Digital Technology, Politics, and Policy-Making

Open access book by Fabrizio Gilardi: “The rise of digital technology has been the best of times, and also the worst, a roller coaster of hopes and fears: “social media have gone—in the popular imagination at least—from being a way for pro-democratic forces to fight autocrats to being a tool of outside actors who want to attack democracies” (Tucker et al., 2017, 47). The 2016 US presidential election raised fundamental questions regarding the compatibility of the internet with democracy (Persily, 2017). The divergent assessments of the promises and risks of digital technology has to do, in part, with the fact that it has become such a pervasive phenomenon. Whether digital technology is, on balance, a net benefit or harm for democratic processes and institutions depends on which specific aspects we focus on. Moreover, the assessment is not value neutral, because digital technology has become inextricably linked with our politics. As Farrell (2012, 47) argued a few years ago, “[a]s the Internet becomes politically normalized, it will be ever less appropriate to study it in isolation but ever more important to think clearly, and carefully, about its relationship to politics.” Reflecting on this issue requires going beyond the headlines, which tend to focus on the most dramatic concerns and may have a negativity bias common in news reporting in general. The shortage of hard facts in this area, linked to the singular challenges of studying the connection between digital technology and politics, exacerbates the problem.
Since it affects virtually every aspect of politic and policy-making, the nature and effects of digital technology have been studied from many different angles in increasingly fragmented literatures. For example, studies of disinformation and social media usually do not acknowledge research on the usage of artificial intelligence in public administration—for good reasons, because such is the nature of specialized academic research. Similarly, media attention tends to concentrate on the most newsworthy aspects, such as the role of Facebook in elections, without connecting them to other related phenomena. The compartmentalization of academic and public attention in this area is understandable, but it obscures the relationships that exist among the different parts. Moreover, the fact that scholarly and media attention are sometimes out of sync might lead policy-makers to focus on solutions before there is a scientific consensus on the nature and scale of the problems. For example, policy-makers may emphasize curbing “fake news” while there is still no agreement in the research community about its effects on political outcomes…(More)”.