The rapid evolution of technologies facilitates collective decision-making and public debate. Their introduction into developing countries comes with risks for democracy.
Faced with the global democratic crisis, the subject that links democracy and technology is gaining momentum. The case Cambridge AnalyticaAccounts “bots” attacking politicians on social media, abuses of computer surveillance and fake news are symptomatic of this.
The rapid development of new technologies multiplies the possibilities of adjusting the deliberative process of citizens by facilitating collective decision-making and public debate. Their increasingly important and rapid introduction in developing countries leads us to think about their intrinsic and abusive risks.
The intrinsic risks of technology
Technologies, beyond their promise of economic prosperity, run the risk of aggravating disparities within countries and sidelining democratic governance. Artificial intelligence (AI), based on data that may be biased, increases the risk of stereotyping individuals and therefore of discriminating against certain categories. AI and algorithms induce users to be satisfied with the content to which they have access and in fact, produce the only display of what is pleasant, failing to allow them to confront their ideas with contrary points of view. They therefore increase the risk of misinformation, polarization of debates and exposure to unfounded rumors is taken up by many media.
New technologies induce the possibility of being used by governments against freedom of expression. They can allow censorship through their instrumentalization, as was the case during the Arab Spring where governments orchestrated internet shutdowns undermining freedom of expression. This possibility of censoring content goes hand in hand with authoritarian state excesses and questions the relationships of interest maintained between government decision-making bodies and large technology companies.
New technologies can be the source of malicious and democratic uses – whether initiated by governments, political parties or particular individuals. By multiplying false identities on the internet, this encourages certain individuals to adhere to ideals, policies, etc. That’s what the 50 Cent Party in China did by massively posting messages favorable to his policy. New technologies can then amplify disinformation. This is what we find with the deep fake which are video manipulation methods impersonating a personality. This can have major political and democratic consequences: new technologies can facilitate authoritarian excesses by governments.
Here are three recommendations for addressing the challenges of technology’s impact on democracies.
Faced with the need to strengthen democratic values and practices such as inclusion, transparency and accountability, a pluralistic approach to innovation is essential. For this, the grounding of public authorities and donors is necessary for the adoption of an effective collective approach.
Governments then need to work hand in hand with researchers, tech companies, academia and civil society to align themselves properly.
In this logic, funders should support the sustainable scaling up of technology initiatives from other parties. This support will thus contribute to the respect and promotion of democratic values. To facilitate this process of constructive dialogue between public authorities and citizens, the creation of platforms for submitting initiatives may prove to be relevant.
This is, for example, the case of WomenConnect Challenge created by the United States Agency for International Development. This platform brings out innovative solutions to bridge the digital gender gap. The agency managed to collect more than 500 projects from 89 countries. She also brought up voices from the field, with plural views on the situation.
Multidisciplinary and multi-stakeholder collaboration in favor of innovation seems to be essential to meet the challenges of the impact of technologies on democracies.
Responsible use of technology
Banks and development actors must also promote the responsible use of artificial intelligence and technologies. The culture of responsible use of emerging technologies must be widely disseminated and mobilized in the operational project cycles of development actors. This will encourage the development of responsible strategies and policies.
In developing countries, there is a need for ethical institutions that ensure accountability in the use of technologies. This responsible use is accompanied by the increased capacity of development practitioners and local populations to understand the interactions between humans and these technologies. Education on these issues is essential in the fight against their harmful effects and potential abuses.
This is why building the capacity of citizens, local universities and policy makers on these issues of governance of artificial intelligence is a priority in the pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals. This monitoring of issues relating to technology and democracy is done through the organization of conferences such as the one coordinated by the Agence Française de Développement (AFD) group on ” Human rights and development », bringing together in December 2021 some 500 actors from the North and the South.
It also goes through the writing of research documents such as the one entitled “Emerging uses of technologies at the service of development: a new paradigm of intelligences”. Finally, an effective way to contribute to the acculturation on the theme is the creation of audio supports. This is the case of the series of three podcasts created by AFD. This is devoted to dynamic citizen participation, particularly integrating women and young people.
Support citizen participation
Committed citizens and networks of activists, civil society organizations, journalists and developers can use digital tools to develop projects. These facilitate the emergence of communities and the mobilization of individuals around causes of general interest.
While we observe a crisis of confidence in political institutions and their role, new mechanisms of citizen participation are emerging thanks to their convergence with digital imperatives. These are the civic tech which combine the potential of conventional modes of protest with that of social networks to massively mobilize citizens. These mechanisms provide more transparency and accountability in political decisions and public action.
Civic tech is proof that digital innovation constitutes, with the radical transformation of political practices, an opportunity to fight against the abuses it causes by the massive circulation of information. An example of such initiatives is Ushahihi (testimony, in Swahili), one of the first platforms for access to information in the field of civic tech to have been known in Africa and in the world. This platform makes it possible to map certain issues such as monitoring elections, electoral fraud, violence against civilians, monitoring epidemics, etc.
The communication of this information is done first by various electronic means (by simply sending an SMS for example). The data is then listed in the form of a map, allowing a more detailed analysis of the data collected. This free public participation platform is said to have been used by 60,000 projects worldwide.
Supporting the scaling up of this type of initiative promotes citizen engagement and facilitates activism.
This article was written with the contribution of Charlotte Massicard, innovation officer at the French Development Agency.
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How can we promote responsible use of technology that preserves democracies?
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