Digital Disorder and
Future of Democracy
Particularized trust constitutes small alliances within a small subset of society, e.g. alliance of China and Russia. In democracies, generalized trust establishes large-scale trust that extends market relations, human progress and trade, e.g. alliances between and among European states. The citadel of democracy in the 20th century was sustained through the extending circle of trust in the society. Information technology and science have subdued this trust in contemporary times. The complex and integrated societies are economically linked together. The equation of economic dependency established peace and prosperity in recent decades due to which democracies sustained. In contemporary times, the digital disorder and digitally dependent economies are vulnerable to trust. As the modern markets become digitally dependent, the threat of cyber-attacks and financial costs has grown in the last decade which is problematic for the integration of the system and overall democratic sustainability because modern democracies are founded on economic growth together. In 2021, a gang named DarkSide attacked American oil provider ‘Pipeline’ through cyberspace. This Pipeline provides 45% of fuel to the East Coast of the United States. After the shutdown of supply, the people flocked to gas stations and it created social anarchy, leading to distrust which threatened the digital economy and the trust in economic institutions which act as the backbone of democracies in the modern world.
Institutional harmony plays a key role in modern democracies. The digital disorder and cyber-attacks fomented distrust in the institutions. The data of different institutions – ranging from banks to government institutions – is hacked and used as a proxy to campaign against the government institutions. This creates a small fraction of people with particularized trust to destabilize the institutions and question their integrity. The most beautiful structure of democracy is global altruism and the spirit to work together in a human network for the progress of humanity. In the 21st century, cyber-attacks target the cohesion of human bonds that build trust between the people and their communities.
Coming to the truth factor of democracies, the rampant disinformation and echo-chambering of in-group and out-group divisions compromised the democracies in the current century. Through social media campaigns, the engineering of misinformation and malignant campaigns against the institutions, governance and democracy by the forces of authoritarianism and populism created divisions in society. The truth is fading from society due to digital deregulation and galvanized mass campaigns to inculcate distrust and fear in the people. The tussles between China and America, between Russia and America, and between Pakistan and India have resulted in barrages of disinformation and distrust in the society which is a lethal threat to democracy.
In 2016, Russia allegedly interfered in the US presidential elections and especially targeted the campaign of Hillary Clinton through cyber-hacks. Nowadays, the world is struggling to win global order through digital detox. The intrigues to sabotage the democratic transition and affect voting turnout impede the way democracies flourish and sustain. The states try to destabilize the enemy country’s governing institutions through hacking and data leaks. The sudden shutdown of electricity in the entire country stakes the trust of people in the incumbent institutional governance. Through cyber-attacks, the entire system can be paralyzed and made to operate per the whims and wishes of an enemy state which jeopardizes the overall sovereignty of the country. In this way, the digital spaces are used to backslide public trust in the institutions, further affecting the stability of democracy in any country.
The concocted information about the state, governance and institutions through fake accounts and hacking vanquish the people’s belief in the leaders and politicians that spurs the anti-state and anti-government rhetoric. The direct intervention of a state to capture other state’s sovereignty through military might has become irrelevant in this century. The digital capture is the way now to defeat the other state through cyber warfare. The elimination of trust and truth from any society fulfils the ulterior motives of an enemy state.
It took humans 10,000 years to find a way to progress and end the violent conflicts in the 20th century by establishing democracies and universal governance through UN and World Bank-like institutions. The world is again facing anarchy due to expanded technologies and cyber inventions. Democracies are backsliding to authoritarianism because the foundational elements of democracies like trust and truth are being compromised. The defeat of hereditary monarchies, fascism and communism paved the way for democracies. In 2022, democracies are facing international rifts and global push due to the rising manipulation of undemocratic forces for the populist appeal. In this century, we can move towards the universal struggle of democracies by regulating social media, media literacy and control of Big Data. The uncontrollable and excessive digital disorder can create social dysfunction and space for wars and conflicts as they are getting traction in the form of the Ukraine and Taiwan issues. Digital control is a panacea for democracies in the 21st century.
Wajahat Sultan is a Lahore-based writer whose articles appear in Pakistan Today, Pakistan Observer, Daily Times and Modern Diplomacy.