Key findings from the interviews
The full report on the interviews can be accessed here: Qualitative Survey Report PDF
One of the questions we posed in the interviews was what had changed in the landscape of democracy, through the influence of digital media, and what has not changed.
A familiar but changing landscape
Many things have not changed, participants told us. Misinformation, disinformation and harassment are not new. Outrage, political polarisation and extremism are not new. Filter bubbles, soundbite politics and data capture - none of this is new. Even the erosion of the authority of published material isn’t new. And perhaps most tellingly, the cultural hegemony of tech isn’t new. Some participants argued that despite all that has changed as a result of digital media, the replication of existing power structures in the governance and management of the tech giants has inevitably lead to reinforcing many already entrenched power imbalances. Further, they said, the lack of diversity at the governance and senior management level prevented these companies from identifying and responded adequately to the risks and threats inherent in their platform designs.
So what has changed? While recognising that the foundations of mis- and disinformation, online harassment and abuse, polarisation and extremism all existed well before the rise of digital media, most interviewees nonetheless saw particular ways in which the features and functions of digital media has changed the scale, intensity and reach of those phenomena. Digital media has changed the scale, speed and breadth at which information can be shared. It has allowed advertisers, including political advertisers, to target people with much greater precision. Digital media has generated new levels of distraction, undermining citizens capacity to engage in the complex thinking demanded in a democracy. Data has taken on a new value, and has been gathered and used at an unprecedented scale. And finally, but again, perhaps most importantly, a very small number of very large companies control the means of communication used by the majority of people in most democracies on the planet.
So given what has changed with the rise and digital media, what has stayed the same, and the structural underpinnings of the major digital platforms - where are the biggest opportunities for democracy? The obvious and most commonly cited opportunities were in the democratisation of information, increased increased diversity in public discourse, more public engagement with government and democratic process, and in increased transparency and openness in government.
On the other hand, participants described considerable risks and threats to democracy including digital exclusion. The most commonly cited risks were the impact of digital monopolies, lack of competition and their impact on public-interest media and misinformation and disinformation, including deepfakes and the consequent erosion of trust in information. Other commonly cited risks include political manipulation including foreign interference, cybersecurity of government and security of elections, and the more common manipulation through political advertising, and related risks of polarisation, radicalisation and ‘echo chambers’. Other significant risks highlighted by participants were the impact on democracy of online abuse and hate, disengagement, distractions and attention hijacking, and loss of privacy and consent fatigue. Woven throughout many interviews was a recognition that a lack of transparency and accountability by the big platform companies underpinned and exacerbated all of these risks.
As one participant put it, overall, the picture of how democracy as a form is evolving under the influence of digital media is ‘quite messy’. “[I]t’s got all these new ways to participate, all these new channels for participation. At the same time, it’s getting harder to curate and access that content online, and also critique it. So it’s a messy space to talk about risks and opportunities, because the whole landscape is so complicated and moving.”
Interviewees suggested a range of interventions and solutions to both maximise the opportunities for democracy presented by digital media and minimise the threats. These range from interventions at the structural and systemic level through to suggestions for individual behavioural change.
Some of the areas in which action was identified as being most urgent include effort to:
Restore a genuinely multi-stakeholder approach to internet governance, including rebalancing power through meaningful mechanisms for collective engagement by citizens/users;
Refresh antitrust & competition regulation, taxation regimes and related enforcement mechanisms to align them across like-minded liberal democracies and restore competitive fairness, with a particular focus on public interest media;
Recommit to publicly funded democratic infrastructure including public interest media and the creation, selection and use of online platforms that afford citizen participation and deliberation.;
Regulate for greater transparency and accountability from the platforms including algorithmic transparency and great accountability for verifying the sources of political advertising;
Revisit regulation of privacy and data protection to better protect indigenous rights to data sovereignty and redress the failures of a consent-based approach to data management; and
Recalibrate policies and protections to address not only individual rights and privacy but also to collective dynamics and wellbeing, and protect indigenous rights. Public agencies responsible for protecting democracy and human rights online should reflect, in their leadership and approaches, the increasing diversity of our country.