One factor playing an increasingly important role in the processes of democracy is digital technology, which can enhance or diminish it, depending on how it is used. And that raises important questions about the impact and potential of today's technologies and those in the pipeline. Their influence operates at all scales.
At the individual scale is the issue of personal identity in a digital world: how it can be best captured, verified, protected and used. At the scale of communities and societies are digital technologies that can influence the nature of governance and even anticipate and manipulate it. These technologies have the potential to profoundly alter our relationship with democracy in unanticipated ways.
All this sits within a broader debate about the veracity of information, and how to identify and counter misinformation. The ways in which information can and should be moderated is a topic of significant debate, with much agreement that misinformation and hate speech cannot be allowed to spread largely unfettered, as they do today. But moderation must be carefully managed to permit secure, anonymous communication, particularly for whistle blowers and in authoritarian regimes where free speech is stifled.
The decline in global democracy has puzzled many political scientists who have tended to think of democratic change as an ever-increasing process. But recent research has begun to treat democracies as complex systems that are vulnerable to unexpected and unpredictable change.2 Many researchers working in this field are keen to better understand the role that technologies will play in the operation of democratic societies, as well as the philosophies and frameworks necessary for them to be put to best use.
Box Selection of GESDA best reads and key reports
In Europe, the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act drawn up by the European Commission have placed significant markers for the way online behaviour and activity will be regulated in future.3 However, China has taken a different approach with mass surveillance and a social credit system that bodes ill for personal freedom and free expression.4 The potential for digital technologies to protect freedom of expression and promote civic engagement has been explored by Freeman Spogli Institute at Stanford University.5 Many of the potential pitfalls of digital societies have been highlighted by Reetika Khera's study of India's Aadhaar system of digital identity.6 Paul Nemitz has also explored the way AI can be exploited to support democratic institutions.7 Francis Fukayama and colleagues have also asked how democracy can be saved from technology.8