The impact of technology on democracy

What constitutes active citizenship? The easiest way to answer this is by asking why all democracies have a minimum voting age. This is because children are deemed not mature, independent nor wise enough to make political decisions — at least that is how the thinking goes.

In the same vein, active citizenship relies on citizens being not only politically mature and independent-minded but also capable of forming and making their own judgements. Unfortunately, the presence of technology weakens all three of these attributes of active citizenship.

An example of how technology achieves this is the way it exposes people to constant public scrutiny on social media. This, in turn, encourages self-censorship, which discourages political development. If we take Twitter, many people are afraid to speak their minds due to being fearful of facing a backlash from other users, exposure to data collection or potential employer scrutiny. How many times have we seen a single stupid thing said a number of years ago, only to come back and haunt someone in the future.

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As a result, keeping quiet and never saying anything controversial is a safer option, along with mimicking the acceptable public responses on any given issue. Essentially, stopping you from putting yourself in a position where your opinion will be questioned or challenged, which in turn, inhibits your ability to learn and develop your political thinking.

Furthermore, the development of increasingly sophisticated data collection methods and processing algorithms of big data are leading to an increased level of citizenry manipulation. This is achieved through the introduction of personalised advert delivery systems, which can target an individual’s specific interests and even moods. Examples of this could be someone tweeting after a bad encounter with a foreigner and then being targeted by an anti-immigration advert from a nativist politician, or a tweet about environmental concerns and be exposed to a targeted advert from Greenpeace.

In the near future, we are also likely to see a more existential threat to active citizenship through artificial intelligence. As AI becomes more powerful, it will be able to make decisions that are increasingly wiser, shrewder and ultimately better than ours. Most likely meaning we will increasingly doubt our abilities to form opinions and make our own decisions and defer to AI to make them for us.

There are already examples of this with the creation of apps like ‘iSideWith’, which suggests who you vote for based on your preferences. Many British citizens used this app in the last few elections, and by doing so, effectively outsourced their judgement to an algorithm.

In both politics and life in general, humans have the natural tendency to congregate into groups of like-minded individuals. What turns a group into a political gathering is a shared sense of both struggle and grievance.

There have always been such gatherings historically, but technology significantly facilitates their creation. By making it much easier for individuals to find and create associations with each other, the internet facilitates the clustering of small groups with specific grievances, in turn fragmenting the population more and more. In turn, no matter your background or particular grievance, you are likely to encounter like-minded individuals online.

Not only acting as a facilitator, technology then reinforces these groups by encouraging members to consume a diet of information that fans the flames of their shared sense of struggle and grievance. Due to the sheer amount of content available online, it is easy for people to find like-minded sources of information that support their views and fuel their sense of oppression.

Furthermore, algorithmic curation of information then amplifies people’s gravitation to like-minded sources. Youtube provides a myriad of options when compared to the mass television of yesteryear. Once you start opening and viewing videos, Youtube’s algorithms begin analysing your preferences, predicting what you are most likely to view next, and offering suggestions that both reinforce and reflect those preferences.

In turn, people become increasingly agitated and entrenched in their views and beliefs, which makes it increasingly difficult for them to both communicate and cooperate with those who share different opinions, resulting in a political deadlock. What is worse is the division between groups deepens and people feel increasingly under attack from other groups, they view other groups as ‘the enemy’, and in this instance, a leader is sought who can not only protect them but also help fight their foes.

From 1992 to 2014, the number of Americans with very negative views of supporters of the opposing political party more than doubled. Then in 2016, many Donald Trump supporters flocked to him because they saw him as a leader who would save them from their perceived enemy, be it the liberals, the Mexicans, the Muslims or the mainstream media.

Imagine the scenario in which an evil genius gains mind control over all the citizens of a particular democracy. Election day arrives and surprise surprise, the evil genius wins by a landslide!

Would this election be deemed free and fair? Most certainly not and the reasoning is simple. To participate in both a free and fair election, voters must be able to make up their own mind without any undue influence. However, technology is, unfortunately, making this increasingly difficult. Whilst mind control might still be the stuff of science fiction (for now!) by leveraging big data political parties are gaining an unprecedented ability to influence voters’ decision-making processes.

Being able to collect and analyse large sets of data ranging from people’s shopping preferences, web browsing histories and voting records allow political parties to be able to gain an increasingly perceptive understanding of their potential voters. This also allows them to target and communicate with sympathetic votes more and more precisely.

Referring to 2016 again, whilst teaming with the Trump campaign, the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica determined that there was a correlation between US-made automobiles and the likelihood they could be a potential Trump voter. Meaning that if someone had recently purchased a Chrysler but had not voted in a number of years, then the campaign could identify them as a ‘promising target’.

Cambridge Analytica aided the campaign by identifying 13.5 million persuadable voters in what was considered 16 battleground states, resulting in the creation of a roadmap of where to have rallies, where to knock on doors, and where to advertise on television. Given the decisiveness of the voters in these states, Cambridge Analytica played an instrumental role in the election of Donald Trump.

Whilst this seems a worrisome precedent, the influence of big data will only continue to grow, with each political party leveraging it in order to keep up with rival parties. Meanwhile, the consulting firms used by parties will be able to collect data from a variety of new sources, e.g. network integrated fridges, allowing them to monitor your eating habits. As big data transitions to ‘huge data’, the sort of analysis used by Cambridge Analytica in the Trump campaign may be viewed as very basic.

What is the first word that you think of when you hear the term ‘democracy?’ For many, it would be ‘freedom’, especially when individual liberty is a vital component of democracy.

That being said, an equally vital component is the opposite of said freedom — state coercion. To be able to enforce laws that express the will of the people, the government must have a system of coercion in place to facilitate things, i.e. the payment of taxes, and in turn, to justify and organise such a system, the government needs to control information like taxation records.

However, with the increased prominence of crypto-anarchy, the government’s ability to control information is under threat and is its authority to coerce its citizens. Crypto-anarchy seeks to undermine the authority of the government through encryption, which allows individuals to communicate, store and retrieve information beyond the reach of the government.

A notable example of this is Bitcoin, an encrypted digital currency (more commonly known as cryptocurrency) which facilitates secure, quasi-anonymous transactions without a central government controlling the currency’s value or supply. Such a currency poses a threat to governments because it challenges their abilities to exercise state monopolies on money, monitor transactions and therefore collect taxes.

Bitcoin is just one illustration of blockchain technology, further applications are already proliferating and will continue to grow, resistant to government surveillance and interference.

The culminating factor of this results in governmental laws, and by extension, the government itself becoming increasing toothless as malefactors become able to break the rules with impunity.

Technology has brought us undeniable benefits but also presents challenges to democracy. These challenges stem from tendencies of technologically driven social changes which are unravelling before our eyes. These very tendencies are eroding the essential pillars of democracy. If left unaddressed these pillars may eventually crumble, leaving a totalitarian or dystopian state in the rubble. It is important Governments stay up to date with innovation to allow them to withstand the impending changes.

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The impact of technology on democracy was originally published in Becoming Human: Artificial Intelligence Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.