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

International liberal democracy is heading for what could be a dark autumn. On September 11, Swedes face an election that could put Sweden’s far-right Democrats in second place and form the country’s first party-dependent government. It is likely that the Italian elections on September 25 will place the post-fascist Brothers of Italy party at the head of a new government. In Brazil, it is unclear whether President Jair Bolsonaro will accept his likely defeat in the October elections. Meanwhile, US officials have warned against attempts to interfere in November’s midterm reviews and global indices show the health of democracy around the world is deteriorating year on year.

All of this reminds us that elections alone do not make a strong liberal democracy. For voting to be truly democratic, a framework of commonly accepted facts and standards is necessary. It requires independent institutions and other checks on power such as accountability of leaders and pluralistic and participatory civic debates. A degree of social trust is essential. Together, as Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have argued, these factors create the oxygen of mutual tolerance and abstention without which democracy suffocates.

In recent years, new technologies have cut through this ecosystem like bulldozers through a rainforest. Social media and artificial intelligence (AI) in particular have contributed to frenzies of fear and intolerance; profanations of truth; echo chambers and crowd behavior; the amplification of extreme points of view; and many new entry points through which unlawful interference can enter a democratic system. And that without analyzing the 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 upheaval is regulation. Next year, for example, the EU is expected to pass a landmark law on artificial intelligence that aims to make AI “human-centric” and “trustworthy”. This will likely influence governments further afield, like in the United States, where there are growing calls for an AI bill of rights. Such measures are useful if designed intelligently. Yet, on their own, they are also fundamentally insufficient. After all, regulation is reactive, shaped by established issues or threats that require mitigation. The speed at which new technologies are emerging – from the metaverse to deep fakes, chatbots indistinguishable from humans and other more powerful forms of AI – is such that regulation is almost bound to lag behind.

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A safer answer, and a necessary complement to regulation, is to harness new technologies in ways that strengthen liberal democracy. It is to these “democracy-affirming technologies” that progressive institutions, activists and governments are increasingly turning. I witnessed this when I attended the first stage of the “Tech4Democracy” competition in Madrid this summer, led by the Center for Governance of Change at IE University in cooperation with the US Department of State, to identify those who are at the forefront of such technologies. Six companies, drawn from a long list of hundreds, presented their applications to a jury.

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One, called Kuorum, used blockchain technology to provide secure online voting to municipalities, businesses and citizen groups. Another, Civocracy, is an online civic engagement platform – a kind of social network – where citizens of a given territory can organize campaigns and authorities can consult with those they represent. Other technologies on offer include an AI-based chatbot that allows users to verify questionable information posted on social media; geolocation technology to improve municipal administration; and a platform for transparent crowdfunding of political campaigns.

The competition’s European round was won by a start-up called Citibeats, which uses AI to gather citizens’ anonymised opinions from social media and other sources, and feed them into political decision-making – by example by helping the World Health Organization monitor misinformation about Covid-19. It will face the winners of the next rounds on other continents in a world final next year.

There are examples of democracy-affirming technologies already in action. Both Iceland and Mexico City have used online participatory platforms to crowdsource new constitutions. Estonia’s widely admired anti-disinformation measures use bots to comb through the internet for fast-spreading fake news in order to refute it quickly. Taiwan uses an online discussion forum called vTaiwan to engage citizens in creating controversial legislation – for example, the regulation of gig economy companies like Uber – on which competing views must be merged into one. a consensus.

What these pioneering efforts have in common with the competition’s semi-finalists is that they draw on precisely the characteristics of new technologies that can corrupt democracies – such as network logic, information flows broadband, big data and AI – to turn system weaknesses into strengths. .

None of these initiatives alone can halt or reverse democratic backsliding. But together they challenge the prevailing pessimism about the relationship between technology and democracy. They invite us to see emerging technologies not just as threats to be mitigated but as potential solutions. Most crises contain the seeds of their own resolution. We may see that the technology-driven “democratic recession” of our time is one of them.

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