This article is part of the Forum Network series on Digitalisation.
On 9 November, 2016, Americans woke up to the news that Donald J. Trump had been elected the 45th President of the United States. That moment ignited a torrent of investigative analysis not only to determine how the experts could have been so wrong, but also to uncover what Mr. Trump had done right. How did a campaign with clear disadvantages in fundraising, organisational capacity and policy expertise win the White House?
It turns out that there is no simple answer, but months of analysis indicate that without digital platforms, a political upset of this magnitude would never have been possible. By leveraging social media platforms, and in the case of Facebook, the underlying data, the Trump campaign used technology to level the playing field, and perhaps even tilt it in his favor. And while President Trump is fond of boasting that everything he does is bigger and better than anything that came before, a brief glimpse elsewhere would suggest that Mr. Trump is part of a trend, rather than a trailblazer.
In India, for example, there was a local politician who claimed to be criticized unfairly by the traditional media for alleged misdeeds, and set out on a path to bypass conventional channels to communicate directly with the electorate. Using Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and even staging political rallies via hologram, Narendra Modi embraced all the tools of the digital era to connect with more than 800 million eligible voters, and become Prime Minister, in the world’s largest democratic election. In addition to utilising these tools to win a campaign, Modi has launched astrategy to facilitate delivery of public services, promote greater transparency of public spending and mobilise resources and citizens during emergencies. However, critics would argue that Modi is using these very same channels to stoke division when politically expedient, attack political opponents and move India in an increasingly authoritarian direction. This is not a uniquely Indian phenomenon.
While the Middle East is dominated by an unfortunate mix of monarchies and autocracies, Israel remains a democratic oasis. In this tech-savvy country, there are multiple avenues to hold government accountable for its actions. From open data platforms to pervasive online activism, the internet has cultivated a robust public discourse and developed the online applications to engage with its citizens. However, the web has also allowed for the easy dissemination of fake news, government crackdowns on opposition voices and a blurring of the lines between government messaging and overt propaganda. This description of the ills that often plague the online ecosystem have also found a home in countries that have historically been behind the curve when it comes to digital democracy.
Take Italy, for example, which concluded its general election campaign earlier this year resulting in strong performances by the two parties with the most sophisticated online strategies: The Five Star Movement and The League. For Luigi Di Maio’s Five Star Movement, electoral success was entirely born on the internet. Using the Rousseau portal created by Casaleggio Associati, the party selected its slate of parliamentary candidates through virtual primaries and crowdsourced planks for its party platform in a utopian vision of digital democracy espoused by the party’s founder, Gianroberto Casaleggio. Five Star, however, has been criticized for some anti-democratic behavior involving key internal party decisions and restricting press access to its members. But in a country dominated for decades by the establishment parties’ grip on the television airwaves, the internet provided this upstart movement with a vehicle through which it could amplify its message and connect with voters across Italy.
The League, for its part, pulled all of the levers the internet offers, but did so in a more troubling fashion. Embarking on an information campaign that would ratchet up anti-migrant sentiment and highlight wedge issues in the public discourse, The League became one of the main beneficiaries of voter discontent. Party leader Matteo Salvini confirmed the notion that The League had thrived on exploiting the weakest aspects of the online ecosystem by declaring the day after the election, “We thank God for the net. We thank God for social networks. We thank God for Facebook.” After an extended period of negotiations, Di Maio and Salvini agreed to convert their electoral gains into an anti-establishment, euro-skeptic governing coalition.
In traveling around the world interviewing people about technological disruptors of democracy, the most common refrain is that technology in itself is neither inherently good nor inherently evil. It is a tool, and just like a pen or a microphone, the user determines its intrinsic value. And as with those other implements, there is a period in which limits are tested, and unintended consequences abound. But when it comes to democracy in the digital era, all is not lost. The speed and variety of digital tools provide the electorate with the ability to course-correct more effectively than in the past. The public and private sectors are searching for the right combination of regulation and free access to expand the benefits of the internet while mitigating the risks. Concurrently, leaders at all levels of government are establishing media literacy strategies that are beginning to take hold in school curricula around the world to better prepare citizens, young and old, to participate in this new political environment.
This is a precarious time for democracy and there are plenty of obstacles on the horizon. But in this era of artificial intelligence and digital innovation, the direction of good governance in the 21st century will come down to whether voters can muster old-fashioned common sense to discern good from evil.
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