Digitization has emerged as the new buzzword in the world of democracy and diplomacy – a fact that cannot be brushed aside anymore. It is now more or less certain that digitization of the democratic space is likely to happen faster than we had imagined. The merger of Information and Technology along with democracy is an asset unto itself. It has empowered marginalized sections of society to use technology to defend their rights. Digital democracy practices have made it possible for different communities to participate more promptly in the political process. Digital political campaigns are now a regular affair. There are several examples to ably substantiate this point. A good example is President Barack Obama’s political campaign in 2008 “ where Barack Obama emerged the political victor and the internet took the bow”. Mr. Obama skillfully mastered “Facebook politics’’ and his ideas resonated with the masses and classes alike and Mr. Obama won the U.S. Presidential elections comfortably in 2008.
Digital Democracy therefore appears to be the next big thing in the political realm. This revolution began with the introduction of e-voting but the penetration of the digital medium into the democratic has expanded considerably over the years with varied discussions taking place on how the digital and the democratic can merge bringing about a rare melange of technology and innovation on the one hand and democratic institutions on the other. These revolutionary ideas have caught the attention of different nations across the board and e-democracy has emerged as new pivot within politics and democracy. In fact, blockchain technology has spearheaded this distinct shift in thinking by making the rhetoric of ‘free and fair elections’ an actual reality. Estonia is an oft cited example and “e-Estonia” is definitely a successful e-residency platform that has made the Estonian government’s digital platforms available to people who are far and wide. Another good example is that of Taiwan, where ‘pol.is’ has made it easier for people to converse with each other more coherently and eloquently. As a result of this tangible development, the existing laws and policies have undergone a much needed change where the citizen has played a massive role.
In daily parlance, ‘Digital Democracy’ therefore appears like a knight in shining armor who rescues the damsel (democracy) in distress’. But that is far from true. Every side has two coins and this is especially true in the case of digital democracy as well. Digital democracy has the potential to transform the face of democracy in the world at a rapid pace and one needs to be cautious about that for several reasons. Jamie Bartlett , Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media argues that digital technology and democracy are not compatible with each other. It may be inferred from his analysis that either party is likely to survive in this chilling contest of equals where either technology will reign supreme over democracy or vice-versa. At the moment though it appears with consistent clarity that technology is leading in the race and may vanquish democracy in the long run. Digital technology i.e. social media platforms, big data, mobile technology and Artificial Intelligence (AI) has come to dominate social and political lives.
Independent and active citizens according to Bartlett are under the spell of social media. Furthermore, the tribal politics online undermines the shared democratic culture.
Interestingly, the demerits attached to digital democracy do not end there. The imminent threat of the rise of the pan-optic state is also omnipresent. China has already led from the front in this department and tightened the screws on people from scratch. China has used its own version of the internet to keep a hawk’s watch on political dissenters in cities as distant as Hong Kong and Urumqi. China’s tryst with cyber espionage is not new and China has placed regulations on its internet since the 1990s. Democracy activists like Lin Hai have faced prison terms due to their online activism with the Chinese government finding the former guilty of passing crucial information related to Internet address to the United States of America (USA). Google China has been continuously asked to censor content related to Tienanmen Square Massacre in 1989 among others.
In this time and age of “cyber anxiety” the convergence of politics and digital technology is becoming increasingly difficult. Internet giants like Google have established greater control over the public and private sphere. A prolific example of this phenomenon is the interest shown by Google in investing in student’s education. School children in the United States are using education applications created by Google to navigate through their coursework. But it is essentially to note here that Google keeps track of the data and generates surplus data related to the activities of these children which can later on become a source of information for advertisers in the near future. Martin Moore has termed this phenomenon “platform democracy” – a new and engaging field of study wherein the “technocracy” will have newer functions to perform- it may mean rule by the people who do not understand anything but believe that data alone constitutes expertise.
Leaving aside these theoretical lacunae, digital democracy also needs to find ways to make the entire online voting process fundamentally more secure. Authoritarian regimes like Russia and North Korea that engage in systematic rigging may not find it prudent to shift to digital democracy. In the end, it must be added that it is too early to say whether digital democracy has paved the way for a secure future or not but it is clear that digital democracy cannot be become the norm unless and until it is able to ensure that all the existing democratic tenets that govern the people- especially that calls for in the words of Gregory Unruh and David Kiron democracy being for the people and by the people. Technology should therefore also be for the people and by the people to make a significant impact.
This piece is written by Anuttama Banerji. Anuttama is Associate Researcher at Govern.