Digital Democratic Innovations under COVID

By Chris Doten | May 28, 2021

Large Photo
Cover for Red Informacion Issue 25
Cover for Red Informacion Issue 25

Written for the Red Informacion digital magazine issue #25

The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating, but the impact of enforced lockdowns and social distancing has led to an unprecedented increase in the innovative use of technology in everyday life. Digital tools, particularly smartphones, have become for many the only way to connect with each other. Our offices have effectively been replaced by phone and video calls, concerts and church services are streamed online, and shopping malls and restaurants have become digital delivery services. Although these trends began long before the pandemic, they have only accelerated during the global health crisis. 

With vaccines on the horizon, the world has begun to think about how life will change again as the pandemic recedes. Will we simply revert back to what my friends and I jokingly refer to as “the before times?” I don’t think so – and I hope not. The last year has transformed our relationships with technology, and through technology, with each other. This transformation has the potential to revitalize democracy with new avenues to engage with citizens, new ideas and enthusiasm, and new ways to serve people. However, there is a darker side to reliance on these technology platforms: a positive democratic future that harnesses the potential of the internet will require clear evaluation of both present and emerging technological dangers. However, all key pillars of democracy, including civil society organizations, political parties, and governments have new opportunities to transform their work building more open, just societies. 

A wide variety of technologies coming on the scene will increase tech adoption and create new ways of engaging with the public, managing government, and organizing for change. High-speed internet will soon be accessible to everyone within range of a cell tower as 5G becomes the most rapidly adopted mobile protocol, while satellite technology like SpaceX’s Starlink internet service is providing high-speed access to remote areas. Blockchain, despite being tagged with an unserious reputation due its use for silly applications like NFTs and sketchy ones like drug sales, creates a new foundation for data transparency that will enable civil society to hold governments accountable, and artificial intelligence-powered analysis holds the potential to improve government service delivery and gives new tools for civic watchdogs to identify suspicious financial transfers or satellite images of illegal construction. 

Civic Organizations and Citizen Movements: Civil society organizations provide interested groups of passionate people with opportunities to work together to drive change in their community. Digitally-powered civic organizing isn’t new: email lists, text message threads, and Facebook groups have been available and used to great effect for years. However, a whole new set of people have become accustomed to digital engagement - people who may care a lot about causes but where participation was inconvenient in location or time. 

Technology also provides new ways to empower people to organize themselves. This can take a major shift in mentality of control for leadership of civic groups; you have to be able to let go and trust your people to go forth and do good work on their own with guidance from the broader organization. Technology tools can help civic groups create new distributed, autonomous organizations able to join in a broad collective effort without the burdens of micromanaging them. Through crowdsourcing of citizen data collection or oversight, many eyes (and smartphones) can see far more than any small, structured organization. As long as one is aware of the challenge of access and incentives, small actions by an army of concerned individuals can make a huge difference. 

Political Parties and Campaigns: It’s been a tough year for traditional campaigning. Door-to-door canvassing has been difficult or impossible, and rallies have been dangerous and irresponsible. However, as seen in elections around the world, including in the United States, campaigns have continued. Digital organizing and outreach, already useful and important, have become indispensable approaches. Database-driven text message campaigns have enabled an army of volunteers to hold one-on-one conversations with individual voters while gathering useful information for campaigns. Small-dollar fundraising campaigns through text, email, and social media have transformed the way campaigns raise and spend money, particularly in the United States; relatively insignificant individual donations from a wide array of individuals who find a party or candidate’s message appealing have come to matter more than even the biggest single donor. Targeting data – often drawing from a wide array of commercial sources – have enabled campaigns to more effectively focus their limited time and resources on the best candidates for persuasion or getting them out to vote. Microtargeting is particularly effective online; when social platforms like Facebook know everything about their voters, campaigns can tailor messages – sometimes negative ones – with great accuracy. 

In many ways the self-organizing potential of the internet has further eroded the traditional role of political parties. The smoke-filled room is long gone, but because a small group of senior decision makers no longer have the ability to control what their people think or who they vote for. This has been a great challenge for parties as more ad-hoc and cause-based citizen movements emerge, but it presents a great opportunity for those able to rethink ossified structures and embrace energetic youth engagements.

Government: It has never been easier for governments to gather and publish data on all aspects of their operations. Many governments are making digital the default, ensuring that all official documents are accessible in machine-readable formats – in turn making it easier for citizens and civic groups to interpret, analyze, and make complex government data accessible. Public procurement, sales, and expenditure platforms make common sources of corruption more transparent and permit greater accountability. Governments also have new ways to take in citizen input, from petitioning platforms (part of OGP commitments in Georgia, Montenegro, and elsewhere) to apps that let individuals submit their home bandwidth speed for analysis to new forms of digital participatory budgeting. However, governmental digital transformation is difficult, and in the best of times needs to be very deliberate to ensure inclusion of all citizens and appropriate use of data.

The civic tech movement, including the NDI-supported Code for All Network, is a collaborative engagement between civil society and government, bringing together talented citizens who care about building a better society with political leaders often desperate for tech talent and ideas. Cross-pollination between these groups are building more effective government tech innovation teams and technologists who better understand the real challenges of designing systems for citizens.

The Dark Side: If you’ve read a newspaper in recent years, you’re aware that this digital transformation has had deeply negative consequences. Harassment and hate speech is an ongoing threat to the safety of women and marginalized communities, driving many off the internet entirely, and causing an incalculable psychological toll. Disinformation is no longer just a tool used by foreign adversaries; it has become embedded in hyperpartisan online spaces everywhere. Dangerous lies and medical misinformation have undermined people's faith in election integrity and the vaccines essential to ending the pandemic

Many governments have lurched towards digital authoritarianism, censoring online communications or cutting the internet outright in over 120 instances in 2020 alone. Often justified as fighting “fake news” or cybercriminals, these actions undermine the fundamental human right to communication. Cybersecurity attacks are on the rise, with many more organizations forced to work online under the pandemic. Governments and private companies are able to tap data on very intimate aspects of our lives. Whether hacked and leaked, exploited by unscrupulous corporations, or tapped by undemocratic governments, more data can be more dangerous. Particularly concerning is the adoption of new network technologies such as those from China that come with built-in anti-democratic surveillance or censorship capabilities, and may send sensitive data to Beijing.

Every emerging technology designed as a positive tool can have negative impacts. People often call them unintended consequences – but usually that’s because the designers were so focused on the positives they didn’t bother to think about potential for abuse. Artificial intelligence is revolutionizing automated data processing, but ultimately these tools are applying patterns that were taught to them by humans with their own biases which are encoded into the algorithms. Blockchain tools have powerful built-in capabilities for proving trustworthiness, but the most popular system expends vast amounts of energy in maintaining the network.

Of course, the fundamental problem with providing digital access to citizen resources is citizens need to have access to digital tools. While over half the world is now online, we cannot forget that means almost half is not. Democratic institutions have an obligation to include all those in society, even if cost, literacy, or infrastructure barriers prevent them from easy online access. Governments and other organizations should move as quickly as possible to get that access and needed skills in the hands of everyone. Of course, all that infrastructure is owned by someone, and usually the private sector. From wires in the ground to systems like Facebook or Google Search to the phones in our hands, most of our digital public square is owned by private companies. 

Potential for a bright future: While far from over, some of the experience with technology from COVID mean democracy can come back stronger than ever. Global trends in connection technology, batteries, and distributed power will continue to improve connections, cut costs, and broaden access for everyone. Online communications provides unprecedented opportunities for creating communities of interest in which citizens unite around their shared goals for effective advocacy both at the local and global level. Civil society organizations are able to connect directly with groups facing similar challenges, learn from each other, and jointly push for change, as with the NDI-supported Design 4 Democracy Coalition. Some governments are leading by example; Estonia has demonstrated the potential of improving the lives of citizens through more effective digital service delivery, and in Taiwan the civic tech movement, frustrated by the inefficiency of their public institutions, effectively built a parallel online service structure – which was then integrated back into government.

Digital tools permit new forms of access; Red Innovación itself is a great example. A far larger group benefited from the excellent tools and training available through this platform than could have attended in-person sessions. Major international conferences, such as RightsCon, have found that moving to a digital format has enabled them to open up to more of their target audiences from across the Global South who were frozen out due to the costs of a plane ticket. 

There is, of course, far more to come. Quantum computing promises to change our understanding of what a computer is; virtual worlds are becoming far more immersive and accessible; ubiquitous voice access technology and wearable computers are bringing the internet physically closer and in a more intimate fashion. These technologies – and all the others unimaginable today – will continue to transform our world. However, the fundamental goals of an open society to deliver for its people are unchanging. If civic organizations, political parties, and governments take a look at the revolution that has taken place under COVID and thoughtfully move forward, drawing on the best lessons from this experience, I am convinced that the world can be a more just, open, and democratic place.