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In this blockbuster election year, tech’s sway over democracy needs to be reined in

In World
January 26, 2024

People are increasingly disillusioned and societies more polarised, raising doubts about the legitimacy of the democratic system and the ideals that often appear detached from the everyday reality of the average person.

Technology, including pervasive social media, has played a role in changing perceptions. It has facilitated the dissemination of information and misinformation on an unprecedented scale, and the potential for abuse in elections is particularly worrying.

While technology has benefited and revolutionised aspects of the election process, it is vital to acknowledge that there are also harmful and dangerous elements, and address these.

03:20

Bangladesh election: young, digital-era voters seek future free from political chaos

Bangladesh election: young, digital-era voters seek future free from political chaos

For example, there can be a lack of transparency over the complex algorithms and machine-learning models that collect and analyse voter data, raising concerns about the fairness of voter targeting and micro-targeted campaign advertisements, which have the potential to bias outcomes. Or technology can inadvertently contribute to voter suppression when registration systems or online voting platforms are inaccessible or confusing for specific segments of the population.

Former US president Donald Trump has accused the Democratic Party of manipulating the results of the last election; judging by the support he has in the Republican nominee race, it seems many Republicans believe it to be true.
Earlier this month, OpenAI, the developer of ChatGPT, updated its usage policies, asking users not to help or engage in “political campaigning or lobbying, including generating campaign materials personalised to or targeted at specific demographics”.

Safeguarding the integrity of elections requires collaboration from every corner of the electoral process to ensure technology is not used in a way that could undermine a fair and transparent process. Sadly, the reality is that there are inadequate checks and controls, as well as regulation.

It is time for politicians in the United States, Britain and elsewhere to come together and agree on the terms of engagement and lead by example to avoid disinformation and fake news entering their campaigns. Alas, this seems highly unlikely.

Interestingly, Taiwan has one of the lowest levels of media trust among democracies. The Digital News Report 2023, published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, found that only 28 per cent of those surveyed in Taiwan said they trusted the media. It was ranked 41 out of 46 markets.

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Taiwanese protest against media outlets described as ‘pro-Beijing’

Taiwanese protest against media outlets described as ‘pro-Beijing’

In any case, the victory by the Democratic Progressive Party represents just 40 per cent of Taiwan’s electoral votes. It is the second-lowest share since the first direct presidential elections in 1996, and on the same day, the party also lost 10 seats and its majority in the legislative elections. The Kuomintang gained an additional 14 seats, and the Taiwan People’s Party won eight, enabling it to influence the direction of the new legislature.

This outcome places the DPP in a difficult situation. Without the support of the Taiwan People’s Party on policy issues, it is highly likely to encounter significant governance challenges in the next four years.

Technological developments in the media and political spheres reflect a broader transition as global societies grapple with the pace of change in the digital age. How we navigate these changes will be crucial for our evolution and prosperity in an era where information and governance are inextricably linked, and both are changing faster than ever.

Bernard Chan is a Hong Kong businessman and former Executive Council convenor

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