Event Reports

Data as Political Capital

by Sebastian Borchmeyer

What kind of Rules & Regulations do we need for a digitized Democracy

Digitization has completely altered the way our societies communicate and how political opinion-making is shaped. Foreign interference, online hate-speech, data leaks on social media platforms, fake-news have made it more important than ever to define a global rules-based system and code of conduct that sets a common standard and protects democracy.
Juri Schnöller is Co-Founder and Managing Director of Cosmonauts & Kings, a leading Berlin-based start-up specialized in data-driven digital political communication. Teddy Goff is a co-founder and partner at Precision Strategies, a strategic communication agency, and the former digital director for President Obama’s re-election campaign.

The 21st century has seen major technological transformations that affect democratic processes.  Defamation, misinformation and external interference in elections through social media have become common. For Teddy Goff, the power of citizens nowadays does not only manifest itself in their votes but also in the data they produce. Talking about the upcoming presidential elections in the United States, the panelists agreed that new digital technologies and approaches will be used that have the potential to redefine how we engage with politics. For example, Donald Trump’s reelection campaign developed a mobile phone application that directly engages with the electorate on a massive scale bypassing social media platforms such as Facebook. While successful campaigning is still more about genuine messaging than the newest platform technology, the danger is that misinformation can spread without any control mechanism in place.

According to the speakers, the biggest problem in the digital age is the increasing polarization and the radicalization of societies. While cases of data breach and abuse, such as in the case of Cambridge Analytica, constitute a major threat, the multiplying effects of social media for propaganda and fake news are of a much bigger concern. One remedy to strengthen social resilience is to increase media literacy, for example through education in schools. It can be observed that old people tend to be more vulnerable to misinformation than younger generations, which are more suspicious about sources of information.

With regard to political polling, the panelists observed that their quality is often unsatisfying. When it comes to campaigning, it is at times not even possible to properly gauge whether a given TV advertisement steered viewers into the right direction or was even counterproductive. Politicians make the mistake that they often base their decisions on polls instead of doing it the other way around: Making a decision and see how political opinion would follow them. We also need to understand better how people form their opinion and if this really happens on the information they receive on social media.

Both speakers saw the lack of transparency in relation to algorithms as an issue for the regulation of digital technology. The code behind them needs to be made clear and understandable to the public.

In relation to the often proclaimed self-regulation of the tech industry, it was agreed that companies cannot follow any longer only their shareholder interests. Employee pressure towards a more ethical positioning is on the rise.

If an employee is embarrassed to work for a technology firm, this might impact its capability to hire and retain the best talent eventually giving them a disadvantage over competitors. As far as antitrust regulations are concerned, the problem is that even breaking up giants like Facebook or Google would not prevent the tendency of firms to engage clients directly with Apps filtering the information they receive.

In addition, a phenomenon of localizing can be observed where social media users enter closed digital communities, such as the application Nextdoor for neighborhoods. In this, they effectively withdraw from the public discourse, a trend that can already be observed in China for some time. The fundamental problem with this development is that it can lead to self-radicalization of parts of society and opens opportunities of citizens with extreme views to connect and share their ideas. Therefore, it does not come at a surprise that all populist movement are essentially social media-driven. The panelists criticized Mark Zuckerberg’s prediction that the future would be private. By nature, politics and political discourse needs to happen in the public sphere.