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Annan Commission

Democracy and the Internet: Is the honeymoon over?

The Kofi Annan Commission on Democracy and Elections in the Digital Age is working to produce guidelines to support democracies, particularly those of the global south. Professor Nathaniel Persily identifies digital trends and their potential to undermine democracy, together with leaders of the tech world, political life, and academia. As a member of the Kofi Annan Commission, he has produced a framing paper for its work, available for download here.

STANFORD – In the span of just two years, the widely shared utopian vision of the internet’s impact on governance has turned decidedly pessimistic.  The original promise of digital technologies was unapologetically democratic: empowering the voiceless, breaking down borders to build cross-national communities, and eliminating elite referees who restricted political discourse.  That promise has been undercut by concern that the most democratic features of the internet are, in fact, endangering democracy itself.  Democracies pay a price for internet freedom, under this view, in the form of disinformation, hate speech, incitement, and foreign interference in elections.  They also become captive to the economic power of certain platforms, with all the accompanying challenges to privacy and speech regulation that these new, powerful information monopolies have posed.

Critics of the sceptics are quick to point out, however, that all communications revolutions (from the printing press to the television to the internet) have costs and benefits and have been equally blamed

(usually without cause) for the political disruptions of their day.  New media merely serve as a mirror reflecting the social ills of the time, but not necessarily creating them. Moreover, the problems allegedly created by the internet well precede its development.  Polarization has deep roots and has been growing for some time.  “Fake news” is as old as news, and hate speech is as old as speech.

The new forms of communication enabled by the internet have specific, democracy-endangering effects.  The speed of online communication, its privileging of virality, the empowerment of anonymous speakers, the proliferation of echo chambers, the monopoly position of the platforms, and the extraterritorial nature of the web – all of these are features of the technology itself that place great strain on democracy.  To combat these problems, governments and platforms have arrived at a suite of reforms that explicitly or implicitly regulate speech (“The Seven Ds”): deletion, demotion, disclosure, delay, dilution, deterrence, and digital literacy.

The digital challenge to democracy is evolving quite quickly, however, with new tactics discovered with each election and new actors joining old ones. The rise of peer-to-peer encrypted communication, such as WhatsApp, is quickly becoming a dominant form of communication in the developing world outside the regulatory reach of governments and even the platforms themselves.  New international firms are emerging that specialize in election interference.  And the rise of artificial video (so-called “Deep Fakes”) threatens to undercut trust in all forms of media.

In these volatile and uncertain times, it is the charge of the Kofi Annan Commission on Elections and Democracy in the Digital Age to help realize the original egalitarian, freedom-enhancing, and pro-democracy vision of the internet, while cabining the influence of actors and strategies that seek to use these new technologies to undermine democracy itself.

Learn more about the questions the Commission will address in our background guide.

Nathaniel Persily
James B . McClatchy Professor of Law Stanford Law School
Member of the Kofi Annan Commission on Elections and Democracy in the Digital Age