The State of Democracy and Technology

Women in Zambia during the 2016 General Elections.

It is hard to overstate the impact of digital transformation on democracies and the daily lives of citizens around the world. The developing world is coming online at an extraordinary pace; there are places in which NDI works that are receiving the most significant innovation of the 20th century – electrification – at the same time as that of the 21st – instant global communications. Past technology revolutions such as the printing press or broadcast media have transformed democracy and politics in rapid, profound, and hard to anticipate ways. While disruptive, innovations can reinforce existing power structures: dominant languages are magnified; usage reflects traditional gender imbalances surveillance is automated. Recognizing this incredible rate of change, NDI is changing the toolkit of approaches we use in our programs, embracing new forms of political engagement, and changing the ways we manage the nuts and bolts of international development.

Technology is as much a social, economic, and political phenomenon as it is code or engineering. The democracy community, therefore, cannot afford to treat it as a single issue and must approach it with a nuanced understanding of the range of ways it is changing society and democracy: 

The internet has become critical infrastructure for democracy, – and it is under attack. Organizing, advocacy, and political communication are increasingly digital, and so preserving a democratic internet is core to the success of all other social change goals - however, many of the trends are negative. The internet needs to be accessible and available to all, free of unjustified censorship, surveillance, or punitive taxes. Organizations need to be able to maintain a digital presence without fear of having their content destroyed or confidential data shared. An information space choked with disinformation and the chilling effects of hate speech robs individuals of informed choice. The digitization of all human activity as data creates new potential for authoritarians to track citizens and perpetuate discriminatory systems. Incredible power is now vested in the hands of the major technology platforms. Through NDI’s work with the Design 4 Democracy Coalition, grassroots civic groups around the world are working together to ensure that the technology sector plays a role in supporting democracy.

Policymakers and citizens need to be better informed. Making the internet safe for democracy requires supportive digital policy at the global, corporate and domestic level. Legislators and political leaders are often lacking in basic knowledge of technology to regulate them appropriately or to procure tech; easy solutions often include subsidized Chinese surveillance state-in-a-box tools or commercial offerings that may turn around and monetize citizen data. Tech companies may not understand the impacts of their products. Too often, new regulation is used as a trojan horse for anti-democratic legislation, as with cybersecurity or “fake news.” Successful political engagement in the internet age requires digital literacy of citizens: effectively using tools, understanding rights, keeping themselves safe, and to be intelligent consumers of information. As with most things in the technology space, the details of the topic may be new but the concept is not; NDI has always focused on education on citizen’s rights in a democracy and how to engage with existing power structures.  

New forms of democracy, governance and citizen engagement are possible. There are radically new capabilities for partners who are pillars of democracy using new communication systems, more data applied in radically different ways, and new ways to gather and sort citizen preferences. Further, new forms of human organization have emerged, such as Hong Kong’s leaderless protest movement, that would have been impossible without the internet. Any new innovations, even if well-meant, will have unintended consequences that NDI and partners need to be able to foresee and if possible avoid. Other technologies will may provide compelling features for citizens or governments -- but entrap them with built-in surveillance capabilities, the monetization of citizen data by corporations, or new forms of government control. NDI works with civic innovators around the world, including shepherding the Code for All Network and engaging with leaders who are building new forms of citizen engagement such as Audrey Tang in Taiwan.

Tech specifics matter but there are no easy solutions. The difference between an accurate understanding of how a technology works instead of a general one can make the difference between having a positive impact and an extremely negative one. Often, emergent technologies are misunderstood based on conceptual oversimplification or slick sales pitches. Given the trend toward integrated data, mass surveillance, and ever more powerful analysis tools, it is critical for organizations that hope to make change or mitigate democratic harm to have the ability to understand technical specifics. Conversely, changemaking organizations must be wary of tech solutionism and create internal capacity to tie technology to mission. The complexity of technology requires cultivating relationships with new actors, including academic institutions and corporations – but communicating with them requires mastery of the technology under discussion, the ability to speak to them in their language, and to engage at their cadence. The internet is privately owned, from cables in the ground to the servers on which systems run to the devices in our pockets and the apps sitting on them. Therefore, tech firms are critical to the conversation -- though engagement does not imply approval of all their activities.

Change will continue. A new range of technologies such as AI, augmented reality, voice assistants and ubiquitous sensors are here today. When widely applied, this new generation of tools will continue to reshape politics and the relationships between citizens and their governments. In the period when they are emerging, there is time to mitigate foreseeable negative consequences and aid positive ones.

Conclusion. It can be tempting to ignore the technology transformations sweeping the world in the context of international development and democracy, attempting to continue with traditional programs. Alternatively, one can look at technology as an unalloyed evil, focusing on the negatives and attempting to push back in as many ways as possible. NDI has taken a more realistic approach. The tech revolution is here to stay, and the pace of change will only continue. As our lives change based on the tools we use, so does the nature of democracy – and the threats it faces. NDI will continue engaging with our partners on the ground and helping them build more just societies based on the realities of life in the digital age.