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Civil Society at the Intersection of Democracy and Technology.

From fake news and online polarization to cyber interference in elections and the rise of digital authoritarianism – the tensions between technology and democracy are manifold, but they do not go unanswered. Who is developing ways to use technology to strengthen civic engagement and democracy? Who is challenging the tactics of information warfare? And who helps us understand the bigger picture of how technology impacts democracy?

The 2020 study by FASresearch provides network-analytical answers to these questions. The result was a map of the very different organizations working at the intersection of democracy and technology.

What did we want to know?

150 expert interviews were conducted throughout the spring of 2020. These experts and activists were asked to recommend organizations that work on technology and democracy. Furthermore, "What needs to be done to counteract the harmful effects of technology on democracy and how can the potential of technology be harnessed to promote democracy?" were the key questions of our study.

Who deals with technology AND democracy? – Seven identities of civil society actors

The result was a network map of 603 organizations located in 56 different countries, with two-thirds of them based in Europe, which was the geographic focus of the study. The interviews allowed us to understand the field along the lines of seven different “identities”:

  1. The Digital Rights Activist: seeks to defend human rights online, with a focus on freedom of expression and privacy. The most often mentioned organizations in this category are European Digital Rights (EDRi)  and Noyb 
  2. The Democracy Activist: engages in mobilization and community organizing, for instance Aufstehen.at  or Transparency International 
  3. The Journalist & Fact-Checker: counters disinformation and fake news, important actors are Evgeny Mozorov  and Internews
  4. The Civic Tech Reformer: develops and deploys technology to enhance transparency and participation, most recommended were My Society and the ePanstwo Foundation 
  5. The Open & Commons Activist: works to enhance digitally enabled sharing and collaboration, for instance the Open Knowledge Foundation  or the Centrum Cyfrowe.
  6. The Peacebuilder: transforms conflict and counters online polarization and hate speech, like the organizations Build Up and Moonshot CVE do
  7. The Community Artist: criticizes technological frictions of society through the arts, for instance MAK or Adam Harvey

These seven identities are either closely connected in clusters, as can be seen, for example, with the Digital Rights Activists or the Civic Tech Reformers, or they are scattered across the network, which is particularly the case with the Journalists and Fact-Checkers, but also with Open and Commons Activists. Clustering and dispersal, in turn, could indicate a fragmentation of civil society in relation to the issues of technology and democracy. Although these identities work on a similar challenge, they have different visions, with different approaches and are seldomly coordinating beyond their own identity: When asked about how the philanthropic sector could strengthen their work, interviewees often mentioned the need to facilitate exchange and collaboration by creating new networks, alliances, and platforms.

How to we harness “the good” and ward off “the bad” of technology?

For respondents, the focus – harnessing the potential of technology and pushing back against its harmful effects on democracy – was in the realm of policy: Governments should regulate and tax big tech, while defending data privacy and allowing for the enhancement of encryption and anonymization. However, the co-design and spread of participatory platforms as new democratic practices that leverage technology was mentioned most often as a way to change the technological infrastructure. Similar fundamental changes were touched upon when interviewees demanded the demonopolization of big tech companies and the development of an alternative digital economy with a different business model. Finally, educational activities like teaching responsible internet use, critical thinking and digital literacy are regarded as impactful actions to counter harmful effects on the democratic discourse that are exacerbated by the digital.

But do the activities have the desired effect?

These activities that civil society is engaged are attempts – but they seem to not have the desired impact yet. Therefore, FASresearch brought the different identities together in a Situation Room, our software-supported workshop format for developing shared situational awareness and asked what needs to be done to strengthen their work. Participants identified several leverage points:

  1. Developing long-term concepts to contextualize short-term work
  2. Building transversal networks and coalitions
  3. Bridging to other civil society sectors to win them as partners
  4. Avoiding duplication
  5. Finding space for creativity

Coordination and "real" technology as key

The aforementioned lack of coordination was exposed as a problem that hampers the success of civil society’s impact on democratic and technological transformation, namely reaching the desired outcome of designing, providing, and using “real technology” that does not rely on attention extraction and polarization and is able to compete with the products of big tech. While much remains to be done, there was a common goal uniting the differences that set the seven identities apart.

For more information, download our poster with the network map for free or watch our webinar (held in January 2021) here: https://www.fas-research.com/news/entry/what-is-the-future-of-democracy-in-the-digital-age