Digital technologies can improve or undermine democracy, depending on who controls them and how they are used. While digital media have provided platforms to empower the marginalized voices and enhance citizen engagement, concerns have also emerged on various fronts. For instance, proprietary search engine algorithms can be manipulated to influence voters. Personal data on various digital platforms can be used to analyse behaviours and preferences for crafting targeted political communications. Citizens can use digital platforms to build their own “walled gardens” which exclude those they disagree with. We are also witnessing the dominant social media platforms in both democratic and non-democratic states routinely censoring political speech. How has digital democracy evolved over the years, what are the main drivers of these changes, and how can citizens still be meaningfully practice democratic citizenship today?
By Rio Tuasikal
While the emergence of digital tools was initially believed to increase public participation and democracy, recent studies have found otherwise, according to policy and communication experts who spoke at the Asian Conference for Political Communication (ACPC) 2022.
While social media was previously seen as a tool for democratisation, recent studies found that it was quickly used as a mobilisation tool, Jakob Ohme of Weizenbaum-Institut Berlin said during the session on “The Changing Landscape of e-Democracy” held on 12 October 2022.
“We have to acknowledge that social media can undermine democracy too,” he said.
Jacque Manabat, a journalist from ABS-CBN in the Philippines, shared her social experiment to demonstrate how politicians use Facebook to manipulate politics.
In 2021, Manabat created a Facebook profile and presented herself as someone who wants to run for office.
She found a Facebook page for k-pop fans with 1,000 followers, bought it for USD 17, and changed its profile and content for it to reflect a candidate running for a local post in the Philippines.
She also bought emoji reactions to boost her online presence and engagements.
“Meta said buying a Facebook group like this is forbidden, but I proved that politicians could do it,” Manabat said.
Oh Yonghee of South Korea’s People Power Party agreed that the architecture of online platforms has allowed offline politicians to gain attention using non-democratic measures.
In some parts of the world, governments use social media or the internet to expand public participation, Dr Carol Soon from the Institute of Policy Studies of the National University of Singapore said.
But the government has to ensure that everybody is included, she said.
Digital tools alone will not necessarily improve trust and transparency, she added.
“Not just to say ‘Okay, we heard you. Thank you for your comments and opinions’ but ‘This is what we hear from you, this is what we think might work and might not and why,’” Soon said.
“Giving people feedback to their feedback is really quite key,” she said.
The panel is part of the ACPC 2022 held in Singapore on 12-13 October 2022. The two-day conference was hosted by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) Media Programme Asia. The biggest gathering of political communication expert brought together 220 participants from 40 countries.