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Democracy and technology in the age of algorithms

Democracy newspaper burning
Photo by Bruno Moretti from Pexels

Is there a dysfunctional relationship between democracy and technology? Are social media algorithms to blame for misinformation and polarization?

Today, Feb. 25, the Philippines is celebrating the 34th anniversary of the 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution. This revolution toppled the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos and restored democracy in the Philippines.

Blaming technology

Ironically, in 2016, the 30th anniversary of the EDSA Revolution, the Philippines elected Rodrigo Duterte as president in a landslide victory.

A populist and Marcos admirer, Duterte’s election would presage the wave of voter anger across the world. This trend would bring anti-establishment and authoritarian leaders into power, most notably Donald Trump in the US.

Nowadays, it is fashionable to blame technology for supposedly destroying democracy.

Algorithms and anger

This Wired article points out, however, that it is reductive to make social media a scapegoat. True, it is a vector for spreading misinformation and outrage.

But the more important question we should be asking is why are so many people choosing misinformation and outrage?

Regardless of how one study or another breaks, tech companies have reason to prefer abstract arguments about the values of untrammeled expression. They have chosen to adopt the language of classical liberalism precisely because it puts their liberal critics in an uncomfortable position: It’s unacceptably patronizing to claim that some subset of our neighbors have to be protected from their own demands. It’s even worse to question the authenticity of those demands in the first place—to suggest that the desires of our neighbors are not really their own. Critics must rely on such potted ideas as ‘astroturfing’ to explain how it might be that good people come to demand bad things.

The case for corporate blame is, at any rate, probably more expedient than it is empirical. It’s much easier to imagine how we might exercise leverage over a handful of companies than it is to address the preferences of billions of users. It’s always tempting to search for our keys where the light is better. A better solution would require tech’s critics to take what people demand as seriously as the corporations do, even if that means looking into the dark.

This isn’t to say that tech companies are completely blameless. Democracy and technology sometimes do have a parasitic relationship. Rather, it’s a call to focus on the roots of dissatisfaction and acknowledge the demands of angry voters.

Democracy and discontent

It is condescending to believe that voters are stupid for electing leaders that are not to our liking. Ironically, people only seem to believe that democracy works if the leaders they like win.

True, technology can be a powerful and frightening tool for authoritarianism. Social media, however, does not create outrage from scratch, but rather amplifies what people actually desire and feel.

What we are seeing all over the world is outrage born from the desperation of the masses.

They are rightfully demanding genuine social change. Long pent-up frustration is leading them to pin their hopes on populist and anti-establishment politicians.

Outrage and out-of-touch elite

It is the out-of-touch elite that have driven the marginalized poor to this desperation, not any algorithm. As the brilliant movie “Parasite” shows, it is easy to think the system works if one belongs to the elite.

The out-of-touch elite live in a bubble that is bursting all over the world. Pew Center Research points out the roots of discontent with democracy.

“Anger at political elites, economic dissatisfaction and anxiety about rapid social changes have fueled political upheaval in regions around the world in recent years. Anti-establishment leaders, parties and movements have emerged on both the right and left of the political spectrum, in some cases challenging fundamental norms and institutions of liberal democracy.”

Unfortunately, many so-called defenders of democracy make things worse. They dismiss the reasons for discontent and instead blame voters for being “stupid”. Social media then becomes the platform for the warring sides to grandstand. Ironically, sometimes they even employ the same propaganda tactics against each other.

Mocking the masses

This inability to even acknowledge the concerns of the masses will likely keep authoritarian leaders in power.

As the article ”Shit-Life Syndrome,’ Trump Voters, and Clueless Dems” warns:

“I talked to Trump voters in 2016, and many of them felt that Trump was not a nice person, even a jerk, but their fantasy was that he was one of those rich guys with a big ego who needed to be a hero. Progressives who merely mock this way of thinking rather than create a strategy to deal with it are going to get four more years of Trump.”

In his column piece, Randy David notes that it’s this same condescension that led to Duterte’s victory in the Philippines.

Mr. Duterte’s appearance on the political scene just before the 2016 presidential election was unexpected. It came almost as a kind of joke, rather than as a redemption. He was seen not so much as a threat to democracy as a comic relief from the dreariness of the political landscape. Indeed, no one took him seriously enough to bother to question the validity of his certificate of candidacy, which was filed under the most bizarre circumstances.

The elites merely smirked, but the people who flocked to his rallies, and watched him on YouTube, were fired up by this funny and angry outsider as he mocked the Establishment. And now he is the government.

Reinventing democracy

Only by acknowledging that democracy is broken and addressing why it is falling apart can humanity hope to fix it.

Digital Life Asia was built on the belief that technology is a force for good. Instead of blaming technology for human failings, society can and should tap it as a powerful platform for educating, engaging, and empowering people. Democracy and technology can be a powerful combination.

It is only when people have a voice and feel that society is listening to them, that humanity can progress from myopic short-term solutions and start building the future.

As this BBC article emphasizes, humanity needs to reinvent democracy for the long-term:

“The time has come to face an inconvenient reality: that modern democracy – especially in wealthy countries – has enabled us to colonise the future. We treat the future like a distant colonial outpost devoid of people, where we can freely dump ecological degradation, technological risk, nuclear waste and public debt, and that we feel at liberty to plunder as we please.” 

In the end, democracy did not fail humanity. It was humanity that failed to live up to democracy.

It is up to humanity to work together while there is still time. To make democracy and technology work hand-in-hand to benefit everyone–not just the chosen few.

Together, people can end the vicious cycle of oppression and outrage, and reinvent democracy for the 21st century.

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  1. Pingback:Social media should bring us together, not tear us apart - Digital Life Asia

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