TAP Scholars Weigh In on Technology’s Impact on Democratic Institutions

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on March 6, 2020


Between now and 2030, how will use of technology by citizens, civil society groups and governments affect core aspects of democracy and democratic representation?


This question is at the core of a recent report by the Pew Research Center. In collaboration with Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center, the researchers gathered insights from nearly 1,000 technology experts about the potential future effects of people’s use of technology on democracy.


TAP scholars danah boyd, Eric Goldman, Evan Selinger, and Joseph Turow shared their expertise with the researchers. Below are excerpts from the Pew report, “Many Experts Say Digital Disruption Will Hurt Democracy.”


Observations About Democracy’s Current Predicament
danah boyd, Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and Founder of Data & Society


Democracy requires the public to come together and work through differences in order to self-govern. That is a hard task in the best of times, but when the public is anxious, fearful, confused or otherwise insecure, they are more likely to retreat from the collective and focus on self-interest. Technology is destabilizing. That can help trigger positive change, but it can also trigger tremendous anxiety. Technology also reconfigures power, at least temporarily. This can benefit social movements, but it can also benefit adversarial actors. All too often, technology is designed naively, imagining all of the good but not building safeguards to prevent the bad. The problem is that technology mirrors and magnifies the good, bad AND ugly in everyday life. And right now, we do not have the safeguards, security or policies in place to prevent manipulators from doing significant harm with the technologies designed to connect people and help spread information.


Corporate and Government Agendas Tend to Serve Those in Power, Not Democratic Goals
Joseph Turow
, Robert Lewis Shayon Professor of Communication at University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication


I fear that a combination of political-marketing interests and antidemocratic forces within the U.S. and outside will create an environment of concocted stories (often reflecting conspiracy theories) targeted in hyper-personalized ways. The situation will make it virtually impossible for the press and civic groups to track and/or challenge lies or highlight accurate claims effectively to the electorate because there will be so many mass-customized variants, and because news audiences will be so fragmented. At the same time, people running for election will convince a significant percentage of the population to refuse to deal with or to confuse pollsters that don’t represent their constituencies. These long-term dynamics will undermine our traditional sense of an open and democratic election – though politicians encouraging the dynamics will insist the system remains open and democratic. I fear regulations will not be able to mitigate these problems.


Rise of Social Media-Abetted Tribalism and Decline of Independent Journalism
Eric Goldman
, Professor of Law at Santa Clara University and Co-Director of the High Tech Law Institute


Our politicians have embraced internet communications as a direct channel to lie to their constituents without the fact-checking of traditional media gatekeepers. So long as technology helps politicians lie without accountability, we have little hope of good governance.


Momentum from the Techlash Hasn’t Reached Its Tipping Point
Evan Selinger
, Professor of Philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology


I’m not sure how anyone can make a credible prediction. First, momentum from the techlash hasn’t resulted in a tipping point. It’s unclear whether momentum for real change is slowly building or resignation and cynicism have become more deeply entrenched. Second, it’s still too early to know what the long-term consequences will be of the General Data Protection Regulation. Third, new challenges like deepfakes are springing up, and they serve as a reminder that the speed of innovation has an edge over the slower changing horizon of regulation. Fourth, politics matter! Whether or not Trump gets re-elected will have a major impact on what democracy looks like in 2030, and not only in the United States. Fifth, we’re living through a moment where leading experts are struggling to come to terms with the disruptive potential of artificial intelligence. If using AI products and services helps authoritarian governments further eviscerate personal and collective liberties, will democratic ones get nudged closer to authoritarianism themselves?


Overall, the Pew report summarizes:


Some 49% of these respondents say use of technology will mostly weaken core aspects of democracy and democratic representation in the next decade, 33% say use of technology will mostly strengthen core aspects of democracy and democratic representation and 18% say there will be no significant change in the next decade.


Read the full report: “Many Experts Say Digital Disruption Will Hurt Democracy” (Pew Research Center, February 2020).