Democracy won’t save itself. To survive the digital age, we need a combination of drastic action from our citizens and bold ideas and radical reform from our leaders. Democracy needs to refresh itself for the digital age and regain the trust and confidence of citizens. It can start by fortifying each of its six pillars with moral authority and strength. This will be a long-term challenge with no immediate fixes. But here are ideas which can help.
Own your opinion
While a shortage of time and attention in our ever-accelerating culture means we are always looking for help to make our choices and decisions, whether from a comparison website or Google Maps, always beware of outsourcing the responsibility to think for yourself. What can seem helpful in the short term will enfeeble you in the long term. This is all the more dangerous when it comes to making political and moral decisions.
Being yourself is not a given in the digital age; it takes real effort and investment to assert and defend what John Stuart Mill called “the freedom of mind”. Think of every micro-gesture online as a political statement that can have an impact, and deserves your attention. Plan your personal time and space carefully, or you’ll become a slave to internet addiction and the relentless, frenetic nature of life online – at the cost of your powers of concentration and focus. Have switch-off times, avoid the “checking cycle” and never, never hit refresh. As with all addictive practices, you need to moderate yourself with real discipline. Think of it as part of your duty to be an alert citizen.
A new digital ethics
In line with ex-Google designer Tristan Harris’s “Time Well Spent” movement and his championing of “meaningful interactions”, we need to shape a new digital ethic that is shared by the tech giants and encourages them to design services that aid human well-being not just maximise clicks. There must be a firm distinction ruled between ethical and unethical persuasion. The attention economy must be replaced with an economy of human value.
Smash your echo chamber
It is very easy to blame others, but all of us have a responsibility to uphold decorum online. A helpful starting point is to make a concerted effort to listen to what your opponents are saying, rather than dismissing them or suspecting them of having nefarious motives. Try the “principle of charity”, which means seeking out the best possible interpretation of your opponent’s view and working from there. Politics should be raucous and argumentative, but also based on the underlying belief that rivals can have reasonable differences of opinions. Make a deliberate effort to break out of your echo chamber by seeking alternative information sources, joining new Facebook groups or creating different feeds. Place yourself in the position of someone unlike yourself, taking that charitable frame of mind with you. And always remember the golden rule of the internet: no one is ever as annoying in real life as they seem online.
Teach critical thinking
It’s not all on us citizens. Our education system needs to respond to the overwhelming and confusing information world. Every school should teach the critical thinking necessary to navigate the internet sceptically. The ability to judge the merits of different pieces of information isn’t new, but a specific body of skills and knowledge is now needed: a combination of “classic” techniques (such as source verification), new knowledge about how the digital world works (such as algorithms or video splicing) and a deep understanding of our own psychological biases and irrationalities. It’s not just young people who are subject to online misinformation. There are plenty of books and resources available to everyone to get savvy when it comes to life online.
Policing the algorithms
Secretly designed algorithms are already creating data-led bias and invisible injustices and we urgently need a democratic mechanism to hold them to account. Our lawmakers – whether national or international – must create accountability officials who, like IRS or Ofsted inspectors, have the right to send in technicians with the requisite skills to examine Big Tech algorithms, either as random spot-checks or in relation to a specific complaint. While it may no longer be easy to “look under the bonnet” of modern algorithms, careful examination and oversight are still possible. This is especially true during elections, where governments must demand explanations and justifications for changes in news feeds and search results that might impact on the information the public receives.
Break the ad model
As they say, “If you’re not paying, you’re the product”. An internet economy run on the ad-based model is turning us into data points, and this has to stop. But it only works because of our complicity. Support this change with your political voice – look for greater transparency and use services that don’t collect and sell personal data (consider more paid-for premium systems), strengthen your privacy settings and download ad-blockers.
Update election campaign laws
Analogue regulations need to be brought up to speed with the digital reality. The Electoral Commission must insist that all social media spending be recorded and shared transparently – and be prepared to investigate any misuse of personal data or spending irregularities.1 Political parties should be required to publish databases of every data point, advert and targeting technique they use during an election. Journalists and academics can then analyse it and expose any wrongdoing. The requirement of transparency should keep campaigns (slightly more) honest, and even discourage the more sinister techniques, like psychographics.
Excerpted with permission from The People vs Tech: How the internet is killing democracy (and how we save it), Jamie Bartlett, Penguin Random House.