In Age of Digital Democracy, Open Societies Must Defend Borders from Wolf Warriors

Over a decade ago, the Arab Spring powered by social media levelled the divide—even if briefly—between the Palace and the Street. The Age of Digital Democracy was upon us. Technology has since become the mainstay of civic activism. Not only are more voices heard, elected governments are also more responsive to them.

The past year or so has made us all acutely aware of the weaknesses and threats to digital democracies. First, the very platforms that have fuelled calls for accountability often see themselves as above scrutiny, bound not by democratic norms but by bottom-lines. However, acquisition metrics and market valuations don’t sustain democracy. The contradiction between short-term returns on investment and the long-term health of a digital society is stark. If hate, violence, and falsehoods drive engagement and, therefore, profits for companies and platforms, our societies are indeed on shaky ground.

We must ask: Are digital infrastructure and services proprietary products or are they public goods? The answer is obvious; at least it should be. To make technology serve democracy, tech regulations must be rethought. Big Tech boardrooms must be held to standards of responsible behaviour that match their power to influence and persuade. This framework must be geography neutral. Rules that govern Big Tech in the North can’t be dismissed with a wink and a nudge in the South.

Second, much of Big Tech is designed and anchored in the United States (US). Understandably, it pushes American—or perhaps Californian—free speech absolutism. This is in conflict with laws in most democracies—including in the US after January 6. While protecting free speech, societies seek safeguards to prevent undesirable consequences, especially violence. If American Big Tech wishes to emerge as Global Tech, it must adhere to democratic norms globally. Its normative culture must assimilate and reconcile, not prescribe and mandate. Absent such understanding, a clash of norms is inevitable.

The high table of Big Tech governance must not remain an exclusive preserve of the North. Algorithms and codes must not mirror the COVID-19 vaccination map, where inequity is stark.

Third, a key threat emanates from authoritarian regimes with technological capabilities. They seek to perversely influence open societies by weaponising the very freedoms they deny their own people. In their virtual world, Peng Shuai is free and happy; in their real world, she is under house arrest. Confronted by wolf warriors, the rest of us can’t be lambs to the slaughter.

Open societies have always defended their borders stoutly and they must also safeguard the new digital frontlines. In 2024, the two most vibrant democracies will go to elections in the same year–for the first time in our digital age. We must not allow authoritarian states or their agents to manipulate public participation at the hustings.

To conclude, let me leave you with a thought: It’s not darkness alone that kills democracy; runaway technology, steeped in nihilism, could strangulate it. Just scroll down your social media feed this evening… .

This statement was delivered at Summit for Democracy and first published on ORF. 



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