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Digital Democracy

How do new technologies challenge democracy?

Tech giants have enormous power – not only over public discourse, but also over free research. Recently, researchers from New York University were excluded from Facebook when they were in the process of uncovering ad targeting issues on the platform. Professor Claes de Vreese points out that two sets of clear ground rules are missing.

By Marlene Jørgensen, , 9/3/2021

Is there a current example of new technologies challenging democracy?

Quite recently, Facebook shut down a study of political advertising on the platform, and the research team behind the project also had their profiles shut down. It attracted a great deal of attention and is deeply problematic for both research and democracy that Facebook has gone so far as to shut down research initiatives.

The challenge is that while much of our life and communication take place on social media, we as researchers and society know far too little about how the digital trails and data are used by the platforms that are almost hermetically sealed and do not share data, even when it is in the public interest and done legally.

This is not the first and will hardly be the last time this is happening, and it is a real challenge from a societal point of view.

It attracted a great deal of attention and is deeply problematic for both research and democracy that Facebook has gone so far as to shut down research initiatives.

Claes de Vreese, professor

For those of us who research digital media and democracy, there are two options: to either try to work together with the big platforms or try to work around them, and both have proven to be very difficult.

At the same time, it seems that e.g. Facebook is becoming more and more aggressive and that we can expect to run into more of these kinds of obstacles, which will only make it harder to know what is happening on the platforms.

Do we need ground rules in the area?

Yes, we do – in two ways:

1) As a society and politically, we have not been good enough to regulate the tech giants and make rules that, among other things, ensure that researchers have better access to collecting data from social media platforms and rules that generally relate to the platforms’ use of our data.

The EU is currently working on this, but it is still not clear what it will mean and when the rules will be implemented.

2) The actual ground rules, on the other hand, are up to the tech giants alone. That is why we are in a situation where the platforms can decide completely arbitrarily when they choose to clamp down on something and when they do not.

And it is unacceptable that you as a researcher in the field can get into trouble with the tech giants at any time. As a society and a democracy, we cannot allow the tech giants or anyone else to have that kind of power.

What is the biggest challenge?

The biggest challenge is how little systematic knowledge we have about social media and the dynamics of the platforms due to the lack of access to data.

The paradox is that many of the discussions we have in society – e.g. about what role the tech giants play, and whether they are good or evil – are therefore often based on individual cases or on myths and assumptions.

And this is why it is actually not unthinkable if we sometimes overlook some positive effects of the platforms or overestimate the significance of the negative consequences.

But the point is that we do not really know – neither as researchers nor as society since companies operate behind such closed doors.

How do you hope that your research can contribute?

This is where a centre like the Digital Democracy Centre may hopefully contribute in several ways. First and foremost, by trying to find the answers to some of the many questions and thus create a better understanding of how citizens navigate social media and interact with political information and news. In short, more systematic knowledge is needed about both the positive and negative sides.

This issue should not only be resolved by the world of research, but also politically.

Claes de Vreese, professor

Moreover, I hope that we can help to create an informed debate on and political attention to a technological issue that is also very narrow and a result of major structural challenges as revealed by the recent case from New York University.

Because this issue should not only be resolved by the world of research, but also politically, so that we can have a good democratic debate and ensure that the great information ecology works in a reasonable way and in a way that we can all trust.

Digital Democracy Centre

· The Digital Democracy Centre is an interdisciplinary research centre at SDU, which examines how the emergence of new technologies, digitalisation and AI affect the democratic process and the shaping of public opinion.

· The researchers of the centre deal with research areas such as AI, computer science, law, journalism, ethics and politics.

Read more on the centre’s website.

Meet the researcher

Claes de Vreese heads the Digital Democracy Centre, which recently opened at SDU. He researches political communication, AI, data and democracy at the University of Amsterdam and at SDU and is one of the world’s leading experts in the field.


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Editing was completed: 03.09.2021