Despite the long-term gains the world has made, recent media reports and public opinion polls signal a growing threat to democratic practice worldwide.
Whether referring to leaders’ lack of respect for election results, voter apathy, distrust of traditional institutions or increased polarisation, democracy is crumbling from within. In addition, nations that operate under authoritarian rule are on the rise in terms of economic power and global influence.
In the face of this decline, the importance of courageous citizens, civil society and the media cannot be underestimated. Through investigation, information transparency, advocacy and building alliances, they are able to harness their powers, restore the public will and safeguard their freedoms.
Technology & Democracy: the promise of social media
Already with the rise of print and the consequent development of a public sphere, the linkage between technological development and democratisation became apparent. In recent years, especially in the context of the Arab Spring, hopes have been vested on social media to further enhance civic participation and engagement.
Surely, social media has provided numerous positives to society including affordable access to information, easier access to alternative viewpoints and adding another communication channel between voters and politicians. But social media has just as many drawbacks — some that are already being addressed, others that both social media companies and governments continue to examine.
The major problems currently dominating the headlines are:
As algorithmic news feeds are designed to highlight information based on user history and data, the filter bubble amplifies confirmation bias which means users are primarily exposed to information that supports their own beliefs which in turn run the risk of being pushed towards the extremes.
In the absence of editorial curation and general oversight, disinformation campaigns easily spread. Automated accounts operated by bots are central to the spread of such misinformation. To put this into perspective, Facebook recently admitted to hosting nearly 270 million fake accounts. It is furthermore estimated that between 9 to 15% of all active Twitter accounts are run by bots.
While great for marketing purposes, the lack of transparency over how user data is compiled and used, is problematic in terms of data being misused for partisan purposes. In addition, with users’ personal details easily uncovered, the outspoken are vulnerable to targeted censorship, retribution or in some cases even persecution.
Established social media companies continue to grapple with these issues, but it’s incredibly challenging because many of the problems with information, data and privacy are intrinsic to the ad driven revenue models that underlie social media operations.
In an effort to resolve these contradictions, a number of innovative companies such as Civil, Akasha and Steemit have come into play. Leveraging blockchain and crypto-economics, they offer alternative communication platforms without relying on third parties to generate value.
We The People
Against this backdrop, a new global movement has been taking shape. One which goes beyond merely adding another platform, but which specifically seeks tech-driven solutions to fortify human rights.
The movement is called We The People and its root purpose is to take democracy online and put power back in people.
Their intention is not so much to promote democracy as a governance model, but rather to enable people to speak up and do the right thing, wherever and under whatever political conditions they might live.
They point out that nearly 37% of the global population is not free, with little to no access to civil or political rights, and believe technology can play a pivotal role in empowering the masses across the political spectrum to achieve greater degrees of freedom.
We The People seeks to support individuals, communities and organisations around the world struggling to address the pressing problems of the world, by giving them a voice and the tools to effect change.
Firstly, support is being offered by promoting digital literacy and developing tech-based tools to raise the efficiency and reach of civil society.
Secondly, the movement is engaged in global consultations with non-profits, activists, community leaders, tech experts and passionate individuals to gain a better sense of the needs of local communities and how best to assist them moving forward.
Thirdly, We The People regularly organises participatory events to bring together various drivers of change to engage in productive discussions about human rights issues and how to better utilise technology. As part of this endeavour, in June 2019, they will be hosting the first ever global Internet of Advocacy Summit in Hong Kong.
Lastly, in addition to capacity building, in 2020 We The People will be launching a blockchain powered platform that will enable people to connect securely, without the risk of censorship and when necessary anonymously. The platform not only serves as a digital space to connect, but also to initiate campaigns, share news and updates, monitor projects, and keep a watchful eye on activists at risk.
With a tangible decline in democracy and a noticeable shift in how young people engage social issues, we are curious to see how the internet of advocacy will work to support human rights and release new energy, especially in those regions where people are structurally inhibited from taking charge of their own future.