Democracy under threat

FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo - The Philippine Star

Maria Ressa’s courage in standing up to the weaponization of the law and social media to silence and intimidate critics of the Duterte regime was recognized by the Nobel Committee by awarding her this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. She was one of the earliest to sound the alarm to the danger that the internet and social media, which in the wrong hands, can pose an existential threat to democracy. She had earlier on alluded to the role that social media platforms have played in the rise of leaders like Duterte and Donald Trump by amplifying misinformation and propaganda.

In her speech, Maria said she helped create Rappler in an attempt “to put together two sides of the same coin that shows everything wrong with our world today: the absence of law and democratic vision for the 21st century. That coin represents our information ecosystem, which determines everything else about our world. Journalists – that’s one side – the old gatekeepers. The other is technology, with its god-like power, the new gatekeepers. It has allowed a virus of lies to infect each of us, pitting us against each other, bringing out our fears, anger, hate, and setting the stage for the rise of authoritarians and dictators around the world.”

Now I have written extensively in the past about the transformational benefits to humankind of the information age – now more broadly referred to as digital transformation. One of those is enabling as close to participatory democracy as we have never before experienced in our lifetime. Digital technology provided a space to connect and share views, and to engage in conversations on topics that affect our lives – be it social, economic or governance, among others. It empowered ordinary citizens to have direct access to those who govern them and thus influence policy. It gave them the platform to exercise the check and balances that make democracies function as they were intended to be. All of these contribute to strengthening democracies. Or so we thought. Time has proven this to be a rather naïve assumption.

When information technology is co-opted by governments or interest groups with populist and authoritarian tendencies – this technology becomes an instrument of insidious manipulation, with truth being the first casualty. Truth is the foundation of trust and shared values and realities that makes democracy work. As Maria said: “Without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without trust, we have no shared reality, no democracy, and it becomes impossible to deal with the existential problems of our times: climate, coronavirus, now, the battle for truth.”

The culprit is the social media platform’s use of algorithms to identify the individual preferences and biases of their users through their usage over time and link them with those who might have some similarity. While this makes for a customized user experience, this makes their dataset more valuable for marketing purposes as it enables micro-targeting. The problem is that in the process, those who propagate lies and division “laced with anger and hate” find their mission amplified cheaply and more easily than would have been otherwise possible in an analog world.

A populist candidate may propagate a false narrative through his social media army to raise fear, amplify social divisions, glorify tarnished reputations, burnish undistinguished credentials, and malign the opposition. Because of its reach, social media is responsible for exacerbating their ends by relentlessly publishing unchecked content and providing an anonymous cover for fake news. To paraphrase, as a consequence, truth does not stand a chance to lies repeated a million times on social media.

What can we do about it? Without reform and effective oversight, social media can subvert democracy, which is already under threat in many countries and more so in ours. Self-discipline by platform providers and better regulations to control algorithms and improve monitoring tools can be the long term solution. Even the United Nations has taken notice. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he is “particularly worried” about the power of social media companies.

He pointed to “the volume of information that is being gathered about each one of us, the lack of control we have about ... the data related to ourselves, the fact that data can be used not only for commercial purposes to sell to advertising companies ... but also to change our behavior, and the risks of that data to be used also from a political point of view for the control of citizens in countries.”

Guterres said this “requires a serious discussion” and that is one of the objectives of his “Roadmap for Digital Cooperation” launched last June.

All well and good. But we should not hold our breath waiting for these to happen. We have an election on May 2021 that may decide what the digital future holds for us and our democracy. Much of it will depend, in the meantime, on our critical thinking, on our ability to check sources, and in our understanding why people who are not of the same mind think that way. Frequently, it is a result of false propaganda that needs to be countered with sensitivity and understanding.

At the end of the day, it is what we as individuals value as worth fighting for. It may not be the same for everyone in terms of priorities. Bettering  our lives is a common cause, and there is nothing wrong for that to be material. But what unites them is truth, ethical honor, trust, peace empathy, and being the best that we can be regardless of our individual circumstances.

We will need to respond to the challenge that Maria has presented to us: What are you willing to sacrifice for the truth?  Let us hold the line together against this onslaught against the truth.

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