Digital Tech Can Strengthen Democracy — if some changes are made


Digital technology is not typically associated with being a vanguard of democracy. 

Social media platforms are being used to spread disinformation to the masses, Facebook and Google are being blamed for their role in disseminating local news, and the failure to secure our private information has become rampant online.

With all the negative headlines, it’s easy to feel discouraged, if not powerless, because of our evolving technology. 

But be hopeful. 

Some studies show that technology can actually empower us as citizens and increase our engagement and trust with government — if it’s used right.

Power to the people

SeeClickFix is a web and mobile app that acts as a bridge between citizens and government. The service literally helps fix real bridges, too.

The platform allows the public to report all types of non-emergency problems, such as potholes and graffiti. It also gives the average person the ability to collaborate with their local government to help improve the community.

“[Facebook and Twitter] have really played a part in eroding trust in government,” says Ben Berkowitz, CEO of SeeClickFix. “And I find it interesting that there is very little conversation about how we can actually be using the internet to build trust.”

Others agree, like Erhardt Graeff, a professor, social scientist, and civic technologist. As a MIT Media Lab PhD candidate, Graeff investigated the behavior and attitudes of SeeClickFix users. 

The findings, presented in May 2018 at MIT, showed that government responsiveness to a reported issue on SeeClickFix was related to users feeling like their local government was listening to them. In other words, it gave them the sense that they had political efficacy. 

The research also indicated that the speed at which issues are resolved was correlated. This suggests support for a long-held assumption: citizens care about and are paying attention to how their requests are resolved. 

The theory is by creating a widespread sense that the government is capable of getting things done, local government can more easily obtain community input and garner support for major initiatives. And today’s technology makes this more achievable than ever before.

This will only become more important as government and technology continues to intertwine.

“Whether you like it or not, more and more of your relationship with government is going to be mediated by digital technology,” says Graeff. “That is going to be a fact of how our democracy functions going forward.”

Social media companies need transparency

While a platform like SeeClickFix is not comparable to Facebook and Twitter on several levels, they should all follow one principle: transparency needs to be the top priority. Says Berkowitz: 

“I think it’s incredibly unethical that you can wield that much power and manipulate another human being without being real clear about the ways in which you’re doing that.”

One key way to achieve this is to make algorithms more transparent. 

As Berkowitz and others have suggested, these companies should be disclosing the formulas they use to feed users their content. Even if the average user will not pay attention to this, advocates, journalists, and legislators will. 

With this as precedent, many of Silicon Valley’s scandals could have been seen in advance before turning into an epic problem.

By making transparency not just a talking point but an actual mantra, perhaps these companies will regain the public’s trust. Being open would have certainly kept Facebook more accountable and might have prevented some of the major PR disasters the company now faces.

If the public knew from the start that private information was being shared with third parties, or that foreign countries were manipulating the service to spread disinformation, or that teens were being paid in exchange for their personal information, Facebook most likely would have been proactive in addressing these situations rather than retroactive.

Instead, public opinion has been souring with technology. And that’s a shame, because there is limitless potential for the positive net effect it can have in our society. 

But hopefully, with some changes, the history books will show that after a rocky start, digital tech strengthened and enhanced our democracy. 

We can call the chapter Democracy 2.0.