Digital politics threatens democracy and must change

Violence in Brazil has again brought into focus the need for technology platforms to prioritize social responsibility to help prevent anti-democratic action.

Expert comment
Published 13 January 2023 Updated 16 January 2023 3 minute READ

Immediately following the violent storming of Brazil’s congressional building, supreme court, and presidential palace, comparisons to the infamous events of 6 January 2021 in the US came quickly and easily – and with good reason.

Both Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro built a fervent – albeit inchoate – political base of grievance which included Christian evangelicals, gun enthusiasts, and the disenfranchised. Both cynically spread doubts about the election victories of their successors without evidence. And it has been claimed both incited their supporters to overturn these results.

But this list of similarities extend beyond mere politics. The attack on democracy in Brazil was recorded, amplified, coordinated, and funded by exactly the same technologies used by the protesters in the US on 6 January.

In Brazil, the main engines of misinformation and insurrection planning were Telegram, Facebook, and WhatsApp, although some election-denying diehards also shifted to Twitter.

Tactical use of social media to mobilize and fundraise

When Bolsonaro was originally elected in 2018, these platforms were already a medium for promoting disinformation, conspiracy, and fear. But in the lead-up to the violence of 8 January, they became a means by which ‘Bolsonaristas’ raised funding for an attack and mobilized supporters to come to Brasilia – advertising the availability of buses and even free food for marchers – using the Festa da Selma hashtag.

Well-intentioned regulation will fall short so long as it is narrowly focused on a never-ending game of ‘content whack-a-mole’ and is hamstrung by powerful voices

To avoid detection by authorities, organizers used a simple switch of the letter ‘v’ to ‘m’ so that Selva, meaning ‘jungle’, became Selma – which means ‘party in the jungle’ to those in the know. But the authorities in the Brasilia state of Distrito Federal appeared to care little about preventing the attack anyway.

Civil society organizations have warned for decades that policies made in a Silicon Valley boardroom fit poorly to the realities of countries such as Brazil, Somalia, or Myanmar. Content moderation is a near-impossible task at the scale demanded by platforms as vast as those operated by big tech, and automated solutions are far from being a silver bullet as they create as many problems as they solve.

Extremism has found an unfettered enabler on mainstream platforms, and an increasingly sprawling network of alternative tech has made such voices resilient to challenge. Platforms such as Gettr, Gab, and Telegram have become go-to platforms for extremist networks when fringe voices find themselves blocked by mainstream platforms.

Telegram has come under significant scrutiny for the role it played in the storming of Congress in Brasilia but any number of tools and platforms – each with millions of users – could have achieved similar results.

The sordid events in Brasilia are just the latest chapter in digital extremism and conspiracy- mongering which often erupts into anti-democratic violence, and should serve as a reminder of the urgent risks of disinformation and the role digital technology plays in inciting, coordinating, fundraising, and amplifying such events.

But the checks on the power of private social media companies are still few and splintered. In Brazil, Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes, head of the elections tribunal, attempted to crack down on social media, banning users for spreading misinformation in a move which sparked complaints of censorship from Bolsonaro supporters.

Following the elections, Moraes has advocated for greater judicial authority to regulate social media – but the justice is only one person and his impartiality is already being challenged given his aggressive pursuit of Bolsonaro supporters posting inflammatory messages.

And one justice doing it alone only inflames an already volatile situation. Effective regulation of social media requires an independent body vested with multiparty support and operating under clearly-defined rules and authority.

A global movement to find solutions

Brazil is not alone in an increasingly frantic search for checks on digital power as dozens of regulatory regimes are springing up around the world. All are premised on platforms being responsible for their own fiefdoms, but few tackle the threat posed to democracy by unchecked corporate power over digital commons.

Telegram has come under significant scrutiny for the role it played in the storming of Congress in Brasilia but any number of tools and platforms – each with millions of users – could have achieved similar results

Well-intentioned regulation will fall short so long as it is narrowly focused on a never-ending game of ‘content whack-a-mole’ and is hamstrung by powerful voices who see any rules as an attack on freedoms of expression or corporate decision-making.

Democracies are traditionally cautious in managing speech, in separating good information from bad information, or in defining acceptable politics. The steady watering down of the UK’s Online Safety Bill, now so thin on disinformation as to be essentially homeopathic, shows that democratic regulation is willing to go only so far in tackling challenges posed by digital politics.

Digital politics threatens democracy and must change 2nd part

Preventing further attacks on democracy relies on reaffirming the primary importance of a healthy public sphere. Outsourcing the commons to technology monopolies and their shareholders is a 20-year experiment which has failed democracies. No amount of fact checking or content moderation – in English, Portuguese, or Burmese – will change that.

It is critical regulatory regimes prioritize the social responsibility of digital platforms while emphasizing that technology can be designed with much more in mind than the bottom line of a balance sheet. Better still, invest in a digital public sphere which properly recognizes its singular importance as part of the democratic infrastructure.

To do so would provide an effective bulwark against a politics which is rooted in division and the kaleidoscope of realities – and suspicion – that sustains it. Because without a healthy public commons, what happened in Washington DC and Brasilia will undoubtedly happen again.