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Why democracy finds itself at a digital crossroads this year

by Tunae
This year marks a pivotal moment for global democracy; countries with a combined population of more than 4 billion people – nearly half the world’s population – will be exercising their electoral rights in what promises to be an unparalleled display of democratic spirit. As people cast their ballots on an unprecedented scale, South Korea President Yoon Suk-yeol has sounded a note of caution: the same technological fabric meant to unite us can also weave threads of division.

Perhaps more than any year in the past, democracy finds itself at a digital crossroads in 2024. The integrity of every vote and sanctity of every voice are under the silent siege of invisible algorithms and cyber spectres.

One of this year’s most high-profile elections is the US general election in November, when the incumbent, US President Joe Biden, is expected to face his predecessor Donald Trump. The latter continues to insist the 2020 election was stolen from him.

Complicating the narrative in the run-up to the election are allegations on social media that a recent influx of non-citizens were illegally registering to vote as part of another episode of electoral deception by the Democratic Party. These allegations are far from concrete, but they could introduce an element of uncertainty should the scales tilt in Biden’s favour in November.

The countries engaging in democratic elections this year include some of the most populous in the world, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Mexico and South Africa. Also among that number are India and Indonesia, the first and fourth-most populated countries in the world. The scale of logistics required to engage the 1.7 billion people in these two countries underscores the monumental task involved.
Prabowo Subianto declares victory in Indonesian election as early counts give him 58% of votes
In Indonesia, despite Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto securing an early victory in February, the shadow of a pre-election fraud investigation looms large. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems set for a third term but opposition parties have raised concerns about the integrity of electronic voting systems.
This year, technology’s dual role as both a harbinger of progress and a source of contention crystallises around the profound impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on information dissemination and digital authority. Its blade cuts both ways, and how democracy wields this tool will define the contours of governance and society.

AI-driven algorithms have become central to shaping our digital world, dictating what information reaches the public. These algorithms are engineered to maximise engagement and tend to prioritise sensational or divisive content, potentially skewing public perception and fuelling misinformation.

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The rise of AI-generated deepfakes – audiovisual content that looks convincingly real but has been manipulated – has already influenced voters in Indian state polls, adding another layer of complexity. The very technology hailed for its transformative potential across numerous sectors now threatens to turn the internet into a breeding ground for misinformation, all driven by the pursuit of virality over veracity.
From K-pop to salesgirls: AI goes mainstream in South Korea
Moreover, a few centralised platforms control vast swathes of digital space and have an outsize influence over public discourse. By virtue of their control over information flow, these entities emerge as modern gatekeepers of political dialogue, raising critical questions about their role and responsibility, especially in light of controversies such as that involving British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which was accused of improperly obtaining Facebook user data to build voter profiles.
In our relentless pursuit of a more perfect techno-democracy, a new era beckons in which digital innovation does not merely support democratic practices but could fundamentally redefine them. Last month, the United Nations approved a US-backed resolution on AI which also counted China and India as cosponsors – a welcome testament to global unity in an increasingly divisive digital age.

The critical mission now is to create a framework which leverages technology to deepen democratic engagement, enhance transparency and fortify the integrity of information without sacrificing the privacy and security that form the bedrock of these societies.

Consider Estonia’s implementation of online voting – a system that renders geographical and logistical barriers obsolete, ensuring every citizen’s voice is heard regardless of their physical location and showcasing how technology can enhance democratic engagement.

Similarly, India’s Aadhaar initiative acts as a digital ID system that provides authentication during elections. It also faces controversies such as privacy concerns and legal challenges, reflecting the complexities of such technological interventions.

Overloaded server caused system crash during Hong Kong’s district council poll
26 Jan 2024
Conversely, Hong Kong’s district council elections faced challenges, including delayed results because of computer system failures, highlighting the importance of robust digital infrastructure to support democratic processes.

The quest for a transparent and accountable governance system requires more than accessibility. It needs innovative platforms that invite public scrutiny and active participation. Sierra Leone’s experiment with blockchain during its 2018 presidential election and public policy platforms such as the vTaiwan and Seoul’s mVoting forum mirror efforts to create a governance model that is not just seen but felt by its populace, allowing policy to be shaped by the collective intelligence of society.

Navigating the digital democracy landscape presents formidable challenges, chiefly misinformation and privacy breaches. However, initiatives such as Finland’s grass-roots education against fake news shine as a beacon of hope in a time of uncertainty. These efforts exemplify how collective intelligence and participatory fact-checking can not only combat falsehoods but also strengthen our democratic discourse.

As we navigate this historic juncture, nations have both an opportunity and a duty to leverage technology in a way that enhances democratic engagement while safeguarding foundational principles. This is a necessary commitment to a future where technology serves as a catalyst for a resurgence in democratic ideals, strengthened by the ties of global collaboration and technological breakthroughs.

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