How civil servants can safeguard a democratic ecosystem in the age of misinformation, AI and Big Tech

By on 17/01/2024 | Updated on 17/01/2024
A graphic of computer code and a human face on a map of the world.
Photo: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The success of democracies is intimately tied to our information ecosystem. While the digital age has brought greater connectivity, it has also created a plethora of online harms and challenges. Michael Bąk explains the important role civil servants can play in protecting democracy

Just five years ago, we woke to controversy around Cambridge Analytica, a then little-known political hack shop with heavy investment by questionable billionaires. We later learned through investigative reporting, whistleblowing and parliamentary testimony that privacy violations, scraping and misleading data capture, combined with hyper-targeted political advertising, influenced major democratic political moments including Brexit in the UK and the 2016 US elections. Social media was weaponised in ways that eroded the integrity of our information, elections and democratic values. The scandal revealed the dangers of allowing private interests to self-regulate, and the challenges of retrospective policymaking.

Democracies have historically relied on the public square for policy discourse. Broadcast and media are subject to regulatory governance, while journalism holds itself to the highest ethical standards, with the public interest at heart. These measures ensured, at a minimum, democratic debate was based on shared understanding of reality and facts.

Today the public square has been displaced, while virtual platforms with opaque algorithms, surveillance and private interests dominate the very intersection of democracy and the information space.

Recognising the shared challenges tech has created and the stress on our societies and institutions, democracies came together during the 74th UN General Assembly in September 2019 and established the International Partnership on Information and Democracy. This is an intergovernmental non-binding agreement endorsed by 52 countries to promote and implement democratic principles in the global information and communication space.

What is the Forum on Information and Democracy?

The partnership created the Forum on Information and Democracy as its civil society-led implementing entity. It has a global mandate to identify the democratic safeguards required to ensure citizens’ right to reliable information is realised.

Our vision is clear – to create a strong, reliable information and communication ecosystem that serves the needs of citizens and bolsters our democracies. The forum develops first-in-class policy recommendations for governments, civil society and the private sector. It does this by working with globally renowned, independent and diverse experts across a variety of academic and research disciplines, civil society partners and governments to ensure recommendations possess rigour, democratic credentials and inclusive, diverse perspectives and voices.1

Information chaos: the big challenges, and how we got here

The same technologies that create positive value for us also create big problems, as they can erode the information integrity we need for healthy democratic discourse, governance and civic participation.

So, what are the key issues government face, and how should they aim to tackle them?

Regulation is often focused on mitigating harms, rather than scrutinising the underlying architecture and business models of the technologies

Once a technology becomes mainstream, like social media, governments seek quick fixes to stem the pain. Platforms join hands with civil society, government and academics to address these downstream harms to avert gazes from the upstream sources. This fails to address the core problems – the business models and algorithms. Only once these are scrutinised can we fully unpack how these might harm or serve democracies. 

Tech is policing itself, setting metrics and algorithms with private, not public (and certainly not democratic), interests as top priority

Private tech companies proactively engage across a myriad of regulatory processes. They lobby heavily, as illustrated by the thousands of policy, communications and legal staff they employ. Their goal is to shape the policy discourse in ways that benefit profits, market power and shareholders.

But, these private interests represent only one perspective that policymakers must take into account in shaping regulatory guardrails. They must not be mistaken as broadly representational.

Governments must equitably, sustainably and substantively engage civil society and the independent research community. Government regulation and policy will be both effective and legitimate only if civic voices, expertise and experiences contribute on equal footing with private interests. These civic actors provide independent analysis and advice on the impact of tech on our societies, democratic institutions and processes. Only through equitable collaboration can we effectively pre-empt and mitigate harmful impacts of tech.

We’ve seen this most recently with the AI Summit in the UK – big (American) tech dominated the invite list, with the private sector overall representing one-third of seats. Meanwhile, there was minimal civil society participation (3%), with no human rights, journalism, or media watchdog organisations invited. Non-government representation from the global south was a tiny 8%.

Whenever there are critical agenda setting moments like this, it is imperative that independent civic experts and voices are at the table, too.

The narrative that regulation hampers innovation needs to be scrutinised

The default narrative is that too much regulation stifles innovation and therefore economic growth. As such, policymakers are urged to embrace delayed or light touch regulation on emerging technologies or risk being accused of killing innovation.

The wise words from the Jurassic Park character Dr. Ian Malcolm come to mind: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

The fictional Malcolm was of course talking about bringing fictional dinosaurs back to life but today, AI applications are an excellent real life example – the potential impact of misuse or faulty systems could be catastrophic. We know from social media that there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle, and that reverse engineering regulation is ineffective.

Democratic oversight and regulation is a necessity from the start to ensure frontier innovations serve societies and deliver returns to investors without irreversible damage to our shared values and democracies. Short cuts (“self regulation” or no regulation) lead to pain down the road, from foreign influence on elections and polarisation, to declining trust in journalism.

Read more: Organised chaos: how Russia weaponised the culture wars

Artificial intelligence: zooming in on the issue of the moment

In September 2023, we launched our latest policy working group to investigate the impact of AI systems on our democratic information ecosystem. A group of 14 renowned global researchers and experts from diverse academic and applied disciplines guide the development of crucial recommendations for states and platforms.

Drawing on broad consultations around the world – with particular attention to gender and geographic representation – governments, platforms and users will benefit from these urgent policy recommendations for preventing and mitigating harmful impacts of AI systems on our information space. They will help concerned citizens and officials address the unintended, unanticipated, and ignored challenges AI poses to the information space.

AI is a looming potential threat to democracies and our societies today, and unlike other technologies, there is no opt-out. That’s why it’s so vital that decisions that have an international impact benefit from meaningful input from the global south and civil society that can review and advise from that democratic lens. 

Creating a better information ecosystem

The digital age is not all bad by any means. In fact, if the global information space is recognised as a “common good of humanity” and the right to reliable information is prioritised, we believe technology can benefit all citizens through transparency, accountability, and democratic participation.

Driving inclusive discussions that shape our regulatory regimes requires everyone’s participation. From citizens, civil society groups and human rights defenders, to civil servants, elected officials and multilateral organisations. The issues we face are complex. However, there are things you as civil servants can do immediately:

  • Advocate for diverse communities. When you see people missing, speak up. When you see that most people in the room look or eat or love or believe like you, then speak up and include more seats at the table. As much as we need diverse voices at the point of developing the tech, we also need them at the point of creating their democratic safeguards.
  • Inform yourself. Check out our website and read about the International Partnership for Information and Democracy. While you’re there, check out the policy recommendation papers which will help you walk through and better understand these complex, inter-related challenges we face.
  • Participate in and share our work. We regularly issue calls for global collaboration and encourage you to participate where feasible and to help spread the calls throughout your networks. At the same time, please share some of our policy work with your friends and colleagues. And let us know how we can better package these policy resources for you to achieve maximum impact. 
  • Imagine. Imagine a policy world in which civil society and independent researchers can show up as quickly, easily, equitably and as well financed as private and corporate interests. Now create the space and conditions for that to happen.

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  1. The Forum on Information and Democracy is the implementing entity of the International Partnership of the same name, the democratic world’s vanguard for democratic guarantees in the information space, which currently includes 52 state signatories. With a global mandate, the Forum is based in Paris, France. ↩︎

About Michael L. Bak

Michael L. Bąk, a seasoned digital and human rights expert, brings 25 years of experience across international development, public policy, civil society, and diplomacy. His work is dedicated to advancing justice and equity for historically marginalised communities, with a focus on freedom of expression, technology and democracy, opinion research, peacebuilding, and crisis governance. Michael has held leadership roles at Facebook (Meta), the United Nations, USAID, and B-Change Insights. He serves on boards and advisory groups for multiple non-profit organisations in Asia and the United States. Holding an MA from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (US) and a BA from Kalamazoo College (US), he also possesses a certificate from Nagoya Gakuin University (Japan). Michael is fluent in English, Bahasa Indonesia, and French, with previous fluency in Japanese and varying proficiencies in Malay, Spanish, and Thai. Currently residing in Bangkok, Thailand, he brings a wealth of expertise to the intersection of technology, human rights, and global development.

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