Is digital technology undermining our democracy?

By Professor Stephan Lewandowsky

Democracy is debate. But unfortunately access to the “free marketplace of ideas” where citizens see all sides of the debate isn’t equal.

The internet was going to fix that.

Instead, we now live in an era of democratic backsliding, with at least 80 countries having become less democratic during the last decade. And much of that decline is being blamed on the internet, which facilitates the spread of disinformation, hate speech, incitement, and foreign interference in elections.

This is exactly why universities around the world, including the University of Bristol’s Digital Futures Institute, are working with tech giants, governments and the third sector to examine how this happened and what we can do about it.

Targeting the problem

Much criticism has been directed at the social media giants, in particular Facebook – it was recently labelled “digital gangsters” by a UK Parliamentary committee.

There’s a basic incompatibility between democracy and Facebook’s business model of “microtargeting”. We know from psychological research that 300 “Likes” are sufficient to infer someone’s personality with greater accuracy than their spouse.

Facebook patented this idea and enabled advertisers – including politicians – to segment their audience and target their messages more effectively. However much of the highly personal information used for microtargeting is inferred by Facebook rather than explicitly given by users.

If you use Facebook, it’s already building a profile of who you are – if you want to know what Facebook knows about you, download your data. Prepare to be amazed.

When politicians know their messages are confined to a partisan audience, there’s no pressure for moderation and extremism becomes politically rewarding. It’s also a recipe for disinformation. Politicians can get away with sending false information to a carefully selected group of potential sympathisers who are unlikely to object, even if they detect they’re being misled.

What are the solutions?

Rising social concern about the use of digital data and AI technologies in the political process is prompting big tech companies to do something about this. Google announced it’ll no longer permit microtargeting of political messages – applicable in the forthcoming British election and rolled out globally in 2020.

Although political campaigns reacted with outrage against the move, it’s a step in the right direction. It forces campaigns to be more palatable to a broader audience – making extremism less rewarding and opening the door to rebuttals. Facebook has also taken several steps to help safeguard the 2020 US election, including the clear labelling of misinformation and additional transparency measures. Thus far, Facebook has not addressed the problems arising from microtargeting.

Self-regulation within the online ad-serving industry is important, but isn’t enough to address the challenges. Research is being done in universities around the world to understand these practices, to examine their effects on citizens – and their voting behaviour – and to develop technologies that track and block the trackers or seek to expose systematic biases in ads.

The University of Bristol’s Digital Futures Institute recently received £100m of funding from Research England and 27 organisations keen to collaborate in shaping digital futures, including BT, BBC, Watershed, Knowle West Media Centre and Black South West Network.

Bristol Digital Futures Institute, which will be based at the planned Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus, will work with partners to challenge the traditional, linear model of technical innovation. When technologies are developed without in-depth consideration of social questions, they abdicate responsibility for the future worlds they may be creating. By bringing social scientists and engineers together, the new Institute aims to pioneer a new way of creating digital technologies, with future societies at its heart.

Digital technologies are transforming our world. Instead of wondering what on earth will come next, Bristol Digital Futures Institute will work to democratise the future, driving inclusive and innovative technologies that benefit all of us.

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