When: Tuesday, Oct 13, 2020, 3:00PM - 4:30PM

This will be a virtual event, using standard conference software

Democracy and the COVID-19 pandemic: a new role for digital technologies

The spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in 2020 is changing how we all lead our lives - and how political leaders are making decisions at the local, national and global level.

This tele-debate builds on the Digital Enlightenment Forum (DigEnlight) conference held in  November 2019 on Democracy and Media. As the pandemic remains a reality, and US elections upcoming in November may well challenge the democratic process, we propose a highly relevant debate to analyse the situation and draw lessons for the coming year.

The audience includes the general public and policy makers.


Moderator: Dr Lieve Fransen


Purpose of the event

Our world is being transformed around us, and we may try to shape those changes in the direction we believe is right.

The midst of a pandemic may not, at first glance, seem the best time to reach conclusions. But in fact, it is critical to reflect and learn as many lessons as we can now. This will enable us to improve our understanding, identify weaknesses and opportunities, and provide much-needed focus as we look to develop approaches to tackle new phases and address future challenges.Nobody yet knows the precise social, organizational, financial and economic consequences of the pandemic - but we must ensure that our democratic values are not only preserved now, but are made more resilient so as to survive future challenges.

Situation analysis: lessons learned from COVID-19

Democracy has been under constant threat, even before the epidemic, with decreasing civil and political rights in many countries, limited or suppressed voting, the undermining of democratic institutions, fake news and manipulation of information in social media and other platforms, and the undermining of scientists and experts. The rapid spread of COVID-19 globally and the variety of responses used to confront the epidemic have brought clear additional challenges, and new lessons, around the role of digital and other new technologies in democracy.

Indeed, additional challenges for democracy under COVID-19 are emerging from a combination of factors. These include limitations placed on civil liberties; lack of data and privacy protections; fake information disseminated through social and other media; malicious actions in cyberspace targeted at political manipulation; increasing economic and digital inequalities; and further polarization in society. Previous pandemics have suggested that citizens are more likely to comply with health-related measures over the longer-term when they feel they have a voice over government decisions. Trust within communities and towards governments is required and, indeed, is a key feature that underpins effective public policies. While not unique to democracies, such trust can be more easily enabled through bottom-up digital inclusion.

All these factors have a measurable impact on the political middle ground that thinkers from Aristotle onwards have recognized as essential for democracy. This middle ground is not the result of averaging the political extremes nor does it necessarily coincide with the economic middle class. It needs to be populated by well-informed, open minded and engaged citizens who seek and can discern truth from lies, and so help to protect democracy from falling prey to populism that pulls towards the extremes. It also requires independent and trustworthy journalism and media, with fact checking.

Clear advantages of using new technologies and digitalization have come to the fore in some countries like Estonia and Taiwan, confronting COVID-19. In such cases, democratic institutions play their appropriate role of ensuring the right balance between protection of privacy and civil liberties while also ensuring the common good, ensuring accountability and health and social security. It is also obvious that businesses and public bodies with digital capabilities and digitalized processes are significantly more resilient and agile in their responses to shifts in demand and supply curves. However, if not managed well, this can also lead to a further consolidation of power and/or market share in the hands of a few.

What we need to do: beginning the conversation

Digital technologies provide ample opportunities for citizens, government, businesses and society in general. These include digital empowerment (as Dirk Helbing formulated on November 14, 2019), the role of cities, regions and their networks to support citizen participation in society, electronic voting (the reality, fears, opportunities) and specific cyber security measures.In the world being shaped around us, new digital technologies and processes are rapidly required at scale: to help facilitate participation and inclusiveness, and protect individual privacy, while at the same time defending the common public (health) good and creating or protecting trust in institutions. The question is, how can we achieve the right kind of rapid scaling up? There are some obvious initial steps.

Those managing the technologies, platforms and some of the many applications of digital technologies are important players. They can have an impact on participation, and on building trust in science and leadership. Effects have been accelerated in different directions in some countries and regions because of the way measures have been used to confront the pandemic. For example, through increasing authoritarian or participatory measures taken by governments, potential unwarranted limitation of civil liberties, and by the development of tools that could lead to lasting state surveillance. At the same time, new technologies have also supported the emergence of innovative ideas, fast tracking treatments and vaccine trials, and enabled new approaches for digital civic society (both formal and informal) as well as distance/remote education and crowdsourcing for new policies (e.g. Taiwan). One major positive impact of digitalization, if guided well, is that it can actually help to preserve and even strengthen democracy. Taiwan, Estonia and New Zealand provide good examples.

Organizations with a strong capability to collect and leverage big data analytics can also be more effective in helping tame the pandemic and allow them to act decisively where the need genuinely exists and ensure socially responsible behavior. Fast and focused decision making, responsive to public health and public security requirements, needs access to high quality big data. This requires creating rigorous and democratic data governance methods including strong and agile privacy safeguards. Ensuring higher quality, more robust algorithmic decision making will assist health authorities in their work, and help to prevent the collapse of supply chains, so fostering higher levels of strategic resilience.

The issues raised are multiple and wide-ranging. Trade-offs between public health and health security on the one hand and civic and individual freedoms on the other have become a challenging arena for many governments. Is this pandemic influencing changes in the nature of our political systems and governance, encouraging more invasive forms of governmental control? What does this mean for decisions required now on imminent elections, and how does it shape the adjustments made around governance and emergency powers?

A key challenge ahead is how to better harness the potential benefits of digital technologies, to build trust and deepen our democratic values, institutions and processes while confronting this current and future health security challenges

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