Three key technological developments
For at least the past decade, three parallel technological developments have taken place whose impact on democracy is so significant that it merits the word ‘revolution’. The first development is mass data analysis, or ‘big data’. It has become technically possible to collect, save, and analyse very large amounts of data regarding the personal characteristics, choices, and preferences of virtually any known citizen of most countries. Thereby, algorithms can, with a high degree of accuracy, predict an individual’s political opinion and future voting behaviour, as well as the likelihood to change their behaviour as a response to different types of campaign messages.
The second development is the increasing ubiquity of social media. In 2020, social media is well on course to become the most important medium for interpersonal and group communication and the most important news source. As such, it is becoming the single most important source of information on the basis of which citizens form their political opinion and will. Importantly, however, social media is most than a platform, or conduit, for communication, since the algorithms of social media companies actively influence which messages citizens see; these algorithms, whose precise working mechanisms are business secrets of the social media companies and as such inaccessible, must be assumed to operate with the principal aim of profit maximisation (rather than, for instance, the delivery of balanced or accurate information to users).
An important third development is the trend towards commercial exploitation of the possibility to combine the powers of big data with the opportunities of social media communication. Based on detailed knowledge about the political preferences of voters, it is possible to send out group-sensitive, even personalised, ‘micro-targeted’ campaign messages geared to sway the choices and behaviour of individual voters. Whoever can afford the services of specialised commercial actors (one well-known example was the British-Canadian firm Cambridge Analytica) can buy highly effective tools to influence and shape personal – and therefore popular – political opinion.
A danger to democracy?
In themselves, none of the above developments are new. Politicians have always sought to learn as much as possible about their electorate, for instance by analysing income structures in certain residential areas, etc. Political actors have also always been quick to exploit new developments in communication media, from the invention of the printing press to radio and television. And lastly, spin-doctoring and professionalised political communication has been common in modern democracies for a long time. What is revolutionary is, however, the scale and the profundity with which the developments outlined above impact personal and public will-formation in the 21st century. Especially in polities such as Indonesia where (a) social media use is extremely common, (b) levels of education and media literacy are relatively low in large parts of the population, and (c) the traditions of multi-party liberal democracy are weak or nascent, 21st century political communication can be highly dangerous to democracy.
Already in 2007, the Americal constitutional scholar Cass Sunstein formulated to basic requirements for a flourishing democracy. First, Sunstein argued, citizens must regularly and reliably be confronted with ‘the political other’ – thus with people who are recognized as fellow citizens but who hold political views opposed to one’s own. The experience that one’s own views and values exist on a spectrum and the acceptance of compromise as an essential requirement of democracy is fundamental. Sunstein calls these necessary encounters with opposing views ‘serendipitous exposure’. He further argues that, in order to bring about such exposure, there must be a minimum of shared experience of reality and facts. Citizens may come to different conclusions in their evaluation of life’s realities and develop opposing opinions on what to do about political problems, but they can only do so in a constructive and democratic way if they agree on reality.
Both of Sunstein’s requirements of democracy are increasingly undermined in the age of social media and micro-targeted campaigning, especially in countries with a demographic similar to that of Indonesia. Due to ‘filter bubbles’ and the natural tendency – amplified by social media algorithms – to consume news which confirm the believes one already holds, encounters with ‘the political other’ are increasingly rare, social groups grow more distanced from each other, mutual understanding and readiness for compromise decrease. In addition, targeted new, including micro-targeted political campaigning, undermine any shared sense of reality – if one citizen’s news feed provided completely different information from his neighbour’s, it is difficult to come to a common understanding.
The destructive effects of the IT revolution on democracy sketched here can, to a degree, already be seen in many democracies – think of the growing social tensions and divisions in many countries on all continents, and the rise of populist politicians, whose media aptitude is often much greater than their political clout.
What can be done?
It is clear that public law as so far struggled, and in most polities in the world failed completely, to formulate an adequate response to the problem sketched above. This has three reasons: first, the internet is global, while virtually all law-making is national or regional. Second, tighter regulation of communication (of any sort) in democratic societies always runs the risk of being a cure more dangerous than the disease. Freedom of speech is a necessary fundamental right, as is freedom to receive and choose information freely. Third, technological development is not going to be halted by any type of regulation, outright prohibitions (e.g. of big data analysis or micro-targeting) will, at least in the long run, not be a viable option.
Three types of regulation are therefore crucial in an attempt to mitigate the most adverse effects of the IT revolution on democracy.
First, adequate rules on campaign financing and spending by both political actors and their private allies should be introduced with the aim of making the efforts of politicians to influence will formation through big data and social media more transparent. Any amount spent, locally or abroad, on related services should ideally be made public.
Second, social media platforms – which are commercial, for-profit operators – should be regulated in such a way as to oblige them to create ‘serendipitous exposure’, i.e. to actively break filter bubbles, fact-check political messaging, and counteract voter deception.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, unprecedented investments must be made in political education, the teaching of democratic practices and values, and media literacy.