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Technology is undermining democracy. Who will save it?

Fast Company kicks off our series “Hacking Democracy,” which will examine the insidious impact of technology on democracy—and how companies, researchers, and everyday users are fighting back.

Technology is undermining democracy. Who will save it?
[Source images: Avector/iStock; andrey gerega/iStock; eclipsedi/IStpck; carlotoffolo/iStock]
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How will technology impact democracy over the next 10 years?

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According to research from the Pew Research Center, a whopping 49% out of a group of 979 technology experts believe that technology will fundamentally weaken democracy by 2030. Only a third of these experts thought tech would strengthen democracy, while 18% said they thought it would have no impact.

Many of these experts, who include technologists, business leaders, and researchers, were particularly concerned that democratized access to information—the great aspiration and possibility of the internet—is being weaponized to destabilize democratic institutions by encouraging mistrust and engendering chaos.

These are particularly important concerns during the week of Super Tuesday, as the nation’s eyes turn toward polling places in more than a dozen states where voters will help decide the Democratic nominee for president. But it’s not just the caucuses: the rest of the story is unfolding simultaneously online, as people scroll past political Facebook ads that jockey for their attention, share positive and negative news stories on Twitter, and watch their favorite pundits analyze the latest results on YouTube.

“The problem is that technology mirrors and magnifies the good, bad, and ugly in everyday life. And right now, we do not have the safeguards, security, or policies in place to prevent manipulators from doing significant harm with the technologies designed to connect people and help spread information,” wrote danah boyd, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research and founder of the tech think tank Data & Society, in her response to Pew.

With the 2020 election on the horizon, this week Fast Company is publishing a series of stories that focus on the cracks that technology has wrought in democracy, both at home and abroad.

Political groups are designing divisive disinformation campaigns to deliberately mislead people. That’s perfect for social media, where algorithms highlight extreme content in the hopes that it will get your attention and confuse your sense of what’s real and what’s not. The way you browse and click is then analyzed and used to present you with even more content that confirms what you already think—regardless of its veracity.

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Powerful tech companies with virtual monopolies over information and social media have failed to adequately address these threats, leading to three-quarters of Americans having no confidence that corporations like Facebook, Google, and Twitter will be able to prevent their platforms from being misused during the 2020 election. On top of that, there’s the risk of cyberattacks and faulty voting machines. Not to mention election interference by foreign governments, which increasingly see the internet as a tool for geopolitical dominance and a means by which to keep dissent in check.

We’re calling our series “Hacking Democracy,” a nod to the insidious ways that technology is impacting elections, civil institutions, and the democratic process. But we mean “hack” in the positive sense as well. Along with delving into the mounting problems we face, our reporters are also examining what’s being done to fix them.

Read more:

“I have a duty to do this”: Meet the Redditors fighting 2020’s fake news war

How the internet shutdown in Kashmir is splintering India’s democracy

Tech platforms screwed up the last election. Here’s how they’re prepping for 2020

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is the deputy editor of Fast Company's technology section. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and follow her on Twitter @kschwabable

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