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Is Democracy in Peril?

Is Democracy in Peril?

Written by
Jesse Hirsh
March 19th, 2019

Jesse Hirsh looks at the connection between digital media and the future of democracy.

Is Democracy in Peril?

Photo: Arnaud Jaegers

Is democracy in peril? Should we be concerned that our freedoms are being eroded and our rights are at risk?

This seems to be a pressing issue, as a resurgence in authoritarian governments around the world causes legitimate concern regarding the health of democracy. Yet there seems to be a paradox at play: in spite of the rise in strongmen and loudmouths, there is also a flourishing of expression and an abundance of knowledge.

Social media and the digital revolution lie at the heart of this paradox. Does social media foster increased political participation or does it offer the best means yet of manipulating the public and undermining democracy? Does the digital revolution represent the overthrow of tyranny or has it unleashed a surveillance society that marginalizes dissent and automates control in ways that analogue totalitarians could only dream of?

We are what we eat, we tend to believe what we watch, and we think based on what we read.

The issue of manipulation attacks the concept of an informed citizenry as the basis of a democratic society. Nobody likes to believe they can be manipulated; we all wish to be free. However, we need to step back and acknowledge that we depend upon our media to shape our perception of reality. We are what we eat, we tend to believe what we watch, and we think based on what we read.

In the recent publication “Online Manipulation: Hidden Influences in a Digital World,” authors Daniel Susser, Beate Roessler, and Helen Nissenbaum put it plainly:

Information technology, for a number of reasons, makes engaging in manipulative practices significantly easier, and it makes the effects of such practices potentially more deeply debilitating. And we argue that by subverting another person’s decision-making power, manipulation undermines his or her autonomy. Given that respect for individual autonomy is a bedrock principle of liberal democracy, the threat of online manipulation is a cause for grave concern.

The authors define manipulation as “hidden influence—the covert subversion of another person’s decision-making power.” In an era of algorithms and information overload, this largely manifests as marketing and advertising (think product placement and influencer campaigns) but has also enveloped politics and election campaigns.

Susser, Roessier, and Nissenbaum distinguish between manipulation by persuasion (an open and direct appeal towards your decision-making) and coercion (restricting your decision-making) by noting that manipulation (like a nudge) is designed to push you towards a decision, often without your full knowledge or consent.

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As an exercise, try keeping a media log—a record of all the media you engage with over the course of a day or week—and from that log, flag the content you suspect was intended to manipulate you, even if it was unsuccessful. Memes and viral content are fertile ground for this subtle form of messaging, but so are traditional media like TV, movies, and music. Increasingly, commercial and political messaging is the subtext to content that is otherwise focused on generic or common subjects. In particular, count how many times your personal information was used to customize or target you in a manipulative manner.

These pervasive attempts at manipulation are compounded by the broader erosion of the public commons. After all, democracy was born in the public square, the common space where common people could assemble and discuss what was important to them. As media evolved, societies grew, and what we used or shared as the commons changed. From pamphlets, to newspapers, to radio, and television, democracy changed to keep up with the places, spaces, and media we use to gather.

However, the commons as we know it may no longer be all that common. Personalized digital media serves each of us a unique and individualized experience that keeps us connected but also isolated. The mantra of Silicon Valley may be “move fast and break things,” but it could just as well be “divide and conquer.”

In the recent article, “The Road to Digital Unfreedom,” University of Toronto professor Ron Deibert argues that the “fine-grained surveillance that companies perform for economic reasons is a valuable proxy for authoritarian control.”

He adds that the “attention-grabbing algorithms underlying social media also propel authoritarian practices that aim to sow confusion, ignorance, prejudice, and chaos, thereby facilitating manipulation and undermining accountability.” Like many others, Diebert argues that users are addicted, and, while willfully participating, they are nonetheless being taken advantage of and being led down a dark path.

What if it’s not that simple? What if we’re not being manipulated, but, rather, we’re making these choices freely? What if the issue is not that democracy is in peril, but that citizens are demanding more from democracy? Their expectations of what they’re entitled to as citizens have grown as the powers afforded by technology have taken hold.

No longer satisfied with representative democracy, citizens are desiring direct democracy. After all, that has been their experience as consumers, where their participation is increasingly easier and convenient and their feedback is often valued—sometimes they’re even able to demand and get action when they complain (publicly).

There is also the perception of greater transparency. It feels as if we live in a world where secrets are hard to keep and information has a strong desire to be free. Data breaches and whistleblower leaks give citizens the belief that transparency is aiding democracy, in spite of governments and corporations being more secretive and more intrusive than ever.

What if we’re not being manipulated, but, rather, we’re making these choices freely? What if the issue is not that democracy is in peril, but that citizens are demanding more from democracy?

And that may be the key point. We believe we have more freedom, but do we really? Consider Evgeny Morozov’s charge that the internet is a paradise for consumers but hell for citizens. We can buy whatever we want, but not all of us have the money to buy. What if our “democracy” has become one vote per dollar, giving billionaires the ultimate power to decide? What if the powers we have as consumers are mere illusions when we act as citizens? We have the freedom to buy what we want, but not the freedom to decide how we choose our rulers, let alone who our rulers will be.

Certainly the unprecedented concentration of power and wealth is an undeniable sign that democracy is in peril. Not only are the media owned and controlled by a handful of corporations, but the technology companies that are absorbing the media industries are even larger and wield even more influence than the behemoths they have vanquished. Historically, societies that have faced similar polarization and disparity between rich and poor have failed to remain stable, let alone survive.

Add to this the looming spectre of automation, which threatens to make almost any job obsolete, and may even turn us all into automated and obedient subjects. Surely you can understand why people would have existential angst about the future of democracy.

Perhaps one solution to the concentration of wealth is to extend the franchise to robots. If robots are expected to exponentially grow in number, would we not want them with us rather than against us? If you want to vote early and vote often, there’s nothing better than automation to help you do so.

How about an autonomous agent as your elected representative, who can be programmed to protect your rights and express your views? Or at least an intelligent assistant that can monitor what politicians say to ensure they are held accountable by the voters who elected them?

Radical ideas perhaps, or examples of how democracy may not be in peril, just in the process of updating or upgrading and remaining relevant.

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