Reality poses major economic, social and political challenges to the Western world, mostly stemming from domestic challenges and clearly reflected in the world order which is based on liberalism and established in the early 1990s. This is especially as Western countries are facing a rise and expansion of the activity of non-democratic states in the world, contrary to what was expected at that time when Western democracies were believed to be stronger and more common than before.
However, these democracies have become less reliable, facing significant challenges in maintaining their position as a global model of progress, civilization and development of society. Indeed, one can understand the scale of these challenges when observing political polarization, weak popular participation, the shift from popular parties to elitist and traditional parties, and the tendency of societies towards nationalism, such as the Brexit and the rhetoric adopted by the administration of former US President Donald Trump, which has led many to question whether these problems stem from democracy itself or are alien circumstances.
Recently, there has been an increasing number of studies in the broader literature discussing the dilemma of Western democracy and ways to respond to the challenges it faces. In many of these studies, one of the main reasons is the rapid technological changes that have created new spaces away from official institutions and channels. Technology has greatly influenced democratic values and changed traditional concepts of national identity and community values. The Internet and digital communication platforms have become increasingly important as new channels of political and social debate and interaction, with diminishing demand and need for traditional or state media.
Digital democracy is the solution!
Some have argued that technology can also contribute to addressing the challenges facing democracy, if used to change traditional behaviors and means through which people practice political rights and duties such as participating in elections, voting and referendums, in a way that restore confidence in democratic practices and bridge the gap that has contributed to their decline.
Hence the concept of "digital democracy", which is an explicit recognition of the need for democracy to evolve from the traditional to the technological form.
In theory, there is no academic definition of digital democracy. Some see it as one of the tools that allow democracy to be exercised, while others see it as a means by which citizen participation in political life is promoted and consolidated, and others go further when they liken it to direct or deliberative democracy (Greek Athenian style), as they see the Internet as providing citizens with vast virtual spaces that enable them to make decisions without the need for their representatives.
Accordingly, there is a divergence in the view of digital democracy. There are those who see it at its narrowest extent as a tool, while there are those who view it at its widest as a major conduit for political practices and social interactions. However, Julie Simon and others researchers settle with the definition that it is "the practice of democracy using digital tools and techniques", which can be used to promote citizen participation, communication with actors and community contribution to policy-making, away from the traditional constraints of time and space.
Many theoretical definitions of this concept can be drawn, including that of Guy-Maurille Massama, a Professor at University of Arizona, that is the "participation in political processes through the means and tools available on the Internet, with direct access to governments and public administration institutions and influence on policies."
Models and applications of digital democracy
In several forms of digital democracy, many of its models are already in place, as many governments today offer their services through electronic channels (e-government) away from the bureaucratic complexities that citizens faced in the past. There are other models in which governments have based their public policies on citizen opinions and preferences. For example, in 2011 Finland used the Internet to invite its citizens to comment on draft constitutional amendments. The model believed to become the most common is that applied in 2008 by former U.S. President Barack Obama in his campaign when it was based on digital democracy, with analysts arguing that one of the reasons Obama entered the Oval Office was his strategy of relying on the power of digital technology.
These trends are on the rise, with many governments and international institutions recognizing the importance of social media platforms as a source of information flow and communication with citizens. In 2018, a study by Burson Cohn & Wolfe, a public relations and communications firm, found that 97 countries had created official accounts on various communication platforms, with Twitter alone hosting 951 official accounts:
To sum things up, digital democracy offers new directions of action for governments and direct benefits for democracies, specifically in terms of changing the nature of popular participation in political events from which reluctance has raised fears that democracy would eventually undermine itself. But although some view digital democracy as the tool through which to bridge that gap, it has created new risks and challenges.
Digital democracy: risks and challenges!
In light of the chaotic world order dominated by uncertainty, and the growing competition between democratic and non-democratic countries, especially Russia and China, this competition has moved to digital and technological channels. The US elections 2016 demonstrated the prospects through which US opponents and competitors could harm it, especially after the latter accused Russia of influencing the conduct of the elections, relying on the dissemination of misinformation. This method is one of many other means through which digital democracy can negatively affect democratic elections, including: manipulating facts, procedures and mechanisms through which citizens can vote; changing and manipulating voting results; or broadcasting information that may undermine the confidence of citizens in the electoral process.
In the case of the United States, a number of these methods have already been exercised without the need for a foreign adversary, after U.S. ex-President Donald Trump questioned the election results in November 2020, particularly in the mail voting mechanism, prompting a number of his supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol.
Postal voting can be seen as the main cause of this incident, leading to questioning the results of electronic voting if it is widely adopted in the future.
Digital democracy poses major challenges that could undermine the entire democratic process. In 2019, Pew Research Center, in partnership with another center affiliated with Elon University, surveyed experts in the field of technology about the society's uses of technology and its impact on democracy, as most of them - about 94% - expected that its use will weaken democracy and democratic representation from now until year 2030.
Between digital democracy and inclusive securitization
Contrary to what was expected, when studies pushed towards the use of digital democracy as a tool to encourage citizens in non-democratic countries to demand it, we find that the governments of those countries have benefited from this type of democracy in consolidating their narratives and delegitimizing their opponents. China is a clear example of how technology and artificial intelligence are being used to control society. It has impressed even the ancient democracies, when Chinese government policies have helped control the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, relying on their 24-hour community oversight systems.
These trends are rising even in Western democracies which are faced with a flaw in reconciling the role of technology and the Internet as a factor in facilitating extremist, violent and misleading ideas with the way in which these sources and assets that facilitate extremism can be traced without the need to deepen citizen censorship. Indeed, liberal governments are facing increasing accusations of expanding their control over social media platforms. In 2020, a study by the University of Michigan found that Internet censorship was increasing in 103 countries, particularly in countries described by the study as "the most liberal in the world" such as Norway, Japan and Italy. The tactics of such countries vary between passing laws restricting freedom of publication or blocking access to certain news sites, whereas non-democratic States may resort to restricting free access to Internet services.
The danger of censorship is not limited to governments only, as the participation of billions of individuals is limited to the use of certain digital platforms, thus betting their data and ideas on specific companies accused of abusing, selling or even losing such data to other companies.
The bottom line
The Western democratic experience faces serious challenges that may affect its future and change its existing models, which stem mainly from the impact of the time variable on the liberal political systems, as inability to keep pace with developments and technological acceleration has led to a widening gap between citizens who heavily depend on technology and traditional political channels or institutions. Therefore, many view digital democracy as the solution to bridge this gap in practice and application. However, experiences soon faced many dangers due to the inability to control technological spaces as a result of the overlap of the public and private space at the state and individual levels, and with it, it became easier to influence the values of the state and its national identity for its opponents, and enabled the illiberal states to attack and question Western values, especially since combating these ideas requires these countries to practice behaviors that restrict freedoms, which is considered one of the greatest dangers to democracy in itself.