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2024 is going to be a big year for elections. There’ll be polls for presidents or parliaments in more than 60 countries, including some that will have a serious impact on geopolitics and more.

Politics in the United States are so polarised today that the outcome of its presidential election next November will have a major impact on prospects for international cooperation, on conflicts round the world, on climate change, even digital development. There are big elections too in other countries with polarised electorates, among them Britain, India, Indonesia, Iran, South Africa.

Digital transformation’s significant here as it is in other spheres. Does it help or hinder democratic processes? What’s at play and what’s at stake?

What’s to be concerned about

A functioning democracy, of course, requires much more than an election now and then. The rule of law, equal participation and opportunity to participate in decision-making, respect for human rights and for minorities, free media and freedom for civil society to organise, an independent legal system, accountability and transparency. These are also often cited.

Many people in democratic societies see these things as benchmarks, and many in authoritarian societies wish that they could do so. But it’s worth remembering that they’re recent, partial and frequently fragile. If they’re valuable, they’re also vulnerable.

Digital optimism

There was a time, around the turn of the century, when there was lots of optimism about the impact that the internet would have on democratic institutions: belief that the upsurge in availability of information would enable citizens to hold the powerful to account, enthusiasm about new forms of political organisation and the potential for a more direct democracy in which more issues could be subject to a public vote and public votes need no longer mean queueing in the heat and rain.

Power structures would be disrupted and uprooted, it was suggested; democracy rekindled and revitalised. A decade later, social media platforms were credited with accelerating such a new dynamic, particularly in the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ that (temporarily at least) cost or threatened several authoritarian regimes.

And since?

But it hasn’t really turned out quite as optimists expected. The democratic changes that followed the Arab Spring have not been sustained. Rights organisations like Freedom House report “democratic decline” and a rise in authoritarian government during the last decade and a half.

Even countries with established democratic institutions have seen a rise in what’s sometimes called ‘illiberal democracy’, in which governments elected by majorities have undermined the democratic rights and roles of their opponents and minorities. Populist/anti-establishment parties on the right have increased support and found themselves in or near to government, while those on the left and many centrist parties have been faltering.

One think tank head summarises what has happened thus: “…truth and trust have been eroded, democracy has failed to reform for the digital age and the relationship between those in power and those who elect them is strained to breaking point.”

A quarter century of the internet, in short, hasn’t enabled the anticipated upsurge in democracy; if anything, it’s coincided with decline. Whatever happened to the optimism?

Technology and society

One answer is that the optimists misunderstood relationships between technology and society. Technology’s enabling or empowering, sure, but the questions that arise from that concern who is most enabled or empowered, how so and with what impact.

Those who already hold power in societies are generally better placed than those who’re marginalised to maximise the value of new tech, which makes the democratic impact of digitalisation much less certain than optimists anticipated.

Let’s take two assumptions that lay behind their optimism: that the availability of more information would lead people to make better informed choices, and that this would change the nature of political power.

The ways we handle information

That word information’s problematic. It sounds positive: information is a good thing, we feel sure, which will help us to achieve things. And there’s a ring of objectivity or truth or trust about the word. It’s reassuring.

But not everything online is ‘information’ that will do us good. ‘Content’ is a better term because it doesn’t have that ring about it; it’s more neutral; we might find it good or bad for us.

People pay attention to content that really matters to them: information on the price of goods they need to buy or sell, for instance, their health or their employment prospects, things that affect them and their families directly. Otherwise, for most, it's entertainment not political debate that is more salient.

We haven’t got the time

Anyone who’s been a candidate in an election (as I have) knows most people have little time to spare for politics – the time to read manifestos, go to public meetings, analyse issues in depth or check the veracity of what they read or hear or see.

Political communication’s not, therefore, about sophisticated argument but about short, sharp messaging that gets readers' attention and sticks in minds. Soundbites influence opinions more than complex arguments; emotional responses resonate more readily than analysis backed up by evidence.

The availability of more sophisticated information and analysis doesn’t make it influential, or even more influential than it used to be. To be influential it has to hit a nerve and do so quickly.

This lies behind some fairly common observations about the impact social media’s had on public opinion:

  • that people burrow into ‘echo chambers’ that reinforce existing views rather than engaging with alternatives;

  • that what matters to social media platforms and their advertisers is grabbing the attention of their users rather than informing them;

  • that lies (which can be soundbites) become more influential than facts (which need substantiation);

  • that virality can trump veracity and often does.

The way that information’s used

And what of that second assumption about the nature of political power?

Power structures matter just as much in digital society as ever. Those who hold power relinquish it reluctantly and have resources to maintain it using new technology. Those who seek it (for whatever reason) are more likely to come from communities with income, education and connections than those who're focused on day-to-day survival.

Influencers aren’t a new phenomenon with social media. They’ve always been important in democracies, from clever orators in ancient Athens to newspaper proprietors, editors and columnists in the 20th century. When Britain’s Conservative Party unexpectedly won re-election thirty years ago, the headline in the Sun newspaper (a tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch) proudly claimed that “It’s the Sun wot won it.” Proprietors and editors in other countries often seek the same degree of influence (and are willing to tolerate financial losses for the chance to gain it).

Is everyone an influencer now?

The internet and social media have provided new platforms for ‘influencers’ and to some extent democratised access to influence by increasing opportunities for more people to engage with wider audiences. As expected by digital optimists, this has enabled marginalised communities to reach out to public opinion in ways that they could not previously do: an important gain for democratic inclusion.

But it has facilitated political voices that were previously marginalised for rather different reasons. Groups on the far right have proved more adept at leveraging social media than mainstream politicians or those on the left. Conspiracy theories have flourished. Language – including racist and misogynistic language – that had become toxic by the turn of the century has returned to political debate in many democratic countries.

The boundaries between what’s said on social media and what appears on other platforms is also porous. Newspapers, broadcasters and social media platforms (particularly Twitter/X) feed off each other in an evolving media ecosystem.

Foreign influence/interference

Nor is digital influence confined by geographic borders. It's clear that foreign interests – government rivals and commercial interests – have sought to influence the course of political debates and (thereby) the outcomes of elections in countries that are not their own.

Such interference is profoundly undemocratic: it seeks to reduce a country’s citizens’ agency in selecting their own government. Again, there is nothing new in this, but democratic systems have been slow to find ways of identifying and addressing the risks of interference that come with new technologies that are unbound by boundaries.

And then there is AI

Two things make the coming year especially significant in this context. One is the large number of elections that are due. The other’s the potential impact of AI. As in every other area, that impact is uncertain, but some things are becoming clear.

Political campaigns are being fought increasingly online. Messages are targeted at individual voters, using marketing techniques that build profiles from personal data gathered by parties and/or platforms. This makes them more effective but also less accountable. It may be permitted in election law but, if it is, should be transparent, clearly understood by voters, with content that is verifiable and falls within that law.

Other abuses are becoming more apparent. Technology’s sufficiently advanced today for deepfakes to be credible. We’ve already seen examples outside election times of fake audio and video, in which politicians appear to say things that they’d never say.

Again, there’s nothing new in this. False statements have always been made during election campaigns (here’s an example from the 1920s). The question’s whether the capabilities of new technology are sufficient to make them significantly more credible today (or seem to be for many people), and how that’s going to affect elections, particularly where the margin between defeat and victory is slight (as may well be the case in the United States) and where influence is exercised from abroad.

This is not just, of course, to do with what politicians and their parties do officially. Most are likely to tread with care around what is legitimate and worry about what would not look good to voters if revealed. Problems are at least as likely to come from other actors, particularly those on political extremes who want to discredit those they’re most opposed to and aren’t bothered if they break the rules.

How to respond?

Elections held next year will be something of a testbed. They’ll show how and where digitalisation and online media are currently impacting democratic processes and give a hint of how that might evolve.

Some of the risks are evident, though we should also not forget the optimism that was once more prevalent. The goal should be to maximise the latter where there’s opportunity while taking care to minimise the former. Three suggestions, then. One short term, one medium, one long.

In the short term

The shorter term one's to observe, understand and learn from what happens in the elections to be held next year. 

Electoral commissions need to be alert to what’s happening within digital campaigns and intervene when this goes beyond election law. It won’t be easy to do this in real time and responding after an election’s over is too late. What they do will be politically contentious. I doubt that the resources are in place, or the modalities required for observation.

Independent researchers need to track and analyse what happened after elections, to look for opportunities and tease out problems. A role for academics, media and independent research centres.

In the medium term

Electoral laws need revision, in the medium term, like laws in other areas, to adjust to new realities.

This could include new ways of voting, including online voting where appropriate and fully verifiable. But it should also address changes in election governance – such as rules concerned with expenditure and the transparency and integrity of election materials – so that those rules are fit for the digital age and ensure what can be done online complies with what’s allowed offline. Risks to privacy will also matter.

In the long term

And the third, long term, suggestion concerns ways to improve the quality of political engagement.

A lot gets said about media and digital literacy in this context, but most of what’s proposed will take a long time to make a difference and always come down to what citizens feel they need to do. Hard-pressed voters who’re not activists are unlikely to devote more time to political choices than is absolutely necessary. Politicians and those who want to influence their choices, by contrast, will find time to finesse the margins of what is allowed and what is not. Their culture and behaviour also needs to be addressed.

Assumptions that the online world would inevitably be empowering and democratising have proved far too optimistic. The challenge this presents is to find ways to facilitate empowerment of voters that don’t empower vote-seekers and influencers more. And not just to find new ways of doing digital democracy but to rebuild confidence in the democratic institutions that it’s meant to serve.


Image: Provincial ballot paper by MONUSCO Photos via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

David Souter writes a fortnightly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.