B. Technology in service of democracy and fundamental rights
Digital tools can strengthen democracy in numerous ways, from facilitating access to public sector information to broadening citizens' participation in decision-making. Digital platforms and social media provide a forum for public debate and for contact between elector and elected. There are good examples, especially at the local level, of politicians who do not exclusively send, but also receive. They reply to questions online, answer for their decisions and pick up ideas.
Even in the digital era, democracy cannot function according to the 'you ask, we provide' model. Internet surveys and polls of individual preferences are no substitute for political debate between citizens. The fulfilment of individual wishes must sometimes give way to a higher, collective interest. Exchanges of viewpoints, negotiations, and compromises are indispensable in defining the common interest. Instruments that want to give people more control over their living environments, such as participatory budgets and apps for citizens’ initiatives, must do justice to the deliberative aspect of democracy.
The Czech city of Brno goes at length to integrate deliberations into its participatory budget. The yearly vote on the projects that are proposed by citizens to improve their city, from playgrounds to classes for seniors, is preceded by a series of public meetings. During these discussions, the proponents of a project can refine their proposals, strike compromises, forge alliances, and garner support. The last meeting decides which projects will be presented at the top of the voting list. Also, Brno makes sure that the city district councils are involved in the selection of feasible projects.
The final vote – open to all citizens, who can cast their ballot either online or offline – determines which projects will be implemented by the city. But this vote is just the final stage of ten months of deliberations.
Unfortunately, social media such as Facebook and Twitter offer possibilities to manipulate voters for political purposes. Disinformation is abundant. Profiling of social media users enables political marketeers to exploit the weaknesses and fears of specific groups and individuals. Voters are misled about a party’s political priorities, if it can present itself to every voter as a one-issue party for his or her interests. The public sphere gets fragmented, if the political messages that citizens receive are tailored to their political, social, or psychological profile, or are filtered by the bubble of like-minded people that social media creates around them.
Governments can counter disinformation without harming freedom of expression. For instance, they can support independent (local) media, independent funds for investigative reporting, and independent fact-checkers. They can incorporate media literacy in school subjects. Political parties, even at the local level, would do well to agree between themselves to refrain from microtargeting in online election campaigns.
In 2018, the European Parliament drew lessons from the Cambridge Analytica scandal. This British data company had captured the data of 87 million Facebook users without their permission, after which it was used for political purposes, including Donald Trump’s election campaign in the United States. The European Parliament’s resolution “calls on political parties and other actors involved in elections to refrain from using profiling for political and electoral purposes; calls on political parties to be transparent as to their use of online platforms and data”.