There’s a fascinating new study by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan American think tank, and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center, on the impact of an increasingly digital-dependant world on democracy. The study canvassed an incredible 979 technology experts, developers, business leaders and policy wonks to gauge its impact on politics in general, and democracy in particular. The study looks at how the world is entering a period of what it calls ‘techlash” as politicians and those in positions of power, exploit the speed, reach and complexity of the internet for harmful purposes. The end result: a growing concern about the digital disruption of democracy. Responding to the survey, 49% believe the use of technology will mostly weaken core aspects of democracy and democratic representation in the next decade. A majority of respondents felt that the misuse of digital technology to manipulate and weaponise facts affects people’s trust in institutions and each other. That dilution of trust affects people’s views about whether democratic processes and institutions designed to empower citizens are working.
Many also believe that this downward spiral is also tied to the struggles facing truthful, independent journalism. In addition, many experts say they worry about the future of democracy because of the power of major technology companies and the way those companies exploit the data they collect about users. Those who take a more optimistic view say that solutions to these problems will evolve because people always adapt and find ways to counter the problems that face democracy, while some respondents take the middle ground and believe that usage of technology will continue to have both positive and negative outcomes for society. The majority, however, remain worried about the impact of technology on democracy. They hold the view that democracy is at risk because those with power seek to maintain their power by weaponizing technology, thereby enhancing their power. This further erodes citizen’s belief in democracy. As Danah Boyd, principal researcher at Microsoft Research, responding to the theme, says: “The problem is that technology mirrors and magnifies the good, bad and ugly in everyday life. And right now, we do not have the safeguards, security or policies in place to prevent manipulators from doing significant harm with the technologies designed to connect people and help spread information.” Daniel Berleant, author of The Human Race to the Future, adds: “While the web has the demonstrated ability to ease and enhance information flow to citizens, the quality of that information was never anticipated to be as shockingly disruptive to democratic processes as it is turning out to be.” The bottomline as expressed by the majority of respondents, is that today’s technology is allowing the creation of a “bullying environment” that polarizes people to a level where they no longer bother to understand other opinions or views. This weakens public discourse and encourages attacks on minority views. That’s a grim prospect for the future of democracies in a world increasingly lurching to the right.