Benefits and dangers of digital democracy

| Patricia Reyes

Two weeks before the municipal elections and the Sleepwet referendum in the Netherlands, the UT and the Rathenau Instituut came together to give the ‘Digital Democracy’ workshop, held yesterday in the DesignLab.

The workshop aimed to prompt its participants to take a critical stance towards the benefits and dangers that digital technologies represent for the future of politics. It started with a talk by Peter-Paul Verbeek, professor of Philosophy at the UT and board member of the Rathenau Instituut, asking the audience to broaden their conception of digital democracy. ‘People often think of online voting when they hear “digital democracy” and figure somebody hacking the system is the only risk, but this is a shallow perspective. Technologies have much deeper implications for society.’ 

Donald Trump, Twitter and AI 

The professor explained that digital technologies are drastically changing the way we experience political discourse and action. If democracy is the representation of everyone’s voices and concerns, he explained, we must ask: what is the role of digital technologies in shaping and delivering those representations? 

With examples like Donald Trump’s undermining of media outlets with his constant use of Twitter and the reliance on AI algorithms that interpret citizens’ data but may be biased, Verbeek concluded that digital technologies can embody political values, empower some people while excluding others, and transform the ways we interact with one another and enact decision-making processes. 

‘It’s no quick fix’

Ira Van Keulen, researcher from the Rathenau Instituut, summarized the institute’s work on Digital Democracy. She gave examples of digital tools that have been tried out within the EU which aim at providing citizens’ with a platform for their ideas and proposals. 

Their research has found it is a common misconception to think digital tools alone will easily mobilize people into participation. ‘We have noticed in the literature research that you also have to reach people offline. That is still a big problem for many of the initiatives.’

Van Keulen hopes the research of Rathenau Instituut can inform developers on how to design technologies that promote democracy. ‘It certainly has added value, but it’s no quick fix. You have to meet a lot of conditions for it to be successful and have political impact with it.’

Designing digital democracies

The talks were followed by an interactive session in which the attendees divided themselves into groups to discuss pressing political issues in their communities. Some of the issues addressed were the disagreements on welfare distribution and the lack of trust in governmental institutions.

Participants were then asked to ideate a technology design that would tackle these issues. Pitching their ideas at the end of the workshop, most people showed themselves hopeful that digital tools could be designed to enhance democracy.