The challenge of democracy in the digital era

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Is the internet helping or hurting democratic processes around the globe? In most countries, it is doing both.

In its golden era, the internet was celebrated for giving voters newfound access to information about candidates and unprecedented levels of transparency for public data. It laid the groundwork for a new generation of campaigns and social movements, enabling citizens to challenge existing power structures and information gatekeepers.

Today, this optimism has been tempered by the steady drip of news about election interference over the internet in the United States and countless other countries. It has awoken democratic institutions to new levels of concern. What happened in the 2016 presidential election in the United States may have surprised many Americans, but it was hardly unique on the world stage.

Take Brazil. Just ten days before right-wing Jair Bolsonaro was elected president, leading newspaper Folha de São Paulo uncovered a $3 million USD scheme, paid for Bolsonaro affiliates, that promoted viral, divisive messages and false reports in Bolsonaro’s favor, despite efforts by fact-checking groups and Facebook to stem the tide of disinformation.

Soon after, the reporter who wrote about the scheme began receiving threats and had her personal WhatsApp account hacked and inundated with pro-Bolsonaro messages.

Efforts to promote candidates with underhanded methods and stifle independent reporting are also widespread in India. Civil society groups have long observed trolling and disinformation campaigns on Facebook and WhatsApp that appear designed to undermine dissenting voices and promote Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

In the lead up to an April 2019 election, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter announced they took down hundreds of pages (with millions of followers combined) for “coordinated inauthentic behavior” and “promoting spam”. Some favored the BJP, and others the opposing Indian National Congress party.

Facebook’s role in particular, in these and other elections, has generated significant public scrutiny. In 2018, a globally reported hearing of Mark Zuckerberg by the United States Congress in light of a public scandal involving the consulting group, Cambridge Analytica, played a big role in putting data harvesting for political purposes into view.

Zuckerberg apologized then for not doing more to prevent the platform from being used for harm, including, “fake news, foreign interference in elections and hate speech.”

Facebook has since pledged to improve transparency in political advertising. Twitter has added “elections integrity” to its public values. But such solutions may be mere band-aids. Platforms are designed in ways that incentivize and reward extreme and sensationalist content that generates clicks and shares through outrageous claims and attacks. Newsfeed algorithms are easily gamed by bots and professional trolls. Google search results can be manipulated.

In 2017 and 2018 Cambridge Analytica was also found to have collected data from users in India, Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico for campaign work. The consulting firm also put down roots in Kenya. In a case study from current President Uhuru Kenyatta’s 2013 election campaign, Cambridge Analytica described having built a strategy for the candidate “based on the electorate’s needs (jobs) and fears (tribal violence).” This struck a chord for Kenyans, who have grown accustomed to social media sparking violence between different ethnic groups.

In 2017, Kenyan parties engaged in targeted advertising and even personal SMS messaging to citizens, leveraging the Kenyan government’s ample collection of personal data, for which there are currently no legal protections for data privacy. President Uhuru Kenyatta won this election in a re-vote, after his initial win was nullified by the Supreme Court on the grounds of irregularities.

These cases represent just a handful of those that have dominated headlines and news feeds around the world in recent years. What they tell us, in sum, is that on the open internet anyone can reach and change the minds of millions of people –– especially if they have money to spend and are willing to weaponize information and data. Powerful and wealthy people and institutions, local and foreign governments, are wielding the internet in this way for political gain.

Ideas to mitigate the risks have begun to emerge. Support for independent fact checking initiatives is rising worldwide, and voters are becoming wiser to the digital machinations of political leaders and interest groups. Ahead of European elections in 2019, four leading tech companies (Facebook, Google, Twitter and Mozilla) signed the European Commission’s Code of Practice on Disinformation pledging to take specific steps to prevent disinformation from manipulating citizens of the European Union. Worldwide, social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram, Google, Youtube and Twitter are urged to be more transparent about how internet users are tracked and targeted, and give people more control over their own data.

Everywhere, there is consternation about what is to come. In Africa, elections are scheduled in 19 countries in 2019. In Asia, in upwards of 10 countries. In Latin America, there will be as many as nine elections, six presidential. Responsible reporting and factual information is crucial for people to make informed choices about who should govern. That is why fighting misinformation with care for free speech and open access to information is key. When power is up for grabs, no expense is spared to sway public opinion or to silence critics.

In your own country, how has the internet played a role in a recent election?

  1. Brian

    In Canada, the state-funded media often reports events which are only favourable for the Liberal and NDP (both left-wing), but most other news is ignored.

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