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Technology and the internet threaten to undermine democracy

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Facebook has been under fire for its fail to police its own platform (Image via Jakob Steinschaden / flickr).

The many possibilities associated with technology and the internet make them ripe for exploitation, writes Paul Budde.

THE RESULTS OF a study conducted by the Pew Research Centre stated: 

About half of those surveyed predict that humans’ use of technology will weaken democracy between now and 2030 due to the speed and scope of reality distortion, the decline of journalism and the impact of surveillance capitalism. A third expect technology to strengthen democracy as reformers find ways to fight back against info-warriors and chaos.

My colleagues in the technology industry (many of them world leaders) and I recently discussed this study. With their permission, here are some of their insights. The most worrisome from Vint Cerf. He stood at the cradle of the internet and is Google’s internet evangelist. You will be hard to find somebody with more and better insights than him.

Vint Cerf: Father of the internet

I am deeply concerned that democracy is under siege through abuse of online services and some seriously gullible citizens who have trouble distinguishing fact from fiction or who are wrapped up in conspiracy theories or who are unable or unwilling to exercise critical thinking.

 

We are seeing the erosion of trust in our institutions, fed in part by misinformation campaigns designed to achieve that objective and to stir dissent. We are seeing social networking systems that provoke feedback loops that lead to extremism.

 

Metrics such as "likes" or "views" or "followers" are maximised through expression of extreme content. Trolls use media that invite commentary to pump poison into the discussion. Constant cyber attacks expose personal information or enable theft of intellectual property. Tools to facilitate cyberattacks are widely available and used to create botnets, generate a denial of service attacks, spread malware, conduct ransom demands and a host of other harmful things.

 

Law enforcement is challenged in part by the transnational nature of the internet/web and lack of effective cooperative law enforcement agreements across national boundaries. Privacy is abused to commit crimes or other harmful acts.

 

At the same time, privacy is extremely hard to come by given the ease with which information can be spread and found on the net. Nation-states and organised crime are actively exploiting weaknesses in online environments.

 

Ironically, enormous amounts of useful information are found and used to good effect all the time, in spite of the ills listed above. The challenge we face is to find ways to preserve all the useful aspects of the internet while protecting against its abuse. If we fail, the internet will potentially devolve into a fragmented system offering only a fraction of its promise.

 

In the meantime, democracy suffers.

Christopher Savage: Policy entrepreneur

“Eventually – on a scale of decades – technology will enhance and strengthen democratic institutions and civic engagement. But our cultural and psychological tools for obtaining, evaluating and understanding information are still far, far behind where they need to be to handle the polluted fire hose of crap thrown at us every day.

 

And, worse, detecting and resisting the combined effects of detailed, intimate, pervasive-surveillance-based profiles of everyone – which reveal how to manipulate us – and ever-more-convincing fake news ("deep fakes" of video, audio and verbal authorship) will require a degree of sophistication in the consumption and processing of information that most of us just do not have and do not know how to get.

 

Those seeking power (that is, politicians and those who enable them) cannot be expected to resist the temptation of using these tools to get it. So, the processes of democracy are going to get worse before they get better.”

Doc Searls: American journalist, columnist and a widely-read blogger

In these early years of our new digital age, social media (a collection of new and likely epiphenomenal developments) in particular are amplifying homophily: the tendency of people to gather among those with whom they share characteristics, loyalties, affinities and other forces that attract people into tribal groupings.

 

Blaming and demonising other tribes comes naturally to humans and we’re at a stage right now when doing that is just too damn easy. We’ll get past it, but in the meantime, tribalism is making enemies of groups that used to merely disagree.

 

This naturally affects governance in all forms, especially democratic ones. We are in the early stages of a digital transition: a time when everything that can be digitised is being digitised. This includes all forms of studying, communicating and remembering things.

 

Plus, everything that doesn’t need to be physical: a sum that is huge beyond reckoning. Recently I asked Joi Ito, at that time the head of MIT's Media Lab, how big this is. "Is it bigger than electricity?" I asked. "Movable type? Writing? Speech? Stone tools?" "No," he said. "It’s the biggest thing since oxygenation." That happened around 2.5 billion years ago. And I think he’s right: it’s that big.

As we can see around us democratic systems and institutions are eroding. Based on some of the dangerous tools that the internet has to offer, candidates are being elected at least partly because of fake news and private data manipulation.

We are seeing the effects of this in the U.S., UK, Poland, Hungary, Turkey to name a few. Other countries, while not as badly affected by these tools, have still seen an increase in tribalism, populism, nationalism, racism, climate denial and the undermining of a free press and open society.

Dramatic action is required in order to protect our democracies. The same tools that are misused can also be used to attack those who for whatever reason are aiming to undermine our society and our democracy.

A place to start is the digital giants – Facebook in particular – who have developed a privately-controlled, monopolistic surveillance economy.

They fail to change their business models that facilitate these poisonous activities. However, as they are making enormous profits from this poison, we don’t see decisive action from them. This will require governments to step in through legislation and regulation. Europe is leading the way but other countries, especially midsize economies such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand should join them. We can only change the system through international collaboration, which is another area that is under threat.

An interesting observation here that governments and the World Health Organisation (WHO) are working closely with social media to address the infodemic and fake news around the coronavirus. This is clearly undermining the economy as well as the overall human wellbeing and that might just be the right reason for more decisive action.

Is this the crisis that'll get some real changes for the better underway?

Governments clearly will need to lift their game in this environment and need to follow the digital giants in amassing their own data and creating data sets that can be used for the social and economic good. So far, they have been very slow in doing so and are concentrating on the negatives of this data revolution.

Policymakers need to recognise the urgency of the challenge at hand and ensure that there are sound data strategies, policies, and regulations for the digital transformation. If they fail to do so, some of the already dangerous scenarios mentioned above will only get worse and the "second oxygenation" of our planet will be in the hands of a few very large companies and as such much of the potential benefit to society will be wasted.

Paul Budde is an Independent Australia columnist and managing director of Paul Budde Consulting, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy organisation. You can follow Paul on Twitter @PaulBudde.

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