was Helen Margetts, Professor of Society and the Internet at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. In offering a view that was more positive than many current assessments of the Internet’s role in the decline of democracy, she broke down the idea of democracy into its two defining characteristics: popular control and political equality of that control. Vis-à-vis the notion of popular control, Margetts argued that social media and other digital platforms allow tiny speech acts of participation, which in some sense democratise politics. The Internet has opened up a ladder of participation, in which people without much time or money can ‘like’ or follow opinions, or express concern, so that someone with no greater resources than a mobile phone can, in a tiny way, fight injustice. When such things scale up, they can make politicians and policy makers listen, and sometimes change policies. In that sense – citizens speaking and governments listening – the Internet has been helpful for the popular control side of democracy.

A handful of private media companies have a lot of power in regulating online speech

Regarding political equality, Margetts considered what drives political pathologies such as echo chambers, extremism and polarisation, which all fundamentally threaten equality. We should look back at the flaws in our democratic systems to find answers. There is a lot of evidence that offline echo chambers or filter bubbles are no worse than the Internet in driving polarisation – for instance, getting all one’s news from a single newspaper or TV source. It is the same with political parties, which have become engines of political polarisation. So, while the Internet can drive polarisation, we need to look back at the long-standing tensions of democracy and think about the interaction. As for what we can do about this, Margetts concluded that every democratic institution needs to accommodate this huge burst of technology, which puts pressure on institutions to change. – something with which our system has not dealt well.

We should moderate digital content for democracy and equality, not for polarisation

Andreu Casas, a Lecturer in Political Communication at Royal Holloway, University of London, examined content moderation – particularly political content – by social media companies. We know that today, compared to earlier times, social media platforms are becoming crucial in people’s political lives, with around 40 per cent of the UK public now relying on social media for political information and engagement. We have a handful of private media companies that have a lot of power in regulating online speech, which is a big part of our overall political speech. These companies are private, so there is a lack of transparency regarding their content moderation policies. While they do put out public information, said Casas, it is very curated. So, as far as polarisation is concerned, this leaves the door open for claims about content moderation running wild. An example is Trump supporters in the US claiming that their voices are being silenced, which happens with many ideologies.

This lack of transparency means we cannot assess the extent to which these kinds of claims are true, and as social media platforms focus so much on moderating content, they may be pushing users towards others platforms that might lead to even greater radicalisation. Casas gave the example of Ukraine and Russia, where it is difficult to get an accurate picture of what is happening. By not allowing extreme groups and their views onto mainstream social media, we just drive them to niche social platforms, which risks radicalising them even further and increasing their support. If we don’t understand where people are coming from, concluded Casas, it becomes difficult to engage with them.

For Shannon C. McGregor, an Associate Professor at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, University of North Carolina, the focus was on challenging the notion that polarisation should always be the chief concern of social media companies and platforms, and for researchers in this space. Any consideration of the harmful effects of polarisation, she argued, must also address the fact that political equality has, historically, been far longer-lasting and destabilising. You can’t sacrifice equality, justice and moving towards a more democratic society on the altar of social cohesion. Going to the extremes, McGregor said, can be a very important part of democracy. Stability can be the entrenchment of injustice, so polarisation can be a good thing, while moderating polarisation can be detrimental. Rather, we should moderate digital content for democracy and equality, not for polarisation, since the polarisation narrative privileges unity, social cohesion etcover political equity.

Trump supporters in the US claim their voices are being silenced on social media
Trump supporters in the US claim their voices are being silenced on social media

Why then, asked McGregor, should the role of platforms in polarisation be our primary concern? They obscure the real threats to democracy, and blaming things on social media rather than our own democratic backsliding is problematic.

Emeritus Reader in Politics & International Studies at the University of Warwick Dr Peter Ferdinand shone a light on the challenges posed by the Internet to existing democratic institutions, asking why people should join political parties when they have far more direct impact through social media, andbringing in examples such as Italy and Taiwan. Italy was a more negative illustration, in that the use of the Internet by the Five Star movement, then its imitation by other groups or parties, has contributed to a weakening ofinstitutions without the re-establishment of any kind of viable alternative. Taiwan, on the other hand, was a more positive example,in that the president has tried to promote the use of digital technologyas a way of opening up political spaces and encouraging political debate andconstructive political decisions, rather than encouraging political division

Ultimately, he impact of the Internet depends on the robustness of already existing democratic institutions, Ferdinand argued, with the challenge greatest for political parties, because the Internet has strengthened the ability of civil society to make an impact upon democratic decision-making and has widened the opportunities for individuals to make contributions. In conclusion, Ferdinand said we need to learn how to improve representative democracy, rather than simply democracy.

Summing up, TDF Chair Barry Gardiner MP addressed online peer pressure, and pondered the links between open and closed content. As we plunge into ever darker chasms on the Internet, Gardiner wondered whether we should actually be looking at the way people are getting sucked down rabbit holes into these chasms, and if moderation should begin there. Referring to mention of Russia during the webinar, Gardiner argued that, if we don’t understand or listen to the other side, we cannot hope to persuade them of alternative viewpoints.

Yvonne Gill is a freelance journalist based in London