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Digital Dangers to Democracy

While we may see the dangers that digital technologies pose to the political system, others see new opportunities to influence election outcomes. Managing and containing these threats must now be an urgent priority for democrats everywhere.

SAN JOSÉ – Hardly a day goes by without some new allegation that social media are undermining democracy. Actors across the political spectrum are exploiting digital technologies to spread disinformation and fuel polarization. While “fake news” and hate speech are nothing new, the digital age has provided, if unwittingly, an environment conducive to both. The potential of new technologies to improve the human condition is beyond question, but the risks they pose to democracy are now increasingly apparent.

Tech companies, governments, and citizens alike are grasping for solutions to a set of connected challenges. How do we deal with rapid online communication that makes well-timed disinformation easy to disseminate and difficult to rebut? How does the desire to create watchable content, which is often based on emotion and sensation rather than evidence, fit with reasoned democratic debate? How do we identify the real sources of information when the Internet’s anonymity hides the origin of a post? And given the reach and market dominance of Google and Facebook, are we, and by extension our political views and debates, captives of their algorithms?

In one of his last initiatives before he passed away in August 2018, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan convened a Commission on Elections and Democracy in the Digital Age, which was launched earlier this month at Stanford University. In particular, Annan wanted to sound the alarm on behalf of countries that have few, if any, means to defend themselves against these twenty-first-century threats to the integrity of elections. And, because these problems could affect almost any country, he fervently believed that a global perspective was crucial for tackling them.