Digital Platforms & Democracy: Opportunities to Evolve Together

May 25, 2022

Social technologies have been, and will likely continue to be, central in the global digital transformation of the 21st century. Social technologies can enhance democracy by making it more inclusive, deliberative, responsive, and accountable, but the last decade has seen social media platforms beleaguered with accusations of being harmful to democracy.

In today’s environment it may sound strange, but in its infancy, championing democracy was part of the hope for the Internet. Adherents believed its universal accessibility would mean “democratizing” the world, connecting communities and nations into a “global village.”

The fact that the digital transformation has had trouble delivering what once seemed all but certain has confounded platforms, political parties, and citizens around the world. Fingers of blame are pointed in multiple directions to explain how this has failed to materialize, while informed insiders of some of the largest digital companies point out that, even if people are well-meaning, digital platform business models make it difficult to remodel incentive structures or change internal politics that lead to negative externalities for users and communities.

Others argue that misinformation and/or disinformation has proliferated on digital platforms, aided by the autonomous administration of algorithms seeking attention from users. Still others suggest that the key threat to democracy flows from authoritarian regimes exploiting data to oppress open speech and political activity.

Each of these arguments has merit, especially in that they are not mutually exclusive. None of them, however, highlight perhaps more fundamental ways that digital platforms—as they are currently structured—could become more democratic in their use and structure.

The popular concept of democracy—particularly when related to digital platforms and social technologies—emphasizes the role of participation. The term “democratizing” has become ubiquitous in recent years, invariably referring to lowering the cost of access to information and networks.

Participation, however, is only part of democracy. In democratic theory and practice, it is also critical to institute political equality among citizens and to ensure that citizens are able to wield meaningful influence and control over the governance of their society. This amounts to establishing collective ownership. Currently, digital platform models offer participation, but their ownership is still in the hands of shareholders rather than stakeholders. This creates a political schism.

Ownership of the process of governance is just as important in today’s democracies. For example, the Constitution of the United States begins with “We the people . . . do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America,” signifying responsibility of the people and their committal to the unity of the nation.

This is where digital platforms and social technologies have the opportunity to evolve and support healthy democracies—by enabling basic enabling aspects of democracy.

In their current state, social technologies and their underlying platforms are maintained and owned by companies rather than governments, so there is very little sense of collective ownership. Users participate, but they don’t own the process of governance of the spaces they inhabit. Working on how to restructure these spaces, perhaps through decentralized applications and Web 3 infrastructure, could start to put ownership back in the hands of citizens in both the real and virtual worlds.

Secondly, at the moment, the predominant governing law of a social media environment is code, which of course is created and validated by employees or third-party developers, rather than ratified by the users. Algorithms, especially recommendation engines, inherently discriminate by segmenting and targeting users. This in-platform discrimination works counter to integrating the population of users. Platforms, however, could start engineering new ways for algorithms to connect users that are not designated into similar marketing segments, broaden perspectives and experiences through diverse recommendations, and engender inclusive ways of connecting disparate or non-linked communities.

Lastly, for those concerned about data privacy, centralized digital platforms are currently privatizing and monetizing archives that could be utilized for the purpose of social integrity. Understandably, housing data is essential for delivering services to individuals, but the model of using it for revenue—rather than solely in service to the individual, the political wellbeing of the people, and their protection for the future—could be changed. Here is an opportunity to rethink how data is owned, stored, valued, and utilized to support the collective power of the people in their ownership of the social and political space.

Collaboration among stakeholders and interested parties could help move the current model away from data-for-profit to data-in-service; from algorithms of discrimination to algorithms for inclusion; and from centralized mediators of personal data to decentralized ownership of digital social spaces and the ratification of code that connects users.

We shouldn’t count democracy out in the 21st century. Democracy can thrive in a digitally enhanced and mediated world. We must, however, care for its foundations and make sure that social technologies—and the defacto sociopolitical spaces they create—are guided by a technosocial contract that is capable of merging the rights of the physical world with those of the digital world.

What this looks like may currently be unfamiliar to digital platforms, policymakers, and citizens. It may challenge the technical limitations of digital infrastructure. Nevertheless, innovations are desperately needed to place meaningful ownership into the hands of the hybrid citizens of this increasingly physical-digital world.

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