Many historic political events that occurred in the United States in 2020, such as the video of George Floyd’s arrest that sparked Black Lives Matter protests, the malfunctioning reporting app at the Iowa Democratic Caucus that caused a significant delay in results, and President Trump’s Twitter-based self-assertion of victory in an election he lost, share a common trait: technology played a critical role in each. This blog post explores the impact of technology on democracy in the U.S., arguing that technology has a net zero effect on the quality of democracy because its positive impacts are balanced by its negative impacts in the following ways: greater accessibility to communication means that the prevalence of both fact and fiction is amplified, the capability to provide increased personal safety requires heightened general surveillance and data collection, and the same technologies that enhance the accessibility and efficiency of governmental systems make them vulnerable to targeted interference.
Open communication and expression are two of the most integral components of a democracy. Political theorist Robert Dahl lists two of his “three necessary conditions for a democracy” as the right of citizens to “formulate their preferences” and to “signify their preferences to their fellow citizens and the government by individual and collective action.” Transparency between the government, private institutions, and citizens is therefore important not only for maintaining a high level of functionality in society, but also for fostering public trust in the political system. The number and diversity of public communication channels is drastically increasing thanks to modern technology, particularly social media. With the power of video capture and instantaneous global communication in the hands of almost all citizens, news travels immediately, citizens can share their views and opinions on global platforms, and individual, previously-overlooked injustices can be exposed. This technology can also be used to organize and mobilize, as seen in June 2020 when teenagers successfully used TikTok to coordinate decreased attendance at one of President Trump’s rallies.
While this increased capacity for communication is fundamentally good for democracy because it embodies the freedoms of speech and expression, it also introduces a broader range of information and opinions into the public political space. Modern technologies disseminate information rapidly with little regard for quality or content; they therefore distribute misinformation as well. This has led to the dangerous propagation and popularization of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” While misleading posts largely go unchecked, Twitter took action against this threat in May 2020 by flagging posts containing misinformation about Covid-19.
Furthermore, the algorithms that control what users see on different platforms – including news sites themselves – work to tailor content to individual users. In this hyper-curated informational environment that is inundated with new data every second, it becomes increasingly difficult to escape the echo chamber to diversify one’s views, and practice understanding and empathy for those with different opinions. Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild describes this disconnect as “the great paradox” in which “people see the other side not as ‘wrong,’ but as ‘so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being’.” Technology thus expands communication channels while also limiting dialogue.
Safety is another technology-influenced factor that deeply affects citizens’ trust in democracy. As previously discussed, the ability of individuals to record their experiences and share them with the world has the potential to improve both government and society by providing evidence of injustice, as in the cases of the senseless deaths of Black Americans like Eric Garner and Ahmaud Arbery. Furthermore, advances in security systems, such as increased account security through the confirmation of personal information and smarter monitoring using facial and object recognition software, can reassure citizens that they are receiving the best protection possible.
However, is this personal sense of security negated by the invasion of privacy and personal data that is a side effect of this protection? Personal data collection by private companies and the government has become normalized, and while this data contributes to technologies that increase security, it also leaves the public vulnerable to damaging data breaches. Millions of U.S. citizens’ personal records are compromised every year. Surveillance and identity detection, meanwhile, are somewhat dystopian concepts that complicate the balance between supporting personal and national security and undermining democracy. It is critically important to note that such technologies can do more harm than good if the data used in their development is biased, since even technology can form prejudices. Partiality as a whole is unhealthy for democracy, but is the situation inherently more dire if systemic bias is propagated by willingly-implemented technologies? Even ignoring technology’s potential flaws, it seems that the cost of protecting citizens and their personal information is to compromise their privacy and in fact risk the release of their personal information.
Finally, it is important to consider technology’s implications for democratic governmental functionality. The government’s use of data collection and analysis enables data-driven decision-making, but also gives the institution a concerning amount of power; private tech companies, however, hold the same capabilities. It is difficult to determine if the power wielded by these institutions is necessary or excessive, and how – or if – governments and corporations should be regulated for the good of democracy.
Governmental functionality has also been enhanced by the immense power of automation. The introduction of electronic voting machines, for example, has increased the efficiency of the electoral process and has markedly decreased the probability of human error in this specific operation. Yet this technological progress, like the other technological benefits examined in this blog post, is not spared from a negative repercussion: automating this process makes it hackable. Essentially, the same innovation that strengthens this democratic component weakens it. It is therefore prudent to reconsider the fact that the public’s trust in the political system is absolutely integral to the maintenance of democracy, and hence question if the risk of losing citizens’ faith in the system is worth the efficiency gained from using this technology. Even if the voting machines proved to be impossible to hack, some people would still likely be doubtful of their reliability, as was demonstrated by President Trump’s distrust of voting software during the 2020 Presidential Election. Technology can therefore be understood to both strengthen and weaken the practicality and perception of governmental activities.
After considering this argument for the net zero impact of technology on democracy due to the benefits and drawbacks of widespread instant communication, increased safety and surveillance measures, and technological innovations that enhance governmental functionality, what conclusions can be made about technology’s impact on the quality of democracy in the U.S.? Clearly, utilizing the unbounded powers of technology has the potential to turn democracy on its head, but not using technology at all would be just as detrimental for the future of the country. A balance must be struck between technological freedom and regulation. This is a difficult task, since the natures of technology and democracy are mutualistic but can drive each other to extremes: democracy emphasizes personal freedoms and protections and thereby spurs innovation, while technology produces innovations that revolutionize personal freedoms and give large institutions such as the government an increasingly significant amount of power. Ultimately, it is important to remember that democracy is built on the trust of the people, and that while technologies can be empirically evaluated for functionality and reliability, their perceived functionality and reliability could tell a completely different story.
 Dahl, Robert. 1972. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press. Chapter 1.
 Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 2016. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New York: The New Press. Chapters 1, 9 and 15.