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24 August 2022

Technology has eroded liberal democracy. But it could also be used to restore it

From using AI to inform legislature to strengthening online voting, institutions are increasingly looking to tech to help protect civic life

By Jeremy Cliffe

International liberal democracy is heading into what could be a grim autumn. On 11 September Swedes face an election that may put the far-right Sweden Democrats in second place and deliver the country’s first government reliant on the party. It is likely that Italy’s election on 25 September will put the post-fascist party Brothers of Italy at the helm of a new government. In Brazil, it is unclear whether President Jair Bolsonaro will accept his likely defeat in October’s election. Meanwhile, US officials have warned about attempts to interfere in the November midterms and global indexes show the health of democracy worldwide deteriorating year-by-year.

All of which is a reminder that elections alone do not make a strong liberal democracy. For the casting of ballots to be meaningfully democratic a framework of commonly accepted facts and norms is required. It demands independent institutions and other checks on power such as accountability for leaders, and pluralistic and participatory civic debates. A degree of social trust is essential. Together, as the Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have argued, these factors create the oxygen of mutual toleration and forbearance without which democracy suffocates.

In recent years, new technologies have careened through that eco-system like bulldozers through a rainforest. Social media and artificial intelligence (AI) especially have contributed to frenzies of fear and intolerance; desecrations of the truth; echo chambers and mob behaviour; the amplification of extreme views; and many new entry points through which illicit interference can penetrate a democratic system. And that is without analysing jobs lost and created, the industries disrupted and the resulting economic divides.

[See also: The war that changed the world]

The conventional response to this democratic disruption is regulation. Next year, for example, the EU is expected to pass a landmark Artificial Intelligence Act that purports to make AI “human-centric” and “trustworthy”. It will likely influence governments farther afield, such as in the US, where calls are growing for an AI Bill of Rights. Such measures are valuable if intelligently designed. Yet on their own they are also fundamentally insufficient. After all, regulation is reactive, shaped by established problems or threats that require mitigation. The speed at which new technology is emerging – from the metaverse to deep fakes, chatbots indistinguishable from humans, and other forms of more powerful AI – is such that regulation is virtually doomed to lag.

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A more confident answer, and a necessary complement to regulation, is the harnessing of new technologies in ways that strengthen liberal democracy. It is to these “democracy-affirming technologies” that progressive institutions, campaigners and governments are now increasingly looking. I witnessed this first-hand when I attended the first stage of the “Tech4Democracy” competition in Madrid this summer, led by the Centre for the Governance of Change at IE University in cooperation with the US State Department, to identify those who are pioneering such technologies. Six firms, drawn from a long-list of hundreds, pitched to a jury.

One, called Kuorum, used blockchain technology to provide secure online voting to municipalities, firms and citizen groups. Another, Civocracy, is an online civic-engagement platform – a sort of social network – on which citizens from a given area can organise campaigns and authorities can consult those they represent. Other technologies pitched included an AI-based chatbot that allows people to fact-check dubious information posted on social media; geolocation technology to improve municipal government; and a platform for transparent crowdfunding of political campaigns.

The European round of the competition was won by a start-up called Citibeats, which uses AI to collate citizens’ anonymised opinions from social media and other sources, and incorporate them into political decision-making – such as by helping the World Health Organisation to monitor Covid-19 disinformation. It will go up against winners from upcoming heats on other continents in a global final next year.

There are examples of democracy-affirming technologies already in action. Both Iceland and Mexico City have used participatory online platforms to crowdsource new constitutions. Estonia’s widely admired anti-disinformation measures use bots to comb the internet for fast-spreading fake news to refute it promptly. Taiwan uses an online discussion forum called vTaiwan to involve citizens in the creation of contentious legislation – for example, the regulation of gig-economy firms such as Uber – on which rival views need to be melded into a consensus.

What these pioneering efforts share with the competition’s semi-finalists is that they draw on precisely those traits of new technology that can corrupt democracies – such as network logic, high-speed information flows, big data and AI – to turn the system’s weaknesses into strengths. 

None of these initiatives will single-handedly stop or reverse democratic backsliding. But together they do challenge the prevailing pessimism about the relationship between technology and democracy. They invite us to see emergent technologies not solely as threats to be mitigated but as potential solutions. Most crises contain the seeds of their own resolution. We may come to see that the technology-driven “democratic recession” of our times is one of them.

[See also: Inside Hopin: how Europe’s fastest growing start-up lost its way]

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This article appears in the 24 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Inflation Wars