Technology and the global struggle for democracy

Technology and the global struggle for democracy

An activist wears a mask depicting Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg outside the European Commission last month. (Photo: AFP)
An activist wears a mask depicting Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg outside the European Commission last month. (Photo: AFP)

The commemoration of the first anniversary of the Jan 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol by supporters of former president Donald Trump showed that the extreme political polarisation that fuelled the riot also frames Americans' interpretations of it. It would, however, be gravely mistaken to view what happened as a uniquely American phenomenon with uniquely American causes. The disruption of the peaceful transfer of power that day was part of something much bigger.

As part of the commemoration, US President Joe Biden said a battle is being fought over "the soul of America". What is becoming clear is that this is also true of the international order: its very soul is at stake. China is rising and asserting itself. Populism is widespread in the West and major emerging economies. And chauvinistic nationalism has re-emerged in parts of Europe. All signs point to increasing illiberalism and anti-democratic sentiment around the world.

Against this backdrop, the US hosted in December a (virtual) "Summit for Democracy" that was attended by hundreds of national and civil-society leaders. The message of the gathering was clear: democracies must assert themselves firmly and proactively. To that end, the summit devoted numerous sessions to studying the digital revolution and its potentially harmful implications for our political systems.

Emerging technologies pose at least three major risks for democracies. The first concerns how they structure public debate. Social networks balkanise public discourse by segmenting users into ever smaller like-minded communities. Algorithmically-driven information echo chambers make it difficult to build social consensus. Worse, social networks are not liable for the content they distribute, which means they can allow misinformation to spread on their platforms with impunity.

Moreover, because the new digital players' advertising-dependent business models compete directly with those of traditional news organisations, they have undermined the architecture that once supported high-quality journalism and public debate. And their open, digital nature makes them highly vulnerable to external interference and misuse by nefarious actors, including those seeking to disrupt elections and other democratic processes.

The second major risk posed by new technologies is to privacy. Owing to advanced monitoring and surveillance technologies, public and private actors alike can access detailed information about private citizens and consumer behaviour. With the convergence of Big Data and artificial intelligence, insights into collective and individual behaviour are becoming increasingly predictive.

Systematic violations of privacy could usher in at least two different scenarios in which personal freedom would be severely restricted. The first is surveillance capitalism: corporations using their knowledge of consumers to manipulate them into serving their own bottom lines. The second scenario is the surveillance state: public authorities using their knowledge of citizens' most private, intimate behaviour to stifle dissent.

The third major risk is to political agency. A democracy is a large information system. Freedom of expression and association, together with universal enfranchisement, enables citizens to voice their opinions and offer or withhold their consent to political initiatives. Yet today's surveillance and data-mining technologies have created the conditions for an alternative political system in which understanding citizens' freely expressed preferences is no longer necessary, because preferences can be inferred from monitored behaviour.

As such, individual agency and freedom cease to be the cornerstones of the political system, because they would be supplanted by data and public control. And with advances in neuro- and behavioural sciences blurring the lines between knowing how a person behaves and being able to shape that behaviour, it is easy to see how a highly repressive political system -- a technological Leviathan -- could emerge. China seems to already be deploying what some are calling a technological mandarinate.

Although these risks are real, they need not become our new reality. It is fully within a democracy's power to embrace certain technological developments while restricting others. At the Summit for Democracy, attendees agreed to launch a major initiative to identify and support the development of technologies that advance democratic principles and values.

In close collaboration with the White House and the US Department of State, IE University, where I work, and other summit partners will be holding a series of start-up and scale-up competitions to identify entrepreneurs who are working on promising new "democracy-affirming technologies". The project will focus on five main areas: verification technologies designed to combat disinformation and strengthen public debate; data-analytics tools that respect privacy; digital identity systems and trust frameworks for managing individual and public data; transparency technologies to improve public services; and unbiased AI systems.

This collaboration is a perfect example of democratic societies' unique capacity to come together and innovate. It is also a reminder that, despite the tone of our public debates, the democratic world is not helpless in the face of technological change. The countries at the summit represented 70% of global GDP, and they contain the world's most highly developed regulatory institutions.

If technology is a new domain of international relations and competition, the democratic world is equipped for success. According to Freedom House, eight of the 10 largest consumer markets are in "free" countries, and those same countries are also home to 85 of the world's top 100 universities. In venture capital markets, democratic countries have an overwhelming lead, accounting for over 80% of all investment activity in the past year. The democratic world dominates in terms of research ability, regulatory capacity, and market size -- all of which is key for innovation and business scalability.

The Summit for Democracy underscored the urgency of studying both the strengths and vulnerabilities of democratic systems in the 21st century. It showed that an analysis of the role of new technologies must take centre stage. The commemoration of the Jan 6 events in Washington DC, in turn, is a good reminder of how urgent it is that we direct our innovative potential toward shoring up the health of our democracies. The soul of our political systems and of the international order are at stake. ©2022 Project Syndicate


Manuel Muñiz is Provost of IE University and Dean of IE's School of Global and Public Affairs.

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