Democracy won’t save itself. A combination of drastic action from citizens, bold ideas and radical reform is necessary to reinvest democracy with moral authority and strength to survive digital age. Here are eleven ideas which can save it.
Own your opinion
While time and attention poverty in our ever-accelerating culture means we are always looking for help to make our choices and decisions, whether that’s a comparison website or Google Maps, always beware of outsourcing the responsibility to think for yourself. What can seem helpful in the short term will enfeeble you in the long term. This is all the more dangerous when it comes to citizens making political and moral decisions.
Being yourself is not a given in the digital age, it is something you need to consciously invest in and carefully manage. It takes a real effort to assert and defend what John Stuart Mill called ‘the freedom of mind’. Every micro-gesture online is a political statement. Plan your personal time and space carefully or you’ll become a slave to internet addiction and the relentless, frenetic nature of life online – at the cost of your powers of concentration and focus. Have switch off times, avoid the ‘checking cycle’ and never, never hit refresh. As with all addictive practices you need to moderate with real discipline – phone blocking apps are good but not a substitute for self-determination. Think of is as part of your training to be an alert citizen.
Fair trade browsing
We users have built these monopolies. And our ongoing addiction to free digital services and cheap taxis is making them stronger. We need to break the monopolies through our online choices. We can stop feeding the Google data monster. There are lots of smaller, and more ethical, companies providing social media, search, taxi or rental apps. Research them and be responsible in your decisions – looking out for those that don’t gobble up data, are peer-to-peer and open source. They probably will be more expensive and less efficient at first. But that’s a price worth paying. Network effects were powerful in driving people to big platforms – but they work in reverse, too. And remember that good journalism needs to be paid for, so subscribe or donate. That includes your local newspaper, which is both a source of local accountability and a training ground for the next generation of watchkeepers.
A new digital ethics
In line with ex-Google designer Tristan Harris’s ‘Time Well Spent’ movement and his championing of ‘meaningful interactions’, we need to shape a new digital ethics that is shared by the tech giants. There must be a firm distinction ruled between ethical and unethical persuasion. The attention economy must be replaced with an economy of human value.
Smash your echo chamber
It is very easy to blame others – but all of us have a responsibility to uphold decorum online. A helpful starting point is to make a concert effort to listen to what your opponents are saying, rather than dismissing them. Try the ‘principle of charity’, which means seeking out the best possible interpretation of your opponent’s view and work from there. Politics should be raucous and argumentative, but also based on the underlying belief that opponents can have reasonable differences of opinions. Make a deliberate effort to break out of your echo-chamber by seeking out alternative information sources, joining new Facebook groups, or creating different feeds. Immerse yourself in the information world of someone unlike yourself, and take that charitable frame of mind with you. And always remember the golden rule of the internet: no-one is ever as annoying in real life as they seem online.
Teach critical thinking
It’s not on all us citizens. Our education system needs to respond to the overwhelming and confusing information world. Every school should teach the critical thinking necessary to navigate the internet sceptically. The ability to judge the merits of different pieces of information isn’t new, but a specific body of skills and knowledge is now needed: a combination of ‘classic’ techniques (such as source verification), new knowledge about how the digital world works (such as algorithms or video splicing), and a deep understanding of own psychological biases and irrationalities.
Policing the algorithms
Secretly designed algorithms are already creating data-led bias and injustice and we need a mechanism to hold them to account. Our lawmakers – whether national or international – must create accountability officials who, like IRS or Ofsted inspectors, have the right to send in technicians with the requisite skills to examine big tech algorithms either as random spot-checks or in relation to a specific complaint.While it may no longer be easy to ‘look under the bonnet’ of modern algorithms, oversight is still possible. This is especially true during elections, where governments must demand explanations and justifications for changes in newsfeeds and search results, especially during election time.
Break the ad model
As they say, ‘If you’re not paying, you’re the product’. An internet economy run on the ad-based model is turning us into data points and has to stop. It only works because of our complicity. We need to get the message across as citizens and consumers that we want change: support this with your political voice, look for greater transparency, use services that don’t collect and sell personal data (consider more paid-for premium systems that allow that), up your privacy settings, and download ad-blockers. If the tech giants don’t change themselves, there may eventually need to be regulation.
Update election campaign laws
Analogue regulations need to be brought up to speed with the digital reality. The Electoral Commission must insist that all social media spending be recorded and shared transparently – and be ready to investigate any misuse of personal data or spending irregularities.[i] Political parties should be required to publish databases of every type of data point, advert, and targeting technique they use during an election. Hacks and academics can then pore over it and expose wrong-doing. The requirement of transparency should keep campaigns (slightly more) honest, and even slow down the more sinister advertising techniques, like psychographics.
The more micro-targeted we are, the narrower the public commons becomes. Combatting that means creating opportunities for citizens to engage with ideas and people outside their own bubbles. Election days should be public holidays, with the aim of providing an opportunity for citizens to reflect on the dazzling combination of promises, pledges, half-truths and bullshit they’ve been subjected to for the past several weeks. This day (or perhaps the day before, because there are legal limits on campaigning on the day of the vote itself) should include hustings, school debates, and meet-up groups.
Someone needs to keep track on the bots, trolls and other influencers that now beaver away trying to move public opinion one way or another during elections. We need to create and resource new academic departments and independent watchdogs that specialise in disinformation and computational propaganda (there are good examples of this already) and can work to uncover these tactics, so at least the public are better aware of the various forms of manipulation currently out there.
Extract taken from The People Vs Tech by Jamie Bartlett, Ebury Press, £8.99.
 Bandcamp over Spotify. If you can afford it, the local taxi over Uber, Etsy over Amazon. Use Duck Duck Go instead of Google.
 There are a lot of difficult questions that need to be resolved. One is how candidates prove they’ve spent what they say (small platforms for example don’t always have good billing systems). A much bigger problem is how to measure and regulate the large volume of low spend by third party organisations during an election (known as ‘non-party campaigning’). Donations of money, good, property or services worth more than £500 should be reporting to the Electoral Commission, but it is extremely difficult to work this out accurately. For example: how much ‘value’ should be attributed to an influencer sharing a post with a million followers be worth? You might call this ‘The Owen Jones Problem’.
[i] Goodman, E., Labo S., Moore, M., & Tambini, D. (2017). The new political campaigning. Media Policy Brief 19. London: Media Policy Project, London School of Economics and Political Science.