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Digital Democracy

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Digital Democracy

The invention of large computers and computing to perform human tasks with software programs heralded dramatic changes to societies around the world. With the rapid growth of personal computers and the Internet, a revolution was witnessed that fundamentally transformed societies, ushering in an online world that seems to continuously expand, in application domains as well as geographic boundaries. This online world is changing every aspect of life, work and play. Thanks to digital technologies, we can bank, read the news, study for a degree, and chat with friends across the world. But one area that seems to have remained impervious to these benefits is democratic governance, which has remained largely unchanged since it was invented in the 20th century. Today, as technology is growing by leaps and bounds, its interplay with democracy has also magnified.

What is digital democracy?
Digital democracy, also known as electronic or e-democracy, is the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to enhance and, in some cases, replace representative democracy. Although theorists of digital democracy have differing opinions, most of them are in unison in asserting that some of the traditional limits to citizenship in contemporary liberal-democratic politics, e.g. problems of scale, scarcity of time, the decline of community, and lack of opportunities for policy deliberation can be overcome by new forms of online communication.

Digital Democracy’, a term coined by digital activist Steven Clift, is a form of government in which all adult citizens are presumed to be eligible to participate equally in the proposal, development, and creation of laws. It encompasses social, economic and cultural conditions that enable the free and equal practice of political self-determination.

A brief historical outline
Digital democracy is a term filled with political aspirations. From an historical perspective, it is the latest model succeeding electronic democracy or teledemocracy, each of which emphasise the idea of democratization through technology. Importantly, this idea has manifested itself not only in texts and discussions, but also in experimental projects.

During the 1960s a generation of political theorists, including Benjamin Barber, C.B. Macpherson and Carole Pateman, established an agenda for participatory democracy that persisted well into the 21st century. During the 1980s, many sociologists and political scientists reconsidered the concept of community. Some, such as Robert Bellah and colleagues, bemoaned the intensification of individualism in American society and called for a new communitarian ethic. Others, such as Amitai Etzioni, argued in favour of strong, emotionally powerful community bonds based on family and locality. The final theoretical inspiration for digital democracy is Jürgen Habermas’s concept of the public sphere: an idealized autonomous sphere of communication in which citizens can freely engage in reasoned debate away from the controlling influence of the state, and large media corporations, and structures of social inequality. The idea of citizens deliberating in freely formed associations in civil society before taking that knowledge up to the level of government recalls the direct democracy of ancient Athens, but digital democracy updates this by focusing on how political discourse is mediated. The Internet emerges as a communication medium uniquely suited to providing multiple arenas for public debate that are relatively spontaneous, flexible and, above all, self-governed. Those who worry about the future of democracy focus a lot of their anxiety on the way that the things that happen in online public spaces are harming deliberation and the fabric of society. To be sure, billions of users appreciate what the internet does for them. But the climate in some segments of social media and other online spaces has been called a “dumpster fire” of venom, misinformation, conspiracy theories and goads to violence.

In the early 2000s, digital democracy signified how digital technologies could affect democracy, potentially leading to deeper civic engagement in governance. This idea seemed to be actualised during the Arab Spring, where social media became an important tool for mobilising citizens. The Washington Times, for instance, carried the term “Twitter Revolution” to describe mass protests following the 2009 presidential elections in Iran: “The spirit of liberty,” declared the editorial, “finally arrived at Tehran’s Freedom Square”.

This techno-optimism has dulled. Just as Iran’s Supreme Leader led a brutal crackdown on the protests, killing dozens, the same digital tools that facilitated these revolutions began to be used in ways antithetical to democratic values, by authoritarian leaders and democratic ones alike.

Benefits
The Internet has several attributes that encourage thinking about it as a democratic medium. Electronic voting should be done with a proper purpose and with achieving a common constitutional goal. Most importantly, expanding democracy should help outweigh the advantages of e-voting compared to traditional ballots.

The year 2021 saw the resurgence of digital democracy in another avatar, as a narrative tool that pit democratic nations in an existential battle against ‘digital authoritarianism’ – a model of the internet that allows states to censor online speech on arbitrary grounds, using nebulous justifications like national security and social harmony. It enables widespread surveillance of citizens, as well as other forms of censorship. But, digital democracy would contribute to access to knowledge. The lack of centralized control makes censorship difficult.

Digital democracy offers greater electronic community access to political processes and policy choices. Digital democracy development is connected to complex internal factors, such as political norms and citizen pressures, and in general, to the particular model of democracy implemented. Digital democracy is, therefore, highly influenced by both internal factors to a country and by the external factors of standard innovation and diffusion theory. People are pressuring their public officials to adopt more policies that other states or countries have regarding information and news about their government online. People have all governmental information at their fingertips and easy access to contact their government officials. In this new generation, where the internet and networking rule everyone’s daily lives, it is more convenient that people can be informed of the government and its policies through this form of communication.

Digital democracy has endorsed a better and faster political information exchange, public argumentation and involvement in decision-making. Social media has become an empowerment tool, especially for the youth, who are encouraged to participate in elections. Social media platforms have also allowed politicians to interact with civilians. A clear example was the 2016 United States presidential election and how Donald Trump tweeted most of his policy announcements and goals, as most world leaders have Twitter accounts, including Justin Trudeau, Jair Bolsonaro, and Hassan Rouhani. Digital democracy is made possible through its role in the relevance of participation, the social construction of inclusiveness, sensitivity to the individual, and flexibility in participation. The Internet provides a sense of relevance in participation by allowing everyone’s voice to be heard and expressed. A structure of social inclusion is also provided through a wide variety of Internet sites, groups and social networks, all representing different viewpoints and ideas. Sensitivity to the individual’s needs is accomplished through the ability to express individual opinions publicly and rapidly. Finally, the Internet is an extremely flexible area of participation; it is low in cost and widely available to the public. Through these four directions, digital democracy and the implementation of the Internet can play an active role in societal change.

The e-democratic process is hindered by the digital divide between active participants and those who do not participate in electronic communities. Advocates of digital democracy may advocate government moves to close this gap. The disparity between e-governance and digital democracy between developed and developing worlds has been attributed to the digital divide. Practical objections include the digital divide between those with access and those without, as well as the opportunity cost of expenditure on digital democracy innovations. There is also scepticism about the amount of impact that they can make through online participation. Electronic democracy has been suggested as a possible method to increase voter turnout, democratic participation, and political knowledge in youth.

Conclusion
Digital democracy links political self-determination to technical innovation in contingent, unpredictable ways. Hence, its evolution reflects the open-ended, often experimental interplay of political imaginaries, concerns, and goals with new technical possibilities. However, investigating digital democracy entails lessons that go beyond the present techno-political constellation: political self-determination is a profoundly mediated project whose institutions and practices are constantly and contingently in flux. The changes we observe are often ambivalent and do not reflect a linear progression towards more direct, unmediated or transparent forms of sovereignty. Likewise, digital democracy cannot be reduced to a strengthening, or weakening, of single elements such as freedom, equality, participation or directness. Instead, political engagement and its objectives are driven by different ways of interpreting and implementing democratic principles, which more often than not are in tension with each other. Given these endogenous dynamics, current changes in democracy defy a monocausal explanation and ask for interpretations that pay attention to the contingent interplay of political aspirations, digital possibilities, and their social context. Digital democracy evolves under mediated conditions that political actors can only partly control. While emerging democratic practices show traces of digital business models as well as commercial and political surveillance ambitions, they are simultaneously pushing back against these forms of alienation. New technologies are not only means, they also have become the subject of political engagement. Hence, digital democracy involves struggles over its foundational principles, its directions, and the meaning of its infrastructure. It should, therefore, be understood as a contingent political arrangement in flux.

The writer is a PhD scholar (English Literature). He can be reached at hbz77@yahoo.com

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