/Do digitalization and the Internet have a democratizing effect? – Marius Melzer

Do digitalization and the Internet have a democratizing effect? – Marius Melzer

Marius Melzer

The Internet is not simply a new medium of communication, as was the case with radio and television at their time. Internet’s interactive functions are changing our common life in a way that no traditional media has ever been able to before.

This paper is intended to examine how the Internet has an impact on democracy and democratization. It aims to focus on the following main characteristic of democracy: Sovereignty belongs to the nation. For the proper functioning of a democratic state, fi rstly, the citizens must be able to access information independently so that they can shape their own views. Secondly, it is indispensable for citizens to be able to freely express their points of view and exchange opinions so that they can shape an opinion within the community. Thirdly, it becomes necessary for citizens to infl uence the state with their own opinions based on the best circumstances.

1. Informed citizens
At the core of a functioning democracy is the level of citizens‘ knowledge about social and political events and their causes1. Until the spread of the Internet, access to information was limited to content published for distribution, such as newspapers, books or radio. On the other hand, the Internet is the first communication medium that provides users the opportunity to be not only consumers of a global media, but also potential producers of content. This media offers an unfi ltered opportunity to access experts in many different fi elds even though not all Internet users disseminate information of extraordinary social importance. It is already possible for scientists, whistleblowers and activists to disseminate information and their predictions in podcasts, blogs or social networks without the obligation to follow the official rules of political or traditional media. Data from offi cial institutions, such as government practices and records, are available for the first time to a large community of users. At this point, there is an important contribution from laws regulating the dissemination of information2 and transparency (https://transparenzranking.de).

Actually, for traditional media also the ability to use the media was important, i.e., the competence of determining whether a source is reliable and competent, but for the Internet as an unfi ltered environment, this is a much more important competence.

First of all, it is necessary to mention especially fake news. The technology called deepfake3, enables the falsifi cation of videos and audios with a mastery identical to the originals. Obviously, informed users are capable of distinguishing fake news with the help of sources, because fake news is mainly spread from the same source4. It would constitute a good technical barrier for platforms to automatically detect fake news and deepfakes and cross them out or remove them publicly.

Secondly, tracking and microtargeting is an attack on the development of ideas. Through tracking, Internet users are tracked as they browse the Internet and a profi le is created about them. This allows abuse, especially for microtargeting. This makes it possible to differentiate small groups or individual users from each other in a planned way by means of their created profi les or character features, and to show them targeted content. Facebook’s Camebridge Analytica scandal is an example5. There are many possibilities to protect against tracking on the Internet, we can use the Disconnect browser extension (https:// disconnect.me) as an example.

Thirdly, it is necessary to mention the danger of fi lter bubbles. Social networks foster the creation of groups of like-minded users. It is possible for fake news to spread in certain fi lter bubbles without obstacles and without criticism. One can clearly see this in rightwing and far-right populist circles6.

Fourthly, it is necessary that technical processes, data processing and algorithms are transparent and understandable to the ordinary user7.

2. Expressing opinions and the formation of social opinion
In order to carry out a public debate on political issues there are two preconditions: The fi rst one is the possibility of expressing one’s own or the group’s point of view within certain limits agreed upon, and the second one is the possibility of discussing this opinion with others and thus elaborating a collective opinion. In the past, both of these have occurred through the traditional media, which transmitted and defended what was socially convenient for debate. New forms of exchanging opinions without the need for intermediaries have emerged through the use of websites, blogs, podcasts and social networks on the Internet.

During the „Green Revolution“ in Iran in 2009 and the „Arab Spring“ in the following years we have seen the signifi cant infl uence of the Internet on the democratic movement. Despite the fact that governments have tried to control and censor opinions on the Internet, this effort has not been completely successful in the past, especially because of the huge amount of information circulating on social networks.

However, it is possible that artificial intelligence-based censorship mechanisms will make this possible. The simple measure to prevent this is the introduction of anonymization services that are widely used in autocratic states, e.g. „Tor“ (https://torproject.org).

In addition to censorship, the control is a threat because it also leads to self-censorship. A study conducted in the USA8 revealed, following Snowden’s publications in 20138, that journalists tended more to self-censorship, limiting or ceasing their activities on social networks, and ceasing to discuss certain topics on the phone or in email correspondence.

Another negative consequence of digital progress is that generalized and arbitrary control of each individual is technically possible. To avoid this, all communication must be encrypted, preferably with „end-to-end“ encryption, which protects the entire communication path from sender to receiver. Examples are „Gnu Privacy Guard“ (GPG) for end-to-end encrypted communication, for email communication (https://gnupg. org), Signal for text messaging (https://signal.org), the Matrix communication network (https://matrix.org) or the video chat platform palava (https://palava.tv).

The metadata are more difficult to preserve. Metadata includes location and movement data, contact data and dates. They can be used to draw conclusions about specific information, such as religious affiliation, business connections, friendships, romantic relationships or diseases, and can also be easily analyzed automatically. Anonymization services also provide protection for metadata. But it is more practical to use services that store little or no metadata. For a comprehensive list of alternatives for data protection against Facebook, Google etc., can be found in „Digitale Gesellschaft“9.

3. Opportunities to influence
the state
Despite the fact that there are some democracy models without elections10, the elections are part of the de facto standard for citizens to influence the state. In democracies, elections must be secret, but also transparent. Except for many practical issues, such as security and the suitability of voting computers, the point of current science is that electronic elections, called eVoting, can be secret or convenient, but never both at the same time11. As a result, it is not suitable for traditional elections. Nevertheless, when secrecy does not play an important role, as in the case of an anonymous referendum or a vote on the citizens‘ wishes, electronic elections can be applied. The free program „Liquid Democracy“ (https:// liqd.net) presented an interesting concept that was tested in the Pirate Party. In this case, the political course of the party was determined on the basis of the majority. Members were able to vote on certain issues, depending on their field, to experts or to people they trusted. However, this attempt at „Liquid Democracy“ in the Pirate Party failed very soon due to data security problems.

Obstacles to direct communication with political representatives are also reduced through the use of digital communication tools. Platforms such as „Ask the State“, in which citizens‘ questions and their answers are documented online and accessible to everyone, represent an important element here.

4. Summary
Essentially, the Internet offers opportunities for democracy. It improves the main conditions for citizens to become informed individuals and develop ideas. It increases the availability of information and the means of direct communication with experts and decision- makers. It also provides new possibilities for organization and influence in the state. Aspects that pose a threat to democracy (censorship, monitoring, fake news, microtargeting, etc.) can be addressed with a social effort, technical solutions or legal regulations. The great opportunities of the Internet can be widely exploited if a government demonstrates digital transparency, effectively protects whistleblowers, mitigates the negative effects of social networks through regulation, and supports software, algorithms and services that are free, secure and private.

For the full version of this text, see:
Handbuch Kindheit, Technik und das
Digitale (2021, Braches-Chyrek, Moran-
Ellis, Röhner, Sünker)

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