Over recent years a growing body of international research has looked at the impact of digital media on democracy, with particular focus on the US and the UK where the role played by digital media in the election of Trump and the Brexit referendum raised significant concerns.

This project was designed to find out if we should be worried about these same issues here in New Zealand. And if so, what should we do about it? In order to answer that question we identified five key features of democracy against which we could measure the impact of digital media, for better and for worse. They are:

  • Electoral process and pluralism

  • Active, informed citizens

  • Shared democratic culture

  • Civil liberties and competitive economy

  • Trust in authority

What we’ve found

Critically, we found that digital media is having an impact across every one of those features of a healthy democracy.

There are indicators that digital media has had some beneficial impacts. Our quantitative research here in New Zealand indicates, for example, that people from minority groups have been able to use digital media to participate in democratic processes including accessing politicians and engaging in public debate. Whatever our response to the challenges posed to democracy by digital media, it’s important we don’t lose these opportunities in the process.

But the overall trend should raise serious concerns. Active citizenship is being undermined in a variety of ways. Online abuse, harassment and hate - particularly of women, people of colour, queer people, people with disabilities and people from minority religions - undermines democratic participation not only online, but offline.

Misinformation, disinformation and mal-information are undermining not only informed debate, but also public trust in all forms of information. Distraction and information overload are eroding citizens’ capacity to focus on important and complex issues, and their capacity to make the ‘important moral judgements’ required in a functioning democracy.

Likewise, interviewees described a myriad of ways in which our shared democratic culture is being undermined by digital media - including through disinformation, polarisation, attention hijacking and radicalisation.

One of the clearest impacts of digital media on our democracy has been its impact on funding for mainstream media. While Facebook and Google hoover up the advertising revenue that once would have been spent on print, radio and television advertising, they contribute nothing to the work of producing the kind of news and current affairs reporting that is essential to a functioning democracy. In a stunning display of hypocrisy, Facebook recently complained that their local news service was being hindered by a lack of local newspapers, many of which were forced to either shut down or significantly reduce their newsroom size after losing advertising income to Facebook.

The representative survey we carried out indicates that New Zealand’s small size and relatively healthy mainstream media (relative to elsewhere and despite significant resource challenges) may help us avoid the worst effects of “filter bubbles” and “echo chambers” in digital media on some issues.

When asked about the legalisation of cannabis, New Zealanders who got their information about the issue online were able to predict relatively accurately whether the majority of New Zealanders shared their views or not. A third of those who disagreed could predict (that is a minority), most who agreed could accurately predict. This may be unique to the debate about drug reform because, for example, there had been significant media coverage of opinion polls on this issue. More research would be needed to see if this is replicated across other issues in New Zealand.

Interviewees in our qualitative research nonetheless pointed to examples where debate in New Zealand about issues like free speech, hate speech and gender identity attracted the attention of foreign actors holding strong, even extreme, views on these issues. Engagement by these foreign actors in the online public debates on issues here in New Zealand appears to some interviewees to have contributed to a polarisation, even radicalisation of views here. Interviewees also raised concerns that the ability of citizens to form free and informed opinions were being undermined not only by mis and disinformation, but by the increasing role of algorithms in predicting and curating the information each of us is exposed to.

The need for a systemic response

We could continue to outline the impact digital media is having on trust in public institutions, free and fair elections, the protection of human rights and a competitive economy. More on all of that below. The key message is clear, digital media is having massive, system-wide impacts on our democracy. It affects every part of our lives and the people who run the corporations controlling the major platforms are having a determinative impact on the very structures and functions of our society. While better content moderation is clearly one of the responses we must demand of the platforms, it is not even close to being a sufficient response to the scale of the challenge.

The three core problems to emerge from our research

At the heart of the challenges to democracy posed by digital media are three core problems:

  1. Platform monopolies: two or three corporations control not only our means of communication, but also the content which is distributed both of which are core aspects of our democracy, whilst the market power and global mobility of these companies make it possible for them to avoid national regulatory measures either by moving operations elsewhere or simply ignoring them;

  2. Algorithmic opacity: algorithmic engines are using huge quantities of personal data to make ever more precise predictions about what we want to see and hear, and having ever increasing influence over what we think and do, with little transparency about how they work or accountability for their impact; and

  3. Attention economy: the dominant business model of digital media prioritises the amplification of whatever content is best at grabbing our attention, while avoiding responsibility for the impact that content has on our collective wellbeing and our democracy. And the negative impact is brutally clear from both the literature and the world around us.

It’s critical that this moment of global cooperation is used to address the wider, structural drivers of the biggest threats posed to democracy by digital media. These structural drivers include the power that a handful of privately-owned platforms wield over so many aspects of our lives, from what information we see, who we interact with, and who can access information about us. And we must do this while maintaining and building upon the many opportunities digital media simultaneously offer to tackle some of the biggest challenges facing democracy, including inequity of access and declining engagement.

In order to do that, action is needed sooner rather than later in order 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 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 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.