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Democracy in the age of information abundance: The impact of new technologies on our democratic political system

Muhamad Rosyid Jazuli

 

Introduction

With the emergence of new technologies, there are more individuals that can have better access to media and information. Experts believe that to some extent it strengthens democracy as there are more numbers of individuals taking part in any democratic process including the increasing public awareness to monitor political processes. Furthermore, it raises collaboration between the government and the public in solving problems at different levels. Unfortunately, the abundance of information has arguably created radical demand of transparency and potential excessive surveillance that decelerate the government processes and decision-making process as the public sector begins to be too cautious and timid.

New technologies for this essay focuses on new, computer-and-internet based media technologies as the fact that they play an important role in widening and strengthening information access that is significant to democracy (Barber, 2003). There are numbers of these types of technologies including, but not limited to, social media, online surveys, voting and deliberative polling, internet-based focus groups, and online petitions (Keane, 2009, p. 10). Their emergence is highly supported by various computerized gadgets ranging from smartphones to laptops that have access to the Internet. With all above factors combined, our society has come to an era where information is exponentially abundant, and the access and exchange of it are remarkably vast, rich and fast (Carothers, 2015, p. 1). In this age of information abundance, our democracy finds that new technologies are both reinvigorated and threatened.

Which democracy?

When it comes to democracy, there are evidently various types of this political system. The two most famous variants are direct and representative democracies. Chakrabarty (2015, p. 62) explains that the former type refers to a democratic arrangement in which every citizen takes part in every policy initiative directly. Conversely, the latter is a form of democracy in which votes from the public is imperative for selecting the representatives that are then responsible for policy and decision making. In practice, however, the variety could extend beyond the two types as democracy interacts with diverging social, economic and cultural factors. Even though experts explain that all modern western-style democracies are the representative variant in nature (Chakrabarty, 2015, p. 62), it is the fact that practically all types of democracy can be seen as different from one another. For example, New Zealand democracy is arguably different from the American democracy. Barber (2003), additionally, has another classification of democracy, namely thin and strong democracy.

Due to the diverse variants, here the generic meaning of democracy refers to “rule by the people” (Matravers, 2005, p. 1). This essay focuses on the generic democratic political process in which citizens take part in the political decision-making process at any level, both through direct and representation systems. Therefore, this point of view is used to accommodate the following critical analysis about the various influences of new technologies on democracy.

Impact of new technologies on our democracy

The great demand for transparency from the public triggered WikiLeaks and Panama Papers to release of a great number of secret information from powerful political powers. It shows that information exchange is out of control in certain entities. Moreover, there is also increasing numbers of new social movements organized by the public and powered by technologies such as Occupy Wall Street in USA, Yo Soy 132 in Mexico, and Movimiento 15-M in Spain (Feenstra and Casero-Ripollés, 2014, p. 2448), and Kawal Pemilu in Indonesia (Postill, 2014, p. 1). As Keane (2009, p. 10) mentions, technologies push democracy also to deal with online votes and petitions such as ThePetitionSite and Change.org. Furthermore, with the presence of a broad range of social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, YouTube etc. (Papay & Timby, 2014), as well as some crowdsource platforms such as GoFundMe in USA and KitaBisa in Indonesia, individuals have been helped with real-time information exchange ensuring that they can communicate and mobilize support and responses on a massive scale.

New technologies evidently play a big role in our democracy, creating fundamental changes in many aspects. Feenstra and Casero-Ripollés (2014) argue that the emerging technologies empower public entities such as social activists and civil society organizations to commence and consolidate new forms of technology-based citizen participation such as online petitions and alternative journalism. New technologies arguably transform the monitoring processes of democracy, enabling more participation of the public in governmental policy-making and decision-making processes. The Internet, particularly speeds up the information exchange within our society, including the exchange between citizens and the governments. The better access to information makes it easier for citizens to understand what governments should do. They become significantly more aware of the rights and obligations of both the governments and their own. New technologies, hence, ensure that there is a two-way communication between the government and the public. According to Chakrabarty (2015), they eventually affect public service delivery, enabling information exchange and efficient services. In this sense, the internet is now the default medium of information exchange between governments and citizens in democratic processes (Chakrabarty 2015, p. 67). The Internet-and-computer-based technologies are now the default medium for deploying words.

How new technologies reinvigorate our democracy

An early work by Abramson et al. (1988, p. 5) mentions that technologies are critical to democracy. It highlights some characteristics that help define the many technologies’ impacts upon our democracy, including exceeding the limits on the volume of information that can be exchanged, enabling the exchange information without regard to real time and space, increase the control of both governments and the people over messages exchange between them, and disperse the control over mass communication. These factors support the discourse that technologies transform traditional democracy by including iterative communication in any of its processes.

Based on the above characteristics, technologies continuously bring the public to a better access to any information about what their policy makers are doing as well as what they will and should do. Thanks to the aforementioned new technologies, the public now has more capabilities to voice their opinions about a large range of political, economic and social problems. At the same time, decision makers have better access to respond quickly to any inquiry from the public. Thus, as Crook (2011, p. 3) explains, new technologies enable perpetual communication between the public and decision makers in the government that at the same time the iteration of the information exchange between them becomes more active and intense.

Another democratic aspect new technologies improve is the monitory initiatives between policy makers and citizens. New technologies, Chakrabarty (2015) argues, provide a more accurate evaluation for governments’ service delivery. Once a policy is implemented, thanks to technologies, the public can monitor the progress and give their input in almost all stages from the planning to implementation. Additionally, democracy is presented with the emerging alternative media alongside with stronger the mainstream ones. With the help of new technologies, they become more capable of investigating any wrongdoing, demanding more public transparency and accountability (Chakrabarty, 2015, p. 69), and at the same time help governments provide solutions. Postill (2014, p. 2) believes that many of mainstream and alternative media investigations have successfully gone deep into the high level of corruption.

Going forward, new technologies enable the public to participate more in the political process by collaborating with each other. Postill (2014) explains that new technologies provide the public the opportunity to build common platforms that enable them to gather and voice their opinion together. Postill (2014, p. 1) clearly calls that a ‘new wave of collaborative citizens’ platforms.’ Through mostly online platforms, the public crowdsources support for any cause. This has transformed the way the people contribute to any social change. In the political context, those platforms encourage more individuals to be more active in participating in any democratic process. Furthermore, it surely enables collaborative work between the government and the public in solving problems as technologies enable the perpetual contacts between them.

Thanks to new technologies, the digital environment continuously enhances democracy by creating new opportunities for more citizen political participation as the public is more aware of what they can contribute to the society. Moreover, more active collaboration and perpetual communication between governments and the public are the other positive impacts of technologies to democracy. This endeavor helps, Feenstra and Casero-Ripollés (2014, p. 2448) explain, encourage more positive and open political processes as well as denounce dysfunctional features in those processes.

New technologies evidently help enrich the people diverse points of views and advance information about democratic processes, including the performance of governmental. They are also given vast opportunities to collaborate and communicate massively with their fellow citizens and their governments. These facts encourage monitory schemes that enable ‘public scrutiny’ and ‘public enforcement’ in safeguarding public interest from wrongdoing or improper behavior by responsible policy and decision makers (Keane, 2009, p. 12).  Furthermore, as Keane (2009) explain, the new technologies-based democracy enables monitory initiatives that enhance the performance of governments as well as improve the influence of citizens on democratic political processes through their diverse opinion and choices. Therefore, the presence of new technologies arguably reinvigorate our democracy by generating more opportunities for citizen political participation and by strengthening perpetual communication and collaboration between governments and the people.

In practice, policymakers now more frequently publish their programs and policies through social media. This is both forced by the need of policy makers to show their performance and the increasing public demand for transparency. This process ensures that communication between the policies and the beneficiaries happen perpetually and continuously. The US 2008 presidential election was deemed to be the first political process that massively used social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube both during the period of campaigns and election. Elected President Obama has continued to harness the new technologies in both of his presidential terms.

Regarding the perpetual communication, with the help of the Internet, citizens now can demand more transparency and accountability at any time and any level of government. Democracy has witnessed the birth of digital monitory bodies, including WikiLeaks that unearthed the longing covered secret from the political powers general public could not access. Technologies also cultivate social movements that often start from digital mobilizations through online platforms such as blogs and social media. Social movements to encounter dissatisfaction to governments’ decisions ranging from Occupy Wall Street to Kawal Pemilu reflect the phenomena that technologies have facilitated the longing unvoiced unrests to burst and take action. Furthermore, alongside the improving public’s ability to access and exchange information, online voting and petition platforms such as Change.org exist as one of the enabling media that increase the number of civic participation in public decision making.

How new technologies threaten our democracy

Even though new technologies help establish an information-rich society that has more active participation in the democratic political process, to some extent it threatens to undermine democracy. Alongside the increasing number of individuals and groups with stronger monitory capacity and capability, new technologies put any political process in a risky situation. Policy making becomes longer and harder to come to a decision as transparency demand from the public is excessive and to some extent is radical (Postill, 2014). Moreover, as the aftermath of the radical transparency, the public has become too powerful to be ruled. Public scrutiny is powerful enough to undermine every decision and quickly judge and halt policy implementation. As governments are under such oppressive surveillance (Postill, 2014, p. 5), when it comes to new technologies, democracy has come to the point where everybody or nobody rules (Keane, 2009, p. 9).

The very first danger new technologies bring to democracy, Postill (2014) argues, stems from the uncontrolled yet increasing the vast number of monitory bodies both from civil society groups and non-governmental organizations. Consequently, every single policy and decision making are now under public scrutiny asking transparency at every level. When the demand for openness is too exercise and too strong to be regulated, Postill (2014, p. 5) says that technology has created radical transparency.

Furthermore, as new technologies also make democracy witness the birth of various social groups initiated by the public such as citizen juries and advisory boards, social focus groups, democratic political processes are now facing the too-broad range of monitory mechanisms. Powered by technologies, those social groups gain access to various information that strengthens their monitory capability, including information management, advisory, and advocacy services (Keane, 2009). The monitory power of these groups and their high demand for transparency have created strong surveillance mechanisms. Their strength mostly stems from their almost unlimited access to absorb and deliver information, voicing their evaluation, dissatisfaction and disaffection to the current rulers. Postill (2014) says that there is such oppressive surveillance mobilized by those monitory powers.

The most challenging threat of technologies to democracy comes, unsurprisingly, from the aftermath of the previous threats that has led to public distrust to the democratic political system. With the help of technologies, information abundance creates societies that are complex and problematic but the governments are failing to give quick solutions. Keane (2009) warns that at some point, the public has the power to mobilize such disaffection to political representation. Whilst technologies enable more voices to be heard in the democracy, at some point, instead of going into its maturity, democracy is sleepwalking to the world full of public resentment and dissatisfaction. That is where major political parties are discredited, the number of party members falls (Feenstra & Keane, 2014, p. 1262). The number and range of monitory powers, Keane (2009, p. 10) argues, are greatly mobilized “that they point to the world where the old rule of ‘one person, one vote, one representative’ is replaced with a new principle: one person, many interests, many voices, many votes, many representatives.” Whilst supposedly strengthening democracy, technologies bring this political representation system to the mode of governing where leaders and representatives are publicly distrusted, thus, everybody or nobody should rule.

Regarding the radical transparency, new technologies such as social media and other digital platforms like blogs are the best triggers of all uncontrolled demand of public accountability. The transparency demand tends to be radical since technologies make them somewhat out of reach of any regulations. WikiLeaks and Panama Papers are among other proof that regulations could not stop them to keep leaking secret information. On the one hand, validity of the information is always questionable, but on the other hand, the public keeps seeking the information alongside their unstoppable demand for public accountability. At the same time, the radical transparency forces governments to accommodate public voices that are hard to validate.

It is oppressive because their surveillance gives a great pressure to the government when seeking quick changes. The pressure grows stronger, but lacks regulatory foundations that sometimes the digitally powerful public, with all of their digitalized powers, forgets that decision making has procedures and other stages to follow. To some extent, WikiLeaks, Panama Papers, Change.org, Kawal Pemilu alongside other social movements lead to a certain degree of public distrust political processes, establishing societies that lose their appetite to democracy. The presence of the Internet and social media, and the social movements they facilitate, create societies that seem able to take care of themselves.

Conclusion and suggestion for further discussion

No matter what the new technologies are, their emergence has created an information abundance before our lives. Democracy enjoys the fast flow of information as well as the increasing number of individuals taking part in its processes. Thanks to new technologies, a vastly increasing number of monitory entities ensure that democracy fulfils its promises to let everybody’s voice is heard and put the public interest at the highest priority. However, the abundant information provides novel dangers to democracy as to some extent it could let those monitory powers overtake the leadership with their radical demand of transparency of and excessive surveillance to the administrations. Worst case scenario, new technologies create widespread distrust of democracy which leads to a meaningless representation system.

New technologies strengthen both societies and governments and let them grow powerful. Both parties will absorb the full benefits of new technologies if they grow stronger at the same pace and level. When the public has stronger monitory capacity and capability, governments need to be stronger in establishing regulations that accommodate the growing powerful voices and in enforcing the rule of law. Otherwise, democracy will sleepwalk to its end as public dissatisfaction and distrust are wide-spreading out of control and the public believe that they can rule and provide solutions themselves for every aspect of their socio-economic problem.

This essay encourages further discussions, especially regarding the impact of new technologies on specific types of democracy. As Barber (2003) argues, technologies would impact differently to different types of democracy.  It is the fact that in one case, new technologies can be well-suited to benefitting certain types of democracy. In contrast, when it comes to different variants of democracy or, as Barber (2003, p. 36) mentions, if it is understood in another way, the emergence of new technologies may raise some dangers. Strong or thin democracy, as well as the New Zealand or the American democracies, could have different mechanisms and outcomes when dealing with the progressing technologies. Going forward, as technologies are arguably significant to democracy and vice versa, further discussion can alternatively focus on more detail for new technological designs, applications, and environments. Lastly, as Horrocks and Pratchett (1995, p. 1225) explain, technologies do and will always affect policy choices and thus political choices in a democracy. Therefore, the foundation question that should always be discussed is not whether technologies should be allowed to impact on democracy, but how.

References

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