Is Technology Disrupting Democracy?

Originally appeared on Sbcltr.in

Disruption has been a buzzword in the technology and Silicon Valley space for the last couple of years. From travel to food to education to lifestyle, nothing has escaped disruption through technology. As the world keenly watches the circus that is the US Presidential elections, it’s interesting to look at how technology has disrupted the democratic process and has influenced the process like never before.

The 2016 US election will go down in history not just for the rhetoric that it has stirred up but also the way in which people have chosen to participate in the process. Big data, social media and hacks have all contributed to every conversation, debate and questioning that you see on your televisions or for that matter on your smartphones. We witnessed some of these trends in our own Indian elections and continue to see them in different parts of the world.

Data collection is now a key aspect of grass-root campaigning and messaging across the different states for all political parties and leaders. From demographic data to age to gender, every single aspect gets captured to project trends, conduct weekly polls and projections. Technology is helping predict elections even before they actually take place!

Do these opinion polls influence voters? Of-course they do. What if the supporters of the candidate winning in these opinion polls decide that their vote will not make a difference to their candidate as they are placed to win anyway? What if the trailing candidate’s supporters feel the sudden urge to close the gap by making sure they get to the polling stations? More often than not, these singular votes have made all the difference. You just need to watch the post-Brexit voter interviews to know how jumping to conclusion feels.

Candidates and their political parties use big data too. They capture perceptions and opinions and try to gauge the pulse of the audience in order to say the right things to the right people. To plan and strategize their campaign spends and localize their messaging. To know which regions are their strengths. The applications of this data collection may be manifold but its implications are what truly drives decision making. Let’s be real. The only objective the candidates have to use your data is to make sure you get to know their opinions, you agree with them and as a result you vote for them. Sounds good on paper? But, not so good in reality.

It’s hurting the very ethos of democracy, which is to listen and respect each other’s opinion while building a nation together. The data collection and targeting has now ensured that we only get to see, read or hear about things that are within our comfort zone. Troll wars make up our everyday life. And everything can be summed up as a meme. We refuse to hear out the arguments put forward by anyone else. We surround ourselves with people who are like-minded. Be it social media or search results, they are all tuned to be responsive to our tastes and preferences.

Unfortunately, the real world is not that perfect. It is filled with people who come from diverse walks of life with diverse problems. We are so cocooned in our own perceived reality that we have forgotten what the rest of the world is actually like. While I type this very long article here, I genuinely don’t have a clue what a lower middle class family’s daily struggles are! And since I don’t understand their world, I refuse to acknowledge them. I then don’t feel the need to empathise with them. This slowly grows to resentment where I feel that they are responsible for the problems that I face. Prejudices and biases build over half-truths, stereotypes and news about people I haven’t met but who may share identities based on religion, caste, race or community. It doesn’t take long for prejudice and bias to grow to hate, intolerance and lead to violence.

The extremists in all sides existed before as well. Technology just gave them a voice to make their opinions louder. The mainstream media gave it coverage to drive ratings. Here we are now, watching hate and violence as if it were reality TV and not life. And that’s the disconnect we have with people, democracy and the process. The constant 24 hour live streaming of violence has blinded us to the human misery. The Syrian refugee crisis is an inconvenience not a human tragedy of mass proportions. The ISIS war and violence is taken for granted as a trait of a backward culture or region. India is portrayed as a third world country even now in western media outlets.

We no longer take the effort to step out of our laptops and smartphones to actually talk to people who are different from us. We are quick to make heroes and villains of people and situations without wanting to acknowledge or even have the heart to see that the reality is way complex and a wall never really solves any problems. We cry for war as a solution. We demand blood and violence as a solution. History is witness to too many walls. Berlin? Gaza? Look no further than your own city slums and ghettos to see that walls only divide.

Democracy is the sole institution which brings together people from diverse backgrounds to work together to build nations and in some ways save humanity. We need to listen more, understand more and solve problems together. We can’t let people use technology to disrupt democracy and divide people. Democracy needs to be saved from disruption before it disappears.

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