Is democracy as we know it dying? (Deeper #10)

What will happen to our politics as the digital world increasingly becomes more 'real'?

Dear readers,

I had the pleasure of being active on Twitter during a lot of the most recent political events in Indonesia. It’s a bit magical to be able to see so many people tweeting in real-time about debates and protests and developments happening right at that moment, and to be a part of these events.

Though I was alone in my bed, I still felt so connected to the hundreds and thousands of people sharing their own thoughts. In that moment, I felt a rush of awe and excitement at all that politics could be in a digital world.

With all these fuzzy feelings, though, came thoughts of doubt and fear, especially when I saw activists getting arrested and investigated, and ordinary people doxxed for sharing videos online.

It’s now easier than ever to be involved in the political world and shape it, but how safe is it for us ordinary folk to do so?


two man sitting on chairs

Elections in a digital age

The use of technology in democratic elections isn’t new. Political parties and individuals have used radio and TV and newspapers for campaign advertising for decades, and voting machines and online voter registrations have become increasingly available over the past few years. But the increasingly online nature of politics and elections has us wondering how democracy will fare and change in a digital era.

Individuals and communities have the chance to become increasingly more involved in politics. It’s incredibly easy nowadays to create a social media account and begin interacting with politicians on Facebook and Twitter, and there’s proof people can instigate change simply by being politically active on the Internet.

Still, at the same time that political parties are reaching more voters than ever before, third parties are also gaining more access to digital tools and influencing elections in never-before-seen ways. There are concerns about bot armies, foreign influence, and social media manipulation—and whether or not “democracy” will fade into nothing but a pretty concept as the years pass. 

TL;DR: Thanks to the increasing emergence of digital technologies, democracy is both closer and further than ever.

  • Digital campaigning 

  • E-registration and the electoral process

  • Greater insight into voters

  • Anything you say can and will be used against you

  • Information can be more easily spread

  • Objective journalism is increasingly at risk

  • What’s the best outlet for discourse?

  • What is real on the Internet?

The way we approach the intersection of tech, government, and individual liberty will set a precedent for many years to come. This is a chance to bring knowledge and autonomy to previously-remote and virtually-inaccessible cohorts

Digital campaigning

Singapore’s GE2020 is being held today, and the results will come out by the end of tomorrow. For the very first time since Singapore's independence in 1965, all 93 seats of Parliament—for the 14th Parliament of Singapore—are up for grabs. 

Seedly has done a great job of recapping some of the key points of each party’s campaign platform.

Election during COVID-19 has forced parties to innovate new styles of campaigning, and some are doing it better than others. Mass rallies have been banned, so candidates have turned to digital methods such as livestreaming rallies and taking advantage of increased airtime on national channels.

A quick look at their posters gives telling insights into the generational gap between party candidates:

vs:

Some candidates have taken well to digital campaigning. Economist Jamus Lim—member of the opposition Workers’ Party—gained attention for a viral Facebook post thoroughly explaining his objections to an intended GST hike:

He explained the economic theory behind why a GST increase could actually prolong a recession, citing Japan and other countries as an example. The post was shared over 600 times and has actually given Lim a significant fanbase in Singapore.

This is the power of social media: it’s now possible for politicians to enjoy instant two-way communication with their constitutents. In the past, campaigning was very much a one-way flow of information through rallies, speeches, and quick village visits.  Now, a motivated candidate can host Instagram lives, run online Q+As for followers, and share more about their platform without having to wait for an official (and often exclusive) event.

It’s humbling and humanizing, and we hope to see more examples of those in power taking down barriers and creating more democratic ways for people to share their opinions.

Speaking of “taking down barriers,” here’s an example of what happens when politicians and cops actually allow themselves to be criticized and let people say what they want to say:

The Los Angeles Police Department allowed citizens of the city to join a Zoom call and say anything they wanted for a limited period of time. The result was seven hours of criticism and advice from angry, disappointed citizens, with some even bringing up how using tear gas against civilians is against the Geneva Conventions:

Imagine if we had a chance to freely criticize our leaders and politicians like this all the time without being punished.

Though you might dismiss the Zoom session as being too direct or “not our style”, the fact is that it did have some effect: after the tirades, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti promised to cut the proposed LAPD budget by five percent (instead of raising it as initially intended). It’s far from what the protesters have been demanding, but it’s proof that constant pressure against those in power can produce change.

E-registration and the electoral process

Voters in GE2020 can register electronically on voting day; election officials will not have to strike out a voter’s info from a hardcopy register, theoretically making the voting process simpler and more straightforward. 

Voting processes around the world are one of the most significant areas that could stand to improve from tech and improved security. According to New Mandela, a SEA-focused news and political analysis outlet hosted by the Australian National University—electoral integrity in Southeast Asia is the worst in the world, with reports of bought votes, fraudulent machines, and weak tech support for digital solutions. Could we push for tech-enabled solutions to ease the electoral process and get more accurate results out even faster?

For years, many, many people have shown up to polls only to discover that they have not been registered properly. Others suffer from day-long waits just to get registered. In Cambodia, almost 11% of eligible citizens are not correctly registered; in the Philippines, voting machine malfunctions left would-be voters waiting for hours.

Ideally, other Southeast Asian countries could follow Singapore’s footsteps with a clear voter process that ensures one, equal vote for every eligible individual. 

Greater insight into voters

Now that political campaigns can be run online—through Twitter ads, Youtube channels, and Facebook Live—politicians and their parties can get granular data on voters and what they care about. In a sense, campaigning has always been about selling—developing, advertising, and marketing—a dream, and the advent of digital makes it significantly easier to learn what the populace wants to buy.

Ideally, political parties would use this insight to develop more nuanced strategies and laws that can serve the people. Unfortunately, there’s plenty of concern about the integrity of their motivations. Are actors entering politics in order to help their communities, or in order to amass power for themselves? Are they selling ethically, or are they playing dirty?

The Cambridge Analytica scandal is a prime example of how desperate campaigns can get in order to “win the race”. In early 2018, the personal data and browsing history of over 80 million Facebook users was harvested by Cambridge Analytica through a series of polls advertised as being “for academic use only”. Without their knowledge or consent, users’ information was actually sold to Ted Cruz and Donald Trump campaigns for millions of dollars.

It’s reasonable for political parties to collect data about the performance of their digital campaigns and the users who knowingly interact with their posts and websites. But that is very different from mass-buying illegally-harvested data in order to get an edge on candidates.

Anything you say can and will be used against you

People—from everyday citizens to politicians to celebrities—are now being held accountable for comments and posts that they shared years ago. It’s interesting to think about how we’ll proceed in the future as our online identities become more and more defined; nowadays, is there really such a thing as anonymity? 

Much of the information we share online can now be traced back to our real identities, which means we must be more and more careful about what we share and do online.

This increased scrutiny is good if it’s directed at the right places: organizations, corporate giants, people in positions of power. But in too many cases, instead of pushing for democracy and opening channels for criticism, governments are using their increasing tech power to punish activists, protesters, and naysayers. 

Workers' Party (WP) Sengkang candidate Raeesah Khan was just recently accused of trying to instigate enmity between social groups, races, or classes with 2017 and 2018 social media posts criticizing Singapore law enforcement authorities for discriminating against specific minorities.

It seems a bit odd that criticizing cops for possible racial bias could be punishable by law, but people did file two separate police reports against Raeesah Khan. 

She eventually had to release an apology saying, "I apologise to any racial group or community who have been hurt by my comments. I feel really passionate about minority issues regardless of race, and in my passion I made improper remarks, and I have to be accountable for them. I will fully cooperate in any police investigations."

The r/Singapore subreddit took the time to discuss the police reports, even creating memes to point out some controversial statements about race that other politicians said—and which didn’t receive nearly as much criticism.

Information can be more easily spread

In the era of digital—and more precisely, in the era of the family WhatsApp group—information can quickly spread around within days or even hours. Social media networks are on fire during election days, with each individual trying to keep track of the most correct count and sharing what they’ve learned with friends, followers, and family.

The rise of digital makes it easier for everyone to become involved in politics, and politicians will have to adjust their language and messages to capture new voters. This is one of the great things about digital democracy: it broadens access for people who have historically been excluded from such processes.

For example, in the Philippines, marginalized sectors of society are incredibly important to political campaigners. During election season, politicians and members of their teams will go to far-flung villages just to campaign. and people will cross mountains, rivers to vote—either because they'll receive money to do so or because they passionately believe in a candidate. 

Journalism is increasingly at risk

The lack of formal education about digital literacy and the freedom of most social media platforms opens up their user bases to manipulation. People are becoming more and more politically active, but they may not necessarily be fact-checking. Ideally, journalism outlets would serve as a stronghold against viral clickbait and inflammatory posts, but this isn’t often the case.

Even many trusted journalism sources have been criticized for giving in to less-than-noble motivations. In an effort to garner page views and interactions, they may write controversial headlines; in other cases, they may be unintentionally biased.  A February 2020 Statista interview shows that around Asia, less than 40% of citizens trust news media.

We wonder whether objective journalism and truth will be able to survive in the future, and how we can best protect these establishments. It’s clear that the pay-per-click model will only further erode integrity; so far, outlets like Wikipedia and The Guardian have been trying to ask for optional donations or ad-whitelisting, but to limited success. 

What’s the best outlet for discourse?

Political discourse now takes place on nearly every social media platform—from Twitter to Instagram to Reddit to Facebook. Each platform has its own pros and cons. Is thoughtful analysis and debate possible on the Internet as it stands today, or are these platforms simply serving as echo chambers for the most dominant voices?

Seedly’s Facebook group and the local r/Singapore subreddit have been hosting discussions about GE2020—these are two examples of places where people can go to safely discuss politics.

The key in fostering discussion seems to lie in responsible, objective moderation. An ideal platform for discourse will offer the freedom to share opposing opinions without being lambasted or doxxed, yet still have limits on hateful or instigating language.

What is real on the Internet?

Singapore’s public elections have me reminiscing about Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama’s fateful bid for reelection for the position of Jakarta’s governor back in 2016 and 2017. Back then, a man named Buni Yani uploaded a heavily-edited and incorrectly-subtitled video of Ahok, making it seem like he was criticizing the Qur-an for misleading the people.

Yani’s video went viral and damaged Ahok’s reputation, even resulting in mass protests in the capital where tens of thousands of people gathered to call for his removal from office. 

After Ahok was imprisoned for blasphemy because of that doctored video, Buni Yani himself was later criminally accused of defamation. Chief Comr. Agus Rohmat of the Jakarta Police's legal team said that Yuni “had [altered the video intentionally] to go viral and discredit the governor”. 

There are two issues here: first, it is becoming easier and easier for motivated individuals—even those with limited tech experience—to operate bot armies, editing software, and tools like deepfakes in order to discredit certain political candidates. In the future, we expect more and more elections to suffer from interference and manipulation.

Secondly, an issue we’ve discussed often in previous editions of Deeper: how should the creators of fake news be punished? Should they be punished at all? Should we be investing more into punitive action against hoax-creators, or should we be focusing on preventing them from gaining power by 1) educating the people and 2) developing better tools to identify doctored or manipulated content? 

Who gets to define “fake news” and the truth? Tread too far and we’ll find ourselves smack in the middle of Orwell’s 1984

A lot of the experts are nervous about the future of democracy

A pretty bleak collection of quotes from global experts collated by Pew Research shows that we live in dangerous times. There’s a lot of risk of manipulation and increased surveillance that will pose a threat to democracy.

At the same time, there is so much hope. Thanks to this increasingly digital landscape we live in, citizens of all ages are becoming more aware, discussions are becoming more fruitful, and entirely new cohorts are engaging in the politics that shape their way of living. 

It’s too soon to see the full effects of digital advances on the world we are living in, but suffice to say that things are changing. The world we find ourselves in in the future will depend on the causes—Truth? Freedom? Liberty? Profit?—that we choose to champion as a society.