It’s becoming ever clearer that democracy as we know it is more fragile than many in the west ever appreciated. Unchecked populism appears to be on the rise, while you only have to look across the pond to see the effects of divisive politics on a confused populace.
Black Lives Matters protests are currently ongoing in the US following the latest murder of a black man by police. Technology has proved useful in this context for recording, tracking, collating, and sharing accounts of brutality, as well as for giving more attention to systemic racism through social media.
In spite of the monstrous circumstances, this is a perfect example of how digital tools can go some way to helping to ensure that democratic processes are followed. (Or at least, that undemocratic processes are properly documented.)
Of course, the downsides of digital tools are numerous, and have already been discussed at length by myself and others.
Here’s (almost) everything you need to know about the relationship between digital tools and democracy, from the basics (such as examples of how digital tools can help democracy flourish), to the balance needed to ensure that liberties don’t become sidelined.
What Are Digital Tools, and Why Are They Important?
Digital tools encompass software, platforms, and online resources which help make tasks simpler. In the Global North, the majority of us use a number of digital tools in day-to-day life, from apps on our phones, to the browser you’re probably using to read this article.
For activists, protestors, and anyone aiming to make a difference via democratic means, digital tools can be significant in a number of ways. Nowadays, social media and messaging apps can be used to attract attention for a petition, or you can upload videos, or start a blog to vent frustrations and build an audience.
The opportunities are there for those willing to do the groundwork. Digital tools have clearly changed the way we view democracy, from the way in which we vote, to how political parties (and alleged foreign backers) now court potential voters with targeted advertising and the use of personal data.
Below, we’ve listed three of the main applications of digital tools for activism.
Digital Tools for Activism
Digital Tools for Organisation/s
Digital tools can be highly useful for democratic organisations of all sizes, and that includes activists working from their bedrooms to the government itself.
For example, despite their love of pomp and tradition, UK MPs are set to be able to “quiz ministers via Zoom for the first time in the House of Commons [sic] 700-year history, following agreement by the House authorities.”
It’s significant progress, even if largely brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic – but advances can cut both ways. In Hong Kong, protestors previously used the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp to organise their efforts, but have now switched to traditional modes of communication.
As reported in The Guardian, “more protesters are keeping a low profile on social media, communicating only via secure messaging apps, deleting conversations related to the protests, and using pre-paid SIM cards not linked to their personal information.”
It’s all too easy for those in power to track people’s comings and goings via social media and other similar apps. And we’re willingly giving up this info, especially if documenting the experience with live video. In essence, the tradeoff for privacy is the ease and accessibility of everyday technology.
Digital Tools for Funding
Funding is a key issue for both individual protestors and organisations, especially if going up against some of the richest people, corporations, and lobbyists in the world. Technology has completely changed the way funding is approached, making crowdfunding far more effective than in the past.
After all, the more money you have, the better equipped you’ll be to take your message to the forefront of people’s attention. Take Black Lives Matter, who ask for financial aid for their “ongoing fight to end state-sanctioned violence, liberate Black people, and end white supremacy forever.”
They have a direct payment page on their website, asking for contributions of either $25, $100, $250, or $1000.
In 2019, a crowdfunding appeal by the global environmental movement Extinction Rebellion raised more than £800,000 in less than a week to support direct action in London. XR also raises money via their website: “a monthly or one-off donation funds vital work, raising awareness, training rebels, and supporting volunteers who’ve sacrificed livelihoods to work with us.”
Almost every grassroots organisation is hard up for cash, and could always use more funding to spread their message. Modern tech’s enablement of activism to do this doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves.
Digital Tools for Spreading the Message
Engaging like-minded people is one thing, but for the best results you’ll need to get the message to a wider audience. After all, some will have no idea about the issues you’re trying to raise, while others are willfully ignorant until there’s no alternative but to listen.
In the past, there weren’t many options for raising awareness; activism was alive and well by the 1960s (helped in part by the rise of noncommercial radio and alternative music), but it was still hard to reach a wider audience.
You could talk to colleagues or friends, but face-to-face meetings were pretty much the name of the game; resources would have to be printed and handed out, incurring all the associated costs.
You could always buy the shell of a boat and leave it in the middle of central London, but that’s not really feasible for the majority of groups. Luckily, we now have access to Star Trek-esque video-call technology, instant messaging apps, and all manner of communication apps to help plan and spread messages.
Digital activism is highly effective in terms of raising awareness; digital tools have completely changed the way in which activists operate and gain new allies – but still haven’t replaced boots on the ground.
The Best Digital Tools for Democracy
We’ve divided this list into a number of subsections – but this still only scratches the surface of the sheer amount of resources and other forms of tech available.
Instead, we’ll discuss each subsection around how it’s been affected by the rise of digital tools, as well as giving examples of relevant apps, services, and organisations.
Digital Tools and Community
Numerous organisations can be joined or supported with digital tools. For example, there are many apps like Nextdoor which can be used to help your local community – or you could even start your own. (These have been extremely prevalent following the COVID-19 outbreak, as younger people have flocked to protect the elderly with food shopping and other tasks.)
Of course, it should come as no surprise that Nextdoor uses verified location data to sell adverts on the platform; this is the main component of its business model. After all, Nextdoor only accepts users who provide verified addresses and phone numbers – meaning that advertisers can target real people by using their specific location.
That’s pretty weak if you just wanted to help some older people with their shopping, or you were hoping to give away a piece of furniture. The apps might be easy to use, but you’re better off setting up a neighbourhood chat group by other means.
In terms of protests, we’ve listed two major organisations above, and it’s worth remembering that digital tools are useful in advocating for everything from climate change to equality. However, many – like Nextdoor – expect to be able to sell you things, or to turn your data into the product.
Digital Tools and News
As a method for learning about current events, apps and other digital tools are second to none. With an internet connection and a cheap device, you’re a couple of taps away from the majority of the world’s collective knowledge, while online news is even easier to consume directly. It’s a natural progression from the switch to a 24-hour news cycle in the 2000s, but there are a number of drawbacks compared to the past.
Most fundamentally: there’s simply too much news to read, and only so much time in a day. The need for new stories and diminishing print revenues have led to a rise in clickbait, with many journalists lacking the time or the resources to do the job they signed up for.
However, there are many types of media outlets, and some refuse to rely on clickbait as a business model. Take The Correspondent, a global community committed to “collaborative, ad-free and constructive journalism”.
Given the above, we’ve listed a couple of important organisations for independent news in the UK. Digital tools have changed how news media operates, but this hasn’t stopped a number of dedicated individuals from trying their best to keep us in the know.
openDemocracy is an independent global media organisation. Through reporting and analysis of social and political issues, they “seek to educate citizens to challenge power and encourage democratic debate across the world.” This registered charity is preferable to the online publications you tend to find at the top of the search bar, and is worth checking out for the latest news.
Media Reform Coalition
Set up in 2011 to co-ordinate the debates over media regulation, ownership, and democracy in the wake of the UK phone-hacking saga, the Media Reform Coalition have three stated aims:
- Supporting media pluralism
- Defending ethical journalism
- Protecting investigative and local journalism.
They were forced to cancel their planned 2020 Media Democracy Festival in the wake of COVID-19, and will instead stream sessions via their YouTube channel.
Digital Tools and Learning
Education is a cornerstone of any real democracy. There are many ways to educate yourself with digital tools, from the internet itself to the device I’ve used to write this article. Certified online courses or the likes of the Open University are great examples of digital tools and education coming together, while everything from YouTube to Google have helped to make most queries answerable with a few clicks. We’ve listed some of the best alternative search engines below.
The internet is unavoidable for many of us, whether it be work-related, or just to let off some steam. It’s tempting to look to the likes of Google if you’re “feeling lucky”, but DuckDuckGo is a worthy alternative, which doesn’t collect or store any personal info, in direct contrast to most major players.
I’ve recommended DuckDuckGo (with dark mode enabled) to almost everyone I know, but SearchScene is another great, ethical alternative. As they explain:
“We earn money through advertising, just like any other search engine, but we donate up to 95% of our profits to charity. You can choose the charities you want to support by clicking on the heart-shaped charity icon at the top-right of any page. At the end of each year, our donations will be divided up according to everyone’s chosen charities.”
Codecademy is a great example of free, online educational resources, which can be used to learn about web development, including basics like HTML and CSS, as well as Python fundamentals to get you used to coding. In-depth explanations of concepts covered in Codecademy courses can be found here.
Digital Tools and Funding
As previously mentioned, funding can be a major issue for grassroots organisations, regardless of their aims. Think of your favourite obscure personal cause and how it would benefit from a mysterious benefactor swooping in.
The ethics of fundraising is debatable, and can sometimes be counterproductive for a democratic society. For example, any body able to throw more money and resources at a protest than a rival is arguably more capable of swaying public opinion. That’s why many non-profit organisations do not accept large amounts of money from one individual, or from corporations (some refuse corporate money altogether), and have a cap on the money people can donate.
Most organisations will have a website, with the majority accepting donations of some form. You could always offer your time or other professional expertise, but there’s a reason why charities send out staff with buckets and stickers: it works, and digital funding won’t replace it any time soon.
Digital Tools and Communication
No matter where you live, it would be naive to assume that intelligence services and others won’t attempt to keep tabs on protesters, campaigners, and other groups of interest. A few years ago, it was alleged that a Scotland Yard unit illegally accessed the private emails of hundreds of political campaigners and journalists. The anonymous whistleblower explained:
“For a number of years the unit had been illegally accessing the email accounts of activists. This has largely been accomplished because of the contact that one of the officers had developed with counterparts in India who in turn were using hackers to obtain email passwords.”
If you take your activism seriously, it’s probably best to keep to secure communication channels:
If you’re going to put your faith into one of the many ‘secure-messaging’ apps on the market, Signal is my personal pick of the bunch. The team at Signal is “committed to the mission of developing open source privacy technology that protects free expression and enables secure global communication. Your contribution fuels this cause. No advertisements. No trackers. No kidding.”
As far as anyone can tell, they’ve lived up to their promises so far, while the likes of Edward Snowden and other privacy experts have advocated for its use.
Digital Tools and Activism
If you’re planning to attend a peaceful protest, the best advice would be to leave your phone at home, safe from the GPS tracker that constantly pings your location after bouncing off satellites. Tell family and friends where you will be, and check your rights before heading out.
We’ve highlighted many of the perks associated with digital tools and activism, but everything from improved CCTV technology to facial-recognition software has been used to identify protestors, and the technology continues to improve.
The Future of Digital Tools and Democracy
Democracy has tried to embrace new technology for the most part, and has been largely successful, despite a few teething problems.
The European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) looked into the future of civic engagement, noting how the non-profit Democracy Earth Foundation set up an online platform called Plebiscito Digital successfully in 2016. Powered by Blockchain, the online voting platform allowed expats to vote in a 2016 referendum on a peace treaty between the Colombian government and the FARC guerilla movement (the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia).
However, the EPRS noted that:
“[D]igital tools have yet to answer one key question: how can democratic systems be digitalised ‘safely’? On-going efforts to digitalise democracy have to reckon with organisational resistance to digital innovation in the public sector. Public administrations are further challenged by the risks of fraudulent use of citizens’ feedback, privacy threats and gaps in digital literacy.”
Blockchain isn’t unhackable, and there are multiple privacy implications to handing over masses of personal data to organisations that haven’t always been the most careful in the past.
One ‘benefit’ of the COVID-19 outbreak is that the adoption of digital tools has been vastly accelerated. Many governments have taken steps to protect themselves with new technologies, such as the example of Zoom in the UK mentioned above.
It remains to be seen whether these new methods will endure in the long-term, but it’s undeniably a step in the right direction.
Digital Tools and Democracy: Final Thoughts
Activism and new technologies now seem intrinsically linked, with the former having done a pretty successful job of adapting to the latter.
There has to be some balance between the needs of a democratic society and the sacrifices made in terms of privacy, security, and fairness. The tech itself is neither good nor evil, if you even believe in such concepts.
Instead, it’s down to those in the tech sphere to work alongside world governments to ensure that we don’t end up with a dystopian present – but there’s also a chance that the democratic tools we receive will be watered down, or not useful at all.
In the UK, the government has declared that petitions with 100,000 signatures will be considered for debate in Parliament. In principle, this is a great way to tackle the latest issues of the day, but in reality a number of popular petitions are easily ignored every day.
After all, they only have to “consider” debating an issue. Depending on the issue, that consideration may consist of ‘Hmmm, no’ – which doesn’t feel very democratic.
- ‘Harnessing Digital Tools to Revitalize European Democracy’ (link)
- ‘Prospects for e-Democracy in Europe’ (link)
- ‘How to Protest Safely in the Age of Surveillance’ (link)
- ‘Protest Movements Need the Funding They Deserve’ (link)
- Good Things Foundation (link)
- ‘Technology in Activism: Amplifying Indigenous Injustice’ (link)