A Glimpse into Change: How Technology Shapes the Future of Democracy

By Vera Zakem on September 3, 2020

Do you remember the Arab Spring, a movement that highlighted the pro-democracy consequences of technology and social media, and gave birth to numerous anti-government protests at the beginning of the last decade? What began as a response to an oppressive regime and low standards of living in Tunisia, turned into a massive democratic uprising that spread across the Arab World like wildfire. Young people flooded public squares in hopes of a vibrant future, free and fair elections, and freedom of expression. What truly illuminated and further ignited the Arab Spring protests and gave the world a glimpse into the change that took the Middle East by storm, was the way in which technology and social media were used. Facebook and Twitter played significant roles in both broadcasting to the world the changes that were taking place, and empowering protesters in authoritarian regimes to share information and organize swiftly.  

Technology continues to have a tremendous impact on democracy. Democratic societies and movements benefit from technological revolutions, where quick and easy access to the attention of the world is provided by both social and mainstream media. In turn, there are negative effects of technology on democracy, including the rise of digital authoritarianism, the increasing weaponization of information, and inadvertent exposure of private citizen data — infringing on individual rights to privacy and the democratic system writ large.  

Digital Authoritarianism

Freedom House notes that digital authoritarianism is “being promoted as a way for governments to control their citizens through technology, inverting the concept of the internet as an engine of human liberation.” China has been one of the leading proponents of digital authoritarianism — demonstrated by state use of emerging technologies to conduct citizen surveillance, gather private data on individuals, and exercise precise control over the population by creating an information wall that builds fear, friction, and enables the flooding of state sponsored disinformation to citizens. For decades, China has used state run media to increase control at home and abroad via media monopoly, opaque ownership, and by pushing explicit narratives through the China Communist Party (CCP) propaganda machinery. We don’t have to look much further than the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests during which the CCP successfully propagated and dispersed multiple conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns — to include accusing the CIA of inciting and funding the protests. China initiated a disinformation campaign against the Hong Kong protesters, pushing the narrative that they are a “willfully destructive mob, pushing for regime change in Hong Kong.” In response to state sponsored disinformation campaigns in China, social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, have suspended thousands of accounts and have taken down media linked to the state sponsored disinformation campaigns.

Technology was used for similar digital authoritarian purposes in the follow-up to the recent election in Belarus, when President Alexander Lukashenko, often dubbed as “Europe’s Last Dictator,” claimed to win with over 80% of the vote against Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. After suspecting election fraud, Ms. Tikhanovskaya demanded a vote recount, resulting in massive protests ignited by social media platforms and erupting in person across the country. Both social and print media provided a powerful window into Belarus, as Belarussians took to the streets, armed with demands for a new free and fair election. Details shown over international platforms like Telegram, Youtube and Instagram have provided a glimmer into the violence and human rights abuses taking hold of Belarus since the election. This is significant, particularly in light of the internet blackouts that occurred during the election. 

Like Hong Kong and other civil protests fighting for democracy, in Belarus, we have seen a barrage of disinformation coming from individual actors, and most notably, Russia. Some of the narratives from Russia and pro-Russian voices are not that different from conspiracy theories applied to other protests we have seen in Eastern Europe, including Ukraine. This is not surprising since Kremlin has been a strong supporter of Lukashenko for many years. As such, we have seen the use of the Russian tool kit of content creation, fake accounts, and competing narratives, pushing and amplifying violence during the protests in Belarus. For example, narratives like Belarussians are ungrateful for Lukashenko and protesters are fascists, actually shifting the blame from Russia onto the protesters. Russia has continued to push anti-Western/anti – NATO narratives, including the U.S. is using Baltic States and Poland against Belarus and NATO is building up on Belarus borders. The tweets below are an illustrative example of these narratives. 

It shouldn’t be news that nefarious actors, including individual hackers, corporations, and state actors – have interfered in democracies around the world. One need not look further than our own backyard, where Russia successfully hacked into the Democratic National Committee systems during the 2016 election. This infamously unleashed a new wave of broad influence campaigns, and a newfound sense of urgency to protect U.S. democracy and elections from foreign interference. Technologies that enable facial recognition and location tracking inhibit individual privacy. Lack of individual privacy is particularly alarming during times of civil unrest and protests. As Katie Josef and Samuel Wooley wrote, malign actors rely on “data harvested from people’s smartphones and other devices- veritable troves of personal information ripe for collection and exploitation.”

A Path towards a Whole-of-Society Strategy

We are in a unique moment in history. We can see in real time and are afforded the ability to take a meaningful look at the role that technology plays in democracy. Technological breakthroughs provide the opportunity to harness technology in a way which could propel democratic societies forward, while stymieing its negative effects. In doing so, we should come to terms with the fact that no government, civil society actor, or industry player can provide tangible solutions to these challenges alone. Addressing the impact early on, both positive and negative, truly requires whole-of-society solutions.

First, this approach must be based on increased information sharing between the technology industry; those in civil society who use new and emerging technologies; and the foreign and public policy practitioners who not only use the technology, but also advance it to promote democractic ideals. To this point, we are already seeing glimmers of hope! The latest suspension of Twitter accounts used by Russian state actors as part of a broader influence campaign is a prime example – an outcome sparked via a tip provided through to Twitter by the FBI, a positive outcome of increased trust and stronger security relationships. 

Second, to create these solutions, we need to create a safe space for these communities to come together, ideate, design, and create use cases where technology can be a “solution multiplier at scale” to champion democracies, while countering immediate threats posed by authoritarianism, disinformation and influence campaigns, and privacy. 

Third, and finally, while significant investments in Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), and Natural Language Processing (NLP) have been made to advance democracies, we simply need to double down on our investments in this space. This is where philanthropists, governments, and venture capitalists can work together to invest and fund emerging technologies that do the following:

  • Promote global internet freedom and increase internet access for marginalized and vulnerable populations
  • Create digital tools specifically for advocacy and organization for democratic movements
  • Use advancements in AI, ML, and NLP to counter disinformation and influence campaigns while ensuring data and user privacy
  • Create digital tools and applications to strengthen cybersecurity for democratic movements

We live in a world where the democratic tenets of free and fair elections, freedom of assembly, speech, press, and religion should not continue to be taken for granted. Technology does pose plenty of challenges. However, as we have seen all over the world, it can also be harnessed to work for democracy. We don’t have time to waste. Let’s get to work.