Supporters of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump film him on their phones as he speaks during a rally at the Spire Institute in Geneva, Ohio on October 28, 2016. / AFP / Dustin Franz (DUSTIN FRANZ/AFP via Getty Images)

How we did this

The years of almost unfettered enthusiasm about the benefits of the internet have been followed by a period of techlash as users worry about the actors who exploit the speed, reach and complexity of the internet for harmful purposes. Over the past four years – a time of the Brexit decision in the United Kingdom, the American presidential election and a variety of other elections – the digital disruption of democracy has been a leading concern.

The hunt for remedies is at an early stage. Resistance to American-based big tech firms is increasingly evident, and some tech pioneers have joined the chorus. Governments are actively investigating technology firms, and some tech firms themselves are requesting government regulation. Additionally, nonprofit organizations and foundations are directing resources toward finding the best strategies for coping with the harmful effects of disruption. For example, the Knight Foundation announced in 2019 that it is awarding $50 million in grants to encourage the development of a new field of research centered on technology’s impact on democracy.

In light of this furor, Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center canvassed technology experts in the summer of 2019 to gain their insights about the potential future effects of people’s use of technology on democracy. Overall, 979 technology innovators, developers, business and policy leaders, researchers, and activists responded to the following query:

Technology’s impact on democratic institutions/representation: Between now and 2030, how will use of technology by citizens, civil society groups and governments affect core aspects of democracy and democratic representation? Will they mostly weaken core aspects of democracy and democratic representation, mostly strengthen core aspects of democracy and democratic representation or not much change in core aspects of democracy and democratic representation?

Some 49% of these respondents say use of technology will mostly weaken core aspects of democracy and democratic representation in the next decade, 33% say use of technology will mostly strengthen core aspects of democracy and democratic representation and 18% say there will be no significant change in the next decade.

This is a nonscientific canvassing based on a non-random sample. The results represent only the opinions of individuals who responded to the query and are not projectable to any other population. The methodology underlying this canvassing is elaborated here. The bulk of this report covers these experts’ written answers explaining their responses.

In addition to the plurality view among these experts that democracy will be weakened, a large majority of the entire set of respondents – including both the pessimists and the optimists – voiced concerns they believe should be addressed to keep democracy vibrant. Their worries often center on the interplay of trust, truth and democracy, a cluster of subjects that have framed key research by Pew Research in recent months. The logic in some expert answers goes this way: The misuse of digital technology to manipulate and weaponize facts affects people’s trust in institutions and each other. That ebbing of trust affects people’s views about whether democratic processes and institutions designed to empower citizens are working.

Some think the information and trust environment will worsen by 2030 thanks to the rise of video deepfakes, cheapfakes and other misinformation tactics. They fear that this downward spiral toward disbelief and despair also is tied to the protracted struggles facing truthful, independent journalism. Moreover, many of these experts say they worry about the future of democracy because of the power of major technology companies and their role in democratic discourse, as well as the way those companies exploit the data they collect about users.

In explaining why he feels technology use will mostly weaken core aspects of democracy and democratic representation, Jonathan Morgan, senior design researcher with the Wikimedia Foundation, described the problem this way: “I’m primarily concerned with three things. 1) The use of social media by interested groups to spread disinformation in a strategic, coordinated fashion with the intent of undermining people’s trust in institutions and/or convincing them to believe things that aren’t true. 2) The role of proprietary, closed platforms run by profit-driven companies in disseminating information to citizens, collecting information from (and about) citizens, and engaging political stakeholder groups. These platforms were not designed to be ‘digital commons,’ are not equally accessible to everyone and are not run for the sake of promoting social welfare or broad-based civic participation. These companies’ profit motives, business models, data-gathering practices, process/procedural opacity and power (and therefore, resilience against regulation undertaken for prosocial purposes) make them poorly suited to promoting democracy. 3) The growing role of surveillance by digital platform owners (and other economic actors that collect and transact digital trace data) as well as by state actors, and the increasing power of machine learning-powered surveillance technologies for capturing and analyzing data, threaten the public’s ability to engage safely and equitably in civic discussions.”

Those who are more optimistic expect that effective solutions to these problems will evolve because people always adapt and can use technology to combat the problems that face democracy. Those who do not expect much change generally say they believe that humans’ uses of technology will continue to remain a fairly stable mix of both positive and negative outcomes for society.

The main themes found in an analysis of the experts’ comments are outlined in the next two tables.

Themes About the Digital Disruption of Democracy in the Next Decade: Concerns for Democracy’s Future

Power Imbalance: Democracy is at risk because those with power will seek to maintain it by building systems that serve them not the masses. Too few in the general public possess enough knowledge to resist this assertion of power.
EMPOWERING THE POWERFUL Corporate and government agendas generally do not serve democratic goals and outcomes. They serve the goals of those in power.
DIMINISHING THE GOVERNED Digitally-networked surveillance capitalism creates an undemocratic class system pitting the controllers against the controlled.
EXPLOITING DIGITAL ILLITERACY Citizens’ lack of digital fluency and their apathy produce an ill-informed and/or dispassionate public, weakening democracy and the fabric of society.
WAGING INFO-WARS Technology will be weaponized to target vulnerable populations and engineer elections.
Trust issues: The rise of misinformation and disinformation erodes public trust in many institutions
SOWING CONFUSION Tech-borne reality distortion is crushing the already-shaky public trust in the institutions of democracy.
WEAKENING JOURNALISM There seems to be no solution for problems caused by the rise of social media-abetted tribalism and the decline of trusted, independent journalism.
RESPONDING TOO SLOWLY The speed, scope and impact of the technologies of manipulation may be difficult to overcome as the pace of change accelerates.

PEW RESEARCH CENTER and ELON UNIVERSITY’S IMAGINING THE INTERNET CENTER, 2020

Themes About the Digital Disruption of Democracy in the Next Decade: Hopes and Suggested Solutions

Innovation is inevitable: Change is beginning to happen at the level of individuals and social systems. History shows how human adaption pays off in the long run.
EVOLVING INDIVIDUALS Increased citizen awareness, digital literacy improvements and better engagement among educators will be evident in the next decade.
ADAPTING SYSTEMS Changes in the design of human systems and an improved ethos among technologists will help democracy.
ENSHRINING VALUES Deep-rooted human behaviors have always created challenges to democratic ideals. Historically, though, inspired people have shown they can overcome these darker tendencies.
Leadership and activist agitation will create change
WORKING FOR GOOD Governments, enlightened leaders and activists will help steer policy and democratic processes to produce better democratic outcomes.
Technology will be part of the solution: Some of the tech tools now undermining democracy will come to its aid and helpful innovations will be created.
ASSISTING REFORMS Pro-democracy governance solutions will be aided by the spread of technology and innovations like artificial intelligence. Those will work in favor of trusted free speech and greater citizen empowerment.

PEW RESEARCH CENTER and ELON UNIVERSITY’S IMAGINING THE INTERNET CENTER, 2020

Some of the striking observations about democracy’s current predicament came in these responses:

danah boyd, principal researcher at Microsoft Research and founder of Data & Society, wrote, “Democracy requires the public to come together and work through differences in order to self-govern. That is a hard task in the best of times, but when the public is anxious, fearful, confused or otherwise insecure, they are more likely to retreat from the collective and focus on self-interest. Technology is destabilizing. That can help trigger positive change, but it can also trigger tremendous anxiety. Technology also reconfigures power, at least temporarily. This can benefit social movements, but it can also benefit adversarial actors. All too often, technology is designed naively, imagining all of the good but not building safeguards to prevent the bad. The problem is that technology mirrors and magnifies the good, bad AND ugly in everyday life. And right now, we do not have the safeguards, security or policies in place to prevent manipulators from doing significant harm with the technologies designed to connect people and help spread information.”

Susan Etlinger, an industry analyst with the Altimeter Group, responded, “Today we have the ability to amass massive amounts of data, create new types of data, weaponize it and create and move markets without governance structures sufficient to protect consumers, patients, residents, investors, customers and others – not to mention governments – from harm. If we intend to protect democracy, we need to move deliberately, but we also need to move fast. Reversing the damage of the ‘fake news’ era was hard enough before synthetic content; it will become exponentially harder as deepfake news becomes the norm. I’m less worried about sentient robots than I am about distorting reality and violating the human rights of real people at massive scale. It is therefore incumbent on both public and private institutions to put appropriate regulations in place and on citizens to become conscious consumers of digital information, wherever and however we find it.”

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said, “It was naive to believe that technology would strengthen democratic institutions. This became obvious as the technology companies almost immediately sought to exempt themselves from the laws and democratic rules that governed other businesses in such areas as political advertising, privacy protection, product liability and transparency. The rhetoric of ‘multi-stakeholder processes’ replaced the requirement of democratic decision-making. The impact was immediate and far-reaching: The rapid accumulation of power and wealth. Techniques that isolated and silenced political opponents, diminished collective action and placed key employees by the side of political leaders, including the president. And all with the support of a weakened political system that was mesmerized by the technology even as it failed to grasp the rapid changes underway.”

An internet pioneer based in North America, said, “I am deeply concerned that democracy is under siege through abuse of online services and some seriously gullible citizens who have trouble distinguishing fact from fiction or who are wrapped up in conspiracy theories or who are unable or unwilling to exercise critical thinking. … We are seeing erosion of trust in our institutions, fed in part by disinformation and misinformation campaigns designed to achieve that objective and to stir dissent. We are seeing social networking systems that provoke feedback loops that lead to extremism. Metrics such as ‘likes’ or ‘views’ or ‘followers’ are maximized through expression of extreme content. Trolls use media that invite commentary to pump poison into discussion. Constant cyberattacks expose personal information or enable theft of intellectual property. Tools to facilitate cyberattacks are widely available and used to create botnets, generate denial of service attacks, spread malware, conduct ransom demands and a host of other harmful things. Law enforcement is challenged in part by the transnational nature of the internet/web and lack of effective cooperative law enforcement agreements across national boundaries. Privacy is abused to commit crimes or other harmful acts. At the same time, privacy is extremely hard to come by given the ease with which information can be spread and found on the net. Nation-states and organized crime are actively exploiting weaknesses in online environments. Ironically, enormous amounts of useful information are found and used to good effect all the time, in spite of the ills listed above. The challenge we face is to find ways to preserve all the useful aspects of the internet while protecting against its abuse. If we fail, the internet will potentially devolve into a fragmented system offering only a fraction of its promise. In the meantime, democracy suffers.”

Still, there are those who wrote that they expect human systems and tools will evolve to solve some of the new challenges to democracy.

Paul Saffo, chair for futures studies and forecasting at Singularity University and visiting scholar at Stanford MediaX, said, “There is a long history of new media forms creating initial chaos upon introduction and then being assimilated into society as a positive force. This is precisely what happened with print in the early 1500s and with newspapers over a century ago. New technologies are like wild animals – it takes time for cultures to tame them. I am not in any way downplaying the turbulence still ahead (the next five to seven years will not be fun), but there is a sunnier digital upland on the other side of the current chaos.”

Brad Templeton, internet pioneer, futurist and activist, a former president of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote, “There are going to be many threats to the democratic process that come through our new media. There are going to be countermeasures to those threats and there are going to be things that improve the process. It is very difficult for anybody to evaluate how the balance of these things will play out without knowing what the new threats and benefits will be, most of which are yet to be invented. It is certainly true that past analysis underestimated the threats. Hopefully this at least will not happen as much.”

One of the most extensive and thoughtful answers to the canvassing question came from Judith Donath, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center currently writing a book about technology, trust and deception and the founder of the Sociable Media Group at the MIT Media Lab. She chose not to select any of the three possible choices offered in this canvassing, instead sharing two possible scenarios for 2030 and beyond. In one scenario, she said, “democracy is in tatters.” Disasters created or abetted by technology spark the “ancient response” – the public’s fear-driven turn toward authoritarianism.

In the second scenario, “Post-capitalist democracy prevails. Fairness and equal opportunity are recognized to benefit all. The wealth from automation is shared among the whole population. Investments in education foster critical thinking and artistic, scientific and technological creativity. … New voting methods increasingly feature direct democracy – AI translates voter preferences into policy.”

Her full mini-essay can be read here.

The 12 main themes emerging from these experts’ comments are shared in the following section, along with a few representative expert responses for each.