The False Promise of Digital Democracy

MUNICH – Most people used to think of the Internet as a force for good. It was supposed to allow us not only to shop, stay in touch with former classmates, and find a new sushi restaurant; it was also supposed to empower us politically by allowing the disenfranchised to make their voices heard, help activists mobilize supporters, and enable ordinary citizens to publicize evidence of official corruption or police brutality.

But doubts have crept in – and not only since the revelations of government agencies’ use of the Internet to spy on us, our leaders, and one another. The Internet’s impact on politics is deeply ambiguous. Unless and until it becomes a space where rules and rights apply like they do in the real world, that is unlikely to change.

Early enthusiasts dreamed that mere access to the Internet would help spread democracy. This did not happen. At the end of the 1990’s, 4% of the world’s population was using the Internet; today, almost 40% do. But the share of countries classified as “not free” or “partly free” by the democracy watchdog Freedom House has hardly changed over the same period. In the battle between networks and hierarchies, the hierarchies seem to be winning more often than not.

One reason is that governments have become as skillful at using the Internet and modern communications technology as activists. Autocratic governments use it to track down protest and opposition leaders, as we have recently seen in Ukraine. They employ armies of people to vet and skew online conversations. Some people even argue that the Internet acts as a political release valve that helps dictators stay in power.