Defending Democracy Against a Rapidly Evolving Internet Landscape

Authors: Katie Harbath and Hui Hui Ooi* 

2022 was a milestone year of change for the online ecosystem, with changes that have the potential to continue eroding democratic systems and values globally. Large technology companies dipped in value, leading to massive layoffs. TikTok usurped the position of Facebook and Instagram, and renewed fears about the platform’s connections to the Chinese Communist Parties have prompted calls for it to be banned in the United States. This past year has also seen the rise in smaller platforms, leading content distribution to be much more decentralized across many platforms and raising concerns that these emerging platforms are doing even less to protect against integrity harms. Governments who face challenges to their authority and power are imposing tighter internet controls and stricter online laws, leading to further fragmentation of the global internet and erosion of democratic values. This past year also saw several highly contentious elections with deeply polarized online information spaces that took place in the Philippines, Kenya, Malaysia, Brazil, and the United States. 

Key global crises and destabilization events in 2022 have proven that the online information space remains a battleground for influence that democratic actors need to engage with to promote democratic values. The events in 2022 have shown that democracies need to remain vigilant to the emerging changes and challenges from the technology space. As the Russia-Ukraine war continues and TikTok is increasingly viewed as a national security threat, differences in technology norms across democratic versus authoritarian systems are further amplified.

At the beginning of 2023, we already observed the most significant attack on Brazilian democracy in nearly 60 years. Supporters of the ousted former Brazilian president Bolsonaro attacked the country’s Congress, Supreme Court, and presidential palace on January 8. This mirrors the United States insurrection that took place two years ago and was taken directly out of former president Trump’s playbook to undermine election integrity and decrease voters’ trust. Authoritarians globally are also increasingly innovating and exploiting artificial intelligence (AI) to conduct mass surveillance, undermine privacy, and conduct censorship. AI-driven tools are progressing faster than any regulations created to govern its use, and democracies are constantly playing catch up. 

This leads us to emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), Web3, cryptocurrencies, blockchain, NFTs, the metaverse, and others that are evolving and being adopted quickly all around the world. These emerging technologies will spawn a new generation of innovation that improves lives, either for financial inclusion, increased access to information and technologies, or improving democratic participation, but will also challenge and threaten existing models of governance at both local and global levels. While the future of these technologies is not fully known yet, they could become the next tools undemocratic actors start to use to undermine democracy. Democracies know little about how they work, how these threats might manifest themselves, and the possible unintended consequences these emerging technologies will bring.

Similarly, 2023 will continue to see the rise of emerging, smaller platforms such as Telegram, Truth Social, Rumble, Gettr, Parler, Discord, Twitch, Mastodon and many others. Many online discussions, information operations and threats to online integrity are moving to these platforms while democracies are still focusing on learning, regulating and managing the effects of larger technology companies. These smaller platforms have less resources to protect users, and if we do not begin paying attention to them, we will find ourselves back at the point in 2015 where we are blind to how malign actors are exploiting these social platforms. 

Democracies need to stay on top of these challenges and keep up with the fluidity of the technology space. What can democracy actors do? In order to create and sustain democratic momentum, democracies need to spotlight innovation, as much of the most inspiring innovation is happening at the local level through revolutionary grassroots stakeholders and tends to be responsive to local problems. Democracies need to be exporters of technologies that are not harming themselves, and this means staying on top of new technological advances such as AI. This includes also being more proactive instead of reacting to the negative implications of new technologies and start thinking now about how these technologies should be regulated within their countries or even collectively with other countries. Furthermore, democracy actors need to pay attention to the emerging smaller platforms, and not just on legacy platforms, as online harm will manifest even faster and go unnoticed.  

In addition, stakeholders operating in the democracy, rights, and governance space need to reexamine how to conduct democracy building in a digital age and consider the cultural and programmatic changes needed to do this right. For instance, speeding up funding mechanisms and the launch of initiatives in order to urgently meet the needs caused by technological harms, increasing collaboration and information sharing on lessons learned and failures, working constructively together with the technology sector to solve the tough issues happening online by creating a mechanism for knowledge sharing and analysis, and proactively research, collaborate and engage with each other on emerging technologies before they become potential problems. 

2023 will be a pivotal year to prepare for 2024 – a year where some of the world’s largest democracies will all go to the polls in the same year. For the first time ever, the world will have a U.S. presidential election as well as elections in India, Indonesia, Ukraine, Taiwan, Mexico, the United Kingdom, the European Parliament and over 80 others all in the same year. Not only is this a huge geopolitical moment, but it will be a challenge for democratic actors to work with their people to stay on top of to protect the integrity of those elections given the large number of them and this rapidly changing online environment. The fight to protect democracy happens every day, and requires eternal vigilance. 

*Hui Hui Ooi is a Senior Program Manager for Technology & Democracy at the International Republican Institute, a democracy-assistance NGO. She is also a Southeast Asian specialist and authored numerous articles on democratic issues in the region. She is co-author of Combating Information Manipulation: A Playbook for Elections and Beyond.

Katie Harbath
Katie Harbath
Katie Harbath is a global leader at the intersection of elections, democracy, and technology. She is a senior advisor for technology and democracy at the International Republican Institute and a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Integrity Institute. Previously, Katie spent 10 years at Facebook as a public policy director.