A Force Multiplier for Democracy in the Digital Age

A woman participates in voter card reader test exercise in Nigeria. Credit: Sarah Cooper

In countries and communities around the world, defenders of democracy are working to understand and respond to the ways that technology is impacting political and electoral processes. Civil society organizations, grassroots organizers, journalists, civic technologists, political parties, election monitors, fact-checkers, researchers and others are building new tools, developing new analytical models, and implementing local strategies to help navigate accelerating challenges like politically-motivated cyber threats, digital disinformation and computational propaganda.

Despite this growing body of projects and the commitment of local actors in countries around the world, responses to evolving digital challenges to date often lack coordination. With every election or political event, democracy’s defenders are capturing new lessons on how democracy can weather evolving threats and even thrive in the digital age. But both globally and regionally, key democracy stakeholders haven’t had a proper channel for information-sharing, research coordination, and advancing shared priorities at the intersection of tech and democracy. So we’re building one, as a community.

In recent months, a collection of stakeholders and advisors from democracy organizations, academia, journalism, and tech and data backgrounds have been working together to develop an approach for effective collaboration, coordination and advocacy. It’s called the Design 4 Democracy Coalition, and we’re pleased to be in London this week to formally set this model in motion.

The D4D Coalition’s mission is to ensure that technology and social media work to better support democracy and human rights globally. We’re bringing our collective insights and perspectives to bear in a coordinated effort to navigate tech-enabled challenges with the following priorities in mind:

  • Surfacing country-level insights and escalating concerns from around the world to better track the ways that technology is impacting democracy, and to inform smarter responses to challenges like digital disinformation, computational propaganda, and cybersecurity threats;
  • Coordinating support for the development of programs, research methodologies, and civic tech interventions to help mitigate threats and promote the integrity of democratic governance and political processes; and
  • Advocating for democracy as a core design principle for technologists and industry leaders, and working collectively to promote a wider understanding of the value of strengthening and supporting democracy around the world.

Across all of these priorities, the D4D Coalition is seeking to amplify, adapt, and scale successful initiatives from organizations on the front-lines in overcoming these challenges – building with these frontline democracy organizations and drawing on their understanding of in-country dynamics that shape technology’s role in their unique political and electoral contexts.

As a community, we know that context matters. Too often tech platforms designed for one context are rolled out globally, without an understanding of how those platforms may be used and misused elsewhere. We are working to promote awareness among technologists of the consideration that should be given to the unique geopolitical and socio-cultural traits of different countries and regions across the globe. Importantly, we need to ensure these lessons and the democracy community’s frontline insights are being heard by product designers, engineers, data scientists, and decision-makers in Silicon Valley and throughout the tech industry. To that end, the D4D Coalition has established partnerships with key tech companies – including Twitter, Facebook, and Microsoft – to create structured channels for communication, and to create spaces for constructive dialogue, advocacy, and – where appropriate – collaboration. Subject to policies to mitigate conflicts and with the oversight of D4D’s advisory board, the Coalition also creates a mechanism through which tech companies can contribute financial resources to support the democracy community’s wider efforts to respond to tech’s impact, without influencing program priorities or implementation.  

As we begin to ramp up this collaborative model, several examples of this work are already underway. Early pilot projects have included:

  • Promoting cybersecurity among political stakeholders: In August, the D4D Coalition supported a training workshop for ruling and opposition parties across the Southern African Development Community region to raise awareness of cybersecurity threats and risk mitigation techniques. Moreover, in Eastern Europe, coalition partners a convened training-of-trainers on sophisticated cybersecurity assessment and mediation methodologies that will enable future audits of at-risk political parties and civic organizations across the post-Soviet region.
  • Combatting disinformation on encrypted messenger services: Through its industry partnerships, the D4D Coalition is supporting in the development of a fact-checking chatbot (CoFacts) as a means of crowdsourcing information about Chinese disinformation being spread in Taiwan on the popular messaging app, LINE. Coalition funding is helping g0v adapt this chatbot to work on additional messaging apps, including Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, and to provide incentives for citizens to forward suspect disinformation narratives with fact-checkers, providing visibility into the ways that disinformation flows on these closed platforms.
  • Monitoring and reporting online incidents in connection with the referendum in Macedonia: In advance of Macedonia’s nationwide referendum, held on September 30, 2018, the D4D Coalition sent representatives to the field to conduct assessments on the social media environment and facilitate two half-day training and knowledge-sharing sessions among a diverse set of civil society organizations on how to identify and report actionable violations of terms and conditions on social media platforms. The Coalition has partnered with Graphika to conduct a social media network analysis around key disinformation issues and established a channel to provide local context to representatives at Facebook and Twitter regarding incidents on their platforms. This combination of incident response and deeper-dive analysis of disinformation flows is a pilot that the Coalition hopes to replicate in other upcoming electoral contexts, such as Ukraine.

These are just a few early illustrations of the ways the Coalition can collaborate and coordinate projects to support democracy in the field, surface innovative interventions, and share insights from the frontlines with technology companies. We’re also creating space for more proactive discussions among the democracy community regarding evolving needs, next-gen threats, and common principles and priorities to inform advocacy directed toward the tech industry. To that end, we’ve convened discussions on five continents already; and our advisory board has gathered in London to chart a course for the Coalition’s upcoming activities.

In the face of borderless challenges that move at unprecedented speed and scale, a country-by-country piecemeal strategy will not succeed. It is not enough to focus on only taking down problematic posts, and no single organization or intervention can address the systemic problems of disinformation. However, as a community – a coalition – we can equip democracy’s defenders with a force multiplier, and together we can begin to navigate the challenges of the digital age as a movement. We hope all democrats and technologists around the world will join us in this cause, and work with us to advance democracy, both as an essential value and as a design principle.