The future of democracy is going to take some creativity. It also requires some informed deliberation, so we brought together a panel spanning political, tech, legal and academic fields to imagine a way forward. It is difficult to ignore that for some time now public trust in democratic governments and institutions has been in decline, with people feeling they have little voice in the major developments impacting their lives. The powers of digital and democracy are not always perfectly aligned, but there are ways that we can respond to and prepare for this evolving dynamic.
The panel debated whether what we are experiencing now is a much needed process in making democracy fit for purpose. As Geoff Mulgan, CEO of Nesta logically put it, it is naïve to think that 19th century processes are the eternal answer to running our democracies. According to Yascha Mounk, author of , democracy was never imagined to be as responsive to people’s demands as digital platforms have allowed them to expect. Social media gives a sense of direct efficacy with a like or a tweet. It is more important than ever to get beyond binary choices, acknowledging issues that require more information, education and deliberation.
That also means reflecting on the notion of citizenship. Rana Dasgupta, author of the upcoming After Nations, believed that the digital tools at our disposal can be applied to imagine new political communities that would never have connected before. This was echoed by Mulgan and Eva Kaili, Member of the European Parliament, who saw technology as giving citizens more options to be involved, rather than addressing problems only through technocratic design. Liam Byrne, Shadow Minister for Digital Economy, United Kingdom, also viewed digital as a way to bring people back into public life by opening up practical and local decisions rather than big moral issues.
Mulgan warned, though, that transparency alone does not have the trust-building effect. Governments have an opportunity with these digital tools to connect citizens with policy making in new ways. Growing these efforts where they fit best, and not using digital democracy as the solution to every problem is the challenge.
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Despite positive developments, there are still plenty of issues that need to be addressed if democracy is going to have a future with digital. Digital platforms can bring new people together, but they can also function as echo chambers for polarising ideas without taking into account the complex nuances of a debate. Dan Shefet, lawyer and founder of the Association for Accountability and Internet Democracy, spoke about how the marketplace of ideas – where the best idea wins – is no longer functioning, therefore galvanising and confirming our prejudices. It is challenging the ability of the sovereign state to enforce laws and judgments when it is so easy to post certain prohibited content online. Mounk further pointed out that although social media is meant to be neutral, when we live in societies that do not trust, they become tools for spreading hatred.
Digital literacy skills are all the more important for people to distinguish facts from all the noise. Byrne spoke of digital literacy as a human right, part of a “Digital Bill of Rights” and Kaili also agreed that education is vital. “Because ultimately we cannot censor the internet. We are going to rely on the tried and tested technique of an informed citizen”.