Our ever-expanding relationship with technology continues to transform every aspect of our lives - even how countries govern their citizens. The rise of the internet, smartphones, and social media converged to usher in a new era of citizen engagement that allowed for individuals to become influential voices in conversations they were previously barred/restricted from. This direct line allowed for global exposure to new ideas and ways of thinking and allowed anyone with an internet connection to share their perspective. In time, we've discovered the unintended consequences of this rapid expansion of the digitized world. Around the globe, the impact of disinformation, erosion of privacy, and intense polarization are creating new threats to democracy. The impact of technology on the political sphere will take years to come fully into view. Still, by examining the complex interplay between technology and our political systems, we can better understand how we got here and the steps we can take to build a democracy built to last beyond the 21st century.
Join us for episode 88 of the Feedback Loop Podcast as we delve into the relationship between technology and democracy. We sat down with research scientist, professor, and co-founder of Tech Policy Press, Justin Hendrix, to discuss the impact of social media, political polarization, and the economic implications of universal basic income in a world where technology continues to transform every aspect of our lives - including the way countries govern their citizens. As we navigate the unintended consequences of a rapidly expanding digital world, we will explore the question on everyone's minds: Can democracy survive technology?
Spoiler alert: we don't have the answer in a 45-minute podcast, and you won't find a clear answer below either. However, you will discover three thought-provoking questions to start your exploration as you formulate your own answer on this topic.
When Hendrix founded Tech Policy Press, he did so to identify whether technology and democracy were in crisis. It took only a short time until he began to see problems emerge that supported the affirmative. Some of these concerns came when looking at the United States during the Trump administration and noting concerns around data misuse, polarization, and the spread of disinformation on social media sites. Validation would come later with confirmation of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, antitrust hearings, and European data privacy and security regulations.
A forty-year study, published in 2020 and led by Stanford professor Matthew Gentzkow, on polarization rates in nine countries found that the US experienced the largest increase in affective polarization. While the data shows that there is no significant connection between affective polarization and economic and media-related factors, a subsequent report published by NYU Stern (which Hendrix contributed to) on social media and political polarization concluded that while social media platforms are not the leading cause of rising partisan hatred, the use of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube do intensify the divide and as such, contributes to the corrosive effects.
The definition of democracy can vary from country to country. Still, when we look at two core tenets of the democratic process, we find freedom of expression and a right to privacy. As technology proliferates our increasingly digital daily lives, we trade convenience for our data without awareness. While the conversation can often paint social media sites as the culprit, the concern for misuse expands beyond Big Tech and into our local and national government. In a prior blog post, we touched on the potential positive and negative impact of our increasing digital footprint. The data collected from our time online or the products we use every day can help to improve our lives drastically. The wrong intent or leadership can lead to that same data being used to reach a surveillance state scenario. According to the Internet Freedom Report, democracy is getting worse - a trend that has persisted for the 12th year.
"Back to that question about optimism versus constraint or pessimism, whatever you want to call it, you know, things are not moving in the right direction on this, and that's one of the things I think we have to get hold of it to figure out how to create a pro-democratic tech movement, you know, technologies, platforms, ideas, tech policy regulations, that are pro-democratic." - Justin Hendrix
Regulation is always something to consider, especially in the digital age. Combined with the intricacies of democracy, it would make sense that there would be a careful discourse on policies about how they would be regulated. Government and our digital world have a complex relationship. On the one hand, social media provides government officials with a direct line of communication with the public, allowing them to share information and respond to citizen concerns more quickly and efficiently. On the other hand, social media also presents a number of challenges for governments, including the spread of misinformation, privacy concerns, and the difficulty of regulating content. Governments struggle to strike a balance between utilizing social media to engage with citizens and preserving their power to govern and regulate online activity. So what does regulation look like when technology is a de facto public utility for democracy?
According to Hendrix, there is something wrong with the idea that privately held platforms can become so publicly essential, yet, there are no fail safes. For example, he mentioned the use of Twitter and all the uses that governments have for it to inform citizens on everything from earthquake alerts to traffic instructions, etc. Twitter, being privately held, can sometimes mean unintentional, unforeseen changes in operations that come at the mercy of these private companies. Due to this, there are discussions on whether the government should have never relied on these private platforms. And yet, most people agree that practically, the majority of people tend to be on these privately held platforms, so if you want to reach the masses with information, you are forced to use these platforms.
"I think that depends on the people to some extent, in the United States, clearly, things aren't going terribly well. From a political point of view we've got a lot of problems and a lot of discord, and our legislative process doesn't seem to be terribly productive. A lot of people at different levels and from different political perspectives are concerned that there are some fundamental aspects of the system that are broken. I do think that they could be right. And for different reasons, right? People may demand more substantial change. Could you imagine a constitutional Congress where we might address some of these things? Could you imagine major reforms to the way that the Senate operates, or an expansion of the Court or an expansion of Congress itself, or some rebalancing of power between the branches of government or some new constitutional order altogether? It's possible that within the next few decades, we'll see that [in the U.S.] My hope is that somehow we can arrive at that without bloodshed. But the reality is that most of the time, that's not how it goes." - Justin Hendrix
Humanity has made enormous progress in the past decade in understanding the relationship between tech and social cohesion and the relationship between tech and democracy. And to move forward, Hendrix emphasized how we must all ask ourselves, how can we be part of a pro-democratic movement through our work? The opportunities to better understand and contribute to the future of democracy as our digital age progresses are opportunities to ask ethical questions, for example. And realizing the power technology has in our world, including the digital space, gives us the opportunities to create an intelligent technology ecosystem and a fabric of technology that supports a more democratic, equitable, and just society that we'd all like to see – a future we'd all like to leave behind.