February 4, 2021

Highlights from a Conversation on Digital Technology and Democratic Theory

Are social media and communications platforms undermining our democratic institutions and the fabric of our society? What can be done to make democratic systems and values more resilient to technological disruption? Can democracy and new technologies peacefully coexist?

As we develop new frameworks for understanding the ways that digital and social infrastructure overlap and rely on one another, it’s important to make sure we understand how new and emerging technologies impact all areas of everyday life. The essays contained in a new volume edited by Rob Reich and Lucy Bernholz of Stanford PACS, and Hélène Landemore, titled Digital Technology and Democratic Theory, address many of these concerns head on, and offer insights for creating a world that’s more critically engaged with technology and the ways in which it impacts our communities, democratic institutions, and the wider world around us.

SFE grantees Data & Society and Stanford PACS recently co-hosted a discussion to celebrate the book’s release. Topics covered by the group ranged from the implications that new technologies have for the health of democratic institutions, to the ways that different segments of society can make themselves more resilient to technological change. The panel was hosted and moderated by Data & Society researcher and volume contributor Robyn Caplan, and featured a discussion between Bernholz and Reich and two of the volume’s contributors: Dr. Seeta Peña Gangadharan, Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Archon Fung, the Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Watch the full discussion, and read selected insights and highlights from the conversation below.

We need a clearer framework for understanding the relationship between digital media platforms and democratic institutions [14:56]: It’s easy to take for granted that social media platforms are now responsible for hosting a considerable segment of the public sphere. But as with any relatively new technology, it can be hard to discern exactly how these platforms interact with the legacy institutions that make up our social fabric. In exploring some popular criticisms of social media today – particularly, whether or not social media is “bad” or “good” for democracy – Archon Fung’s essay argues for using a new “yardstick” to measure whether a media landscape complements democratic norms and conditions. “We think that there’s a lot of ways in which the current digital public sphere falls short of those norms and dispositions and opportunities and rights,” said Fung. “It’s really important that all of us – government, citizens, platform companies – get to work reconstructing our digital public sphere in a way that conforms to that normative yardstick.”

While “digital exclusion” can amplify any number of existing problems within already marginalized communities, it can also be an opportunity to claim agency [30:59]: Dr. Seeta Peña Gangadharan’s chapter focuses on “digital exclusion,” or ways that different communities can be marginalized by new technology, and the opportunities to productively organize that arise from that marginalization. She argues that “digital exclusion” can take the form of anything from regionally limited broadband internet access, to concerns over privacy and the tracking of personal data, and often amplify or directly reflect existing societal problems in the communities where they’re directly felt. But there’s cause for hope, and instances of organizing in direct response to some of these exclusionary practices. “We heard from multiple people confronting technological systems, confronting data-driven systems, confronting the processes of data collection that they encounter so many times in a day,” said Gangadharan. “[They were] doing this confrontation in a way that helped them survive, helped them feel dignified, helped them set the record straight…and, in some cases, agitated against the institutions aiming to force sociotechnical systems upon their lives in profoundly unjust ways.”

There’s still a big opportunity to impact the way digital communications platforms engage with democratic institutions [45:00]: As social media platforms build out more robust standards and content moderation systems, Robyn Caplan sees an opportunity to hold them to account for the role they play in society. “Increasingly, they’re trying to mimic other institutions as a way to build back their legitimacy,” says Caplan. “Part of the job that we need to do…is to continue theorizing, but maybe with a bit more skepticism this time about the role that they should be playing in the public sphere to guide this kind of ‘value development.’”