How IT Threatens Democracy
By Kofi A. Annan, Project Syndicate
The Internet and social media were once hailed for creating new opportunities to spread democracy and freedom. And Twitter, Facebook, and other social media did indeed play a key role in popular uprisings in Iran in 2009, in the Arab world in 2011, and in Ukraine in 2013-2014. Back then, the tweet did at times seem mightier than the sword.
But authoritarian regimes soon began cracking down on Internet
freedom. They feared the brave new digital world, because it was beyond the
reach of their analogue security establishments. Their fears proved unfounded.
In the event, most social media-enabled popular uprisings failed for want of
effective leadership, and traditional political and military organizations retained
the upper hand.
In fact, these regimes have begun to wield social
media for their own ends. We have all heard the allegations that Russia covertly
used social media to influence electoral outcomes in Ukraine, France, Germany, and,
most famously, in the United States. Facebook has estimated
that Russian content on its network, including posts and paid ads, reached 126 million
Americans, around 40% of the nation’s population.
We should recall earlier accusations by Russia of the
West’s role in fomenting the “color revolutions” in Ukraine and Georgia. The Internet
and social media provide another battlefield, it seems, for the surreptitious
manipulation of public opinion.
If even the most technologically advanced countries cannot
protect the integrity of the electoral process, one can imagine the challenges
facing countries with less know-how. In other words, the threat is global. In
the absence of facts and data, the mere possibility of manipulation fuels
conspiracy theories and undermines faith in democracy and elections at a time
when public trust is already low.
Social media’s ideological “echo chambers” exacerbate people’s
natural biases and diminish opportunities for healthy debate. This has
real-world effects, because it fosters political polarization and erodes leaders’
capacity to forge compromises, the basis of democratic stability. Likewise, the
hate speech, terrorist appeals, and racial and sexual harassment that have
found a home on the Internet can lead to real-world violence.
But social media are hardly the first communication
revolution to challenge political systems. The printing press, radio, and television
were all revolutionary in their day. And all were gradually regulated, even in
the most liberal democracies. We must now consider how to submit social media
to the same rules of transparency, accountability, and taxation as conventional
In the US, a group of senators has
introduced the “Honest Ads Act,” which would extend the rules that apply to
print, radio, and television to social media. They hope it will become law
before the 2018 midterm election. In Germany, a new law, the Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz, requires social-media companies to remove
hate speech and fake news within 24 hours or face fines of up to €50 million ($63
As useful as these measures may be, I am not sure that
national laws will be adequate to regulate online political activity. Many
poorer countries will not be able to put up such resistance, and enforcement
will be difficult everywhere, because much of the data are stored and managed
outside the regulating country.
Whether or not new international norms are necessary, we
should be careful that in seeking to curb the excesses, we do not jeopardize
the fundamental right to freedom of expression. Indeed, open societies should
not over-react, lest they undermine the very freedoms on which they base their
But nor can we remain idle. A few major players, in
Silicon Valley and elsewhere, hold our fate in their hands; but if we can get
them on board, we can address the failings of the current system.
In 2012, I convened the Global Commission on
Elections, Democracy, and Security to identify and tackle the challenges to the
integrity of elections and promote legitimate electoral processes. Only
elections that the population generally accepts as fair and credible can lead
to a peaceful and democratic rotation of leadership, conferring legitimacy on
the winner and protecting the loser.
Under the auspices of the Kofi Annan Foundation, I
will now convene a new commission – this time, with the masterminds of social
media and information technology, as well as political leaders – to help us
address these crucial new issues. We will set out to find workable solutions that
serve our democracies and safeguard the integrity of our elections, while
harnessing the many opportunities new technologies have to offer. We will
produce recommendations that will, we hope, reconcile the disruptive tensions
created between technological advances and one of humanity’s greatest
Technology does not stand still, and nor should
democracy. We have to act fast, because digital advances could be just the start
of a slippery slope leading to an Orwellian world controlled by Big Brother,
where millions of sensors in our smartphones and other devices collect data and
make us vulnerable to manipulation.
Who should own all the data collected by our phones
and watches? How should such data be used? Should its use by others require our
consent? To whom are those using our data accountable? These are the big
questions that will shape the future of freedom.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.