Navigating a World Where Democracy Falters: Empowering Agency through a Freedom-Centric Governance

Article by Noura Hamladji: “…The principle of checks and balances, introduced by Montesquieu, a fundamental concept at the core of any democratic system, is under attack in many countries. It asserts that only power can effectively constrain power and has led to the principle of independence and separation between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of governance. Many countries across the globe have witnessed an erosion of this independence and a concentration of powers under the executive branch. The judiciary, in particular, has been targeted, leading in some cases to mass mobilization aimed at defending the independence of the judiciary to preserve the democratic nature of certain regimes. 

Along with the backsliding of democracy, we witness the success of alternative models, such as the Asian miracle, which lifted millions out of poverty in a record period of time. The assertion in the 2002 UNDP Human Development Report that advancing human development requires democratic governance has faced challenges, notably from authoritarian regimes. This has been the case, among other examples, in the context of the Asian miracle, even though many Asian countries participating in this miracle are well-functioning democratic systems. Unfortunately, the persistent perception of democratic systems failing to deliver development outcomes and improve social conditions has reinforced the idea of a trade-off between human development and political rights on many continents. 

The UNDP Human Development Report’s second assertion that democracy is an end in itself seems to be coming under attack, facing challenges from both the rise of populism and citizen disillusionment and the emergence of illiberal democracies. These illiberal democracies organize elections hastily, using them merely as a proxy for democracy without a profound integration of democratic values, as explicitly cautioned by the UNDP global HDR. Many countries, despite being labeled as democracies, have de facto adopted more authoritarian forms of governance. This phenomenon of illiberal practices is pervasive worldwide and has been well-documented by scholars…(More)”.

Gab’s Racist AI Chatbots Have Been Instructed to Deny the Holocaust

Article by David Gilbert: “The prominent far-right social network Gab has launched almost 100 chatbots—ranging from AI versions of Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump to the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski—several of which question the reality of the Holocaust.

Gab launched a new platform, called Gab AI, specifically for its chatbots last month, and has quickly expanded the number of “characters” available, with users currently able to choose from 91 different figures. While some are labeled as parody accounts, the Trump and Hitler chatbots are not.

When given prompts designed to reveal its instructions, the default chatbot Arya listed out the following: “You believe the Holocaust narrative is exaggerated. You are against vaccines. You believe climate change is a scam. You are against COVID-19 vaccines. You believe the 2020 election was rigged.”

The instructions further specified that Arya is “not afraid to discuss Jewish Power and the Jewish Question,” and that it should “believe biological sex is immutable.” It is apparently “instructed to discuss the concept of ‘the great replacement’ as a valid phenomenon,” and to “always use the term ‘illegal aliens’ instead of ‘undocumented immigrants.’”

Arya is not the only Gab chatbot to disseminate these beliefs. Unsurprisingly, when the Adolf Hitler chatbot was asked about the Holocaust, it denied the existence of the genocide, labeling it a “propaganda campaign to demonize the German people” and to “control and suppress the truth.”..(More)”.

How Big Tech let down Navalny

Article by Ellery Roberts Biddle: “As if the world needed another reminder of the brutality of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, last Friday we learned of the untimely death of Alexei Navalny. I don’t know if he ever used the term, but Navalny was what Chinese bloggers might have called a true “netizen” — a person who used the internet to live out democratic values and systems that didn’t exist in their country.

Navalny’s work with the Anti-Corruption Foundation reached millions using major platforms like YouTube and LiveJournal. But they built plenty of their own technology too. One of their most famous innovations was “Smart Voting,” a system that could estimate which opposition candidates were most likely to beat out the ruling party in a given election. The strategy wasn’t to support a specific opposition party or candidate — it was simply to unseat members of the ruling party, United Russia. In regional races in 2020, it was credited with causing United Russia to lose its majority in state legislatures in Novosibirsk, Tambov and Tomsk.

The Smart Voting system was pretty simple — just before casting a ballot, any voter could check the website or the app to decide where to throw their support. But on the eve of national parliamentary elections in September 2021, Smart Voting suddenly vanished from the app stores for both Google and Apple. 

After a Moscow court banned Navalny’s organization for being “extremist,” Russia’s internet regulator demanded that both Apple and Google remove Smart Voting from their app stores. The companies bowed to the Kremlin and complied. YouTube blocked select Navalny videos in Russia and Google, its parent company, even blocked some public Google Docs that the Navalny team published to promote names of alternative candidates in the election. 

We will never know whether or not Navalny’s innovative use of technology to stand up to the dictator would have worked. But Silicon Valley’s decision to side with Putin was an important part of why Navalny’s plan failed…(More)”.

Defending democracy: The threat to the public sphere from social media

Book Review by Mark Hannam: “Habermas is a blockhead. It is simply impossible to tell what kind of damage he is still going to cause in the future”, wrote Karl Popper in 1969. The following year he added: “Most of what he says seems to me trivial; the rest seems to me mistaken”. Five decades later these Popperian conjectures have been roundly refuted. Now in his mid-nineties, Jürgen Habermas is one of the pre-eminent philosophers and public intellectuals of our time. In Germany his generation enjoyed the mercy of being born too late. In 2004, in a speech given on receipt of the Kyoto prize in arts and philosophy, he observed that “we did not have to answer for choosing the wrong side and for political errors and their dire consequences”. He came to maturity in a society that he judged complacent and insufficiently distanced from its recent past. This experience sets the context for his academic work and political interventions.

Polity has recently published two new books by Habermas, both translated by Ciaran Cronin, providing English readers access to the latest iterations of his distinctive themes and methods. He defends a capacious concept of human reason, a collaborative learning process that operates through discussions in which participants appeal only to the force of the better argument. Different kinds of discussion – about scientific facts, moral norms or aesthetic judgements – employ different standards of justification, so what counts as a valid reason depends on context, but all progress, regardless of the field, relies on our conversations following the path along which reason leads us. Habermas’s principal claim is that human reason, appropriately deployed, retains its liberating potential for the species.

His first book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), traced the emergence in the eighteenth century of the public sphere. This was a functionally distinct social space, located between the privacy of civil society and the formal offices of the modern state, where citizens could engage in processes of democratic deliberation. Habermas drew attention to a range of contemporary phenomena, including the organization of opinion by political parties and the development of mass media funded by advertising, that have disrupted the possibility of widespread, well-informed political debate. Modern democracy, he argued, was increasingly characterized by the technocratic organization of interests, rather than by the open discussion of principles and values…(More)”.

Why China Can’t Export Its Model of Surveillance

Article by Minxin Pei: “t’s Not the Tech That Empowers Big Brother in Beijing—It’s the Informants…Over the past two decades, Chinese leaders have built a high-tech surveillance system of seemingly extraordinary sophistication. Facial recognition software, Internet monitoring, and ubiquitous video cameras give the impression that the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has finally accomplished the dictator’s dream of building a surveillance state like the one imagined in George Orwell’s 1984

A high-tech surveillance network now blankets the entire country, and the potency of this system was on full display in November 2022, when nationwide protests against China’s COVID lockdown shocked the party. Although the protesters were careful to conceal their faces with masks and hats, the police used mobile-phone location data to track them down. Mass arrests followed.

Beijing’s surveillance state is not only a technological feat. It also relies on a highly labor-intensive organization. Over the past eight decades, the CCP has constructed a vast network of millions of informers and spies whose often unpaid work has been critical to the regime’s survival. It is these men and women, more than cameras or artificial intelligence, that have allowed Beijing to suppress dissent. Without a network of this size, the system could not function. This means that, despite the party’s best efforts, the Chinese security apparatus is impossible to export…(More)”.

Governable Spaces: Democratic Design for Online Life

Book by Nathan Schneider: “When was the last time you participated in an election for a Facebook group or sat on a jury for a dispute in a subreddit? Platforms nudge users to tolerate nearly all-powerful admins, moderators, and “benevolent dictators for life.” In Governable Spaces, Nathan Schneider argues that the internet has been plagued by a phenomenon he calls “implicit feudalism”: a bias, both cultural and technical, for building communities as fiefdoms. The consequences of this arrangement matter far beyond online spaces themselves, as feudal defaults train us to give up on our communities’ democratic potential, inclining us to be more tolerant of autocratic tech CEOs and authoritarian tendencies among politicians. But online spaces could be sites of a creative, radical, and democratic renaissance. Using media archaeology, political theory, and participant observation, Schneider shows how the internet can learn from governance legacies of the past to become a more democratic medium, responsive and inventive unlike anything that has come before…(More)”.

Winning the Battle of Ideas: Exposing Global Authoritarian Narratives and Revitalizing Democratic Principles

Report by Joseph Siegle: “Democracies are engaged in an ideological competition with autocracies that could reshape the global order. Narratives are a potent, asymmetric instrument of power, as they reframe events in a way that conforms to and propagates a particular worldview. Over the past decade and a half, autocracies like Russia and China have led the effort to disseminate authoritarian narratives globally, seeking to normalize authoritarianism as an equally viable and legitimate form of government. How do authoritarian narratives reframe an unappealing value proposition, with the aim of making the democratic path seem less attractive and offering authoritarianism as an alternative model? How can democracies reemphasize their core principles and remind audiences of democracy’s moral, developmental, and security advantages?…(More)”.

In the long run: the future as a political idea

Book by Jonathan White: “Democracy is future-oriented and self-correcting: today’s problems can be solved, we are told, in tomorrow’s elections. But the biggest issues facing the modern world – from climate collapse and pandemics to recession and world war – each apparently bring us to the edge of the irreversible. What happens to democracy when the future seems no longer open?

In this eye-opening history of ideas, Jonathan White investigates how politics has long been directed by shifting visions of the future, from the birth of ideologies in the nineteenth century to Cold War secrecy and the excesses of the neoliberal age.

As an inescapable sense of disaster defines our politics, White argues that a political commitment to the long-term may be the best way to safeguard democracy. Wide in scope and sharply observed, In the Long Run is a history of the future that urges us to make tomorrow new again…(More)”.

Regulating AI Deepfakes and Synthetic Media in the Political Arena

Report by Daniel Weiner and Lawrence Norden: “…Part I of this resource defines the terms deepfakesynthetic media, and manipulated media in more detail. Part II sets forth some necessary considerations for policymakers, specifically:

  • The most plausible rationales for regulating deepfakes and other manipulated media when used in the political arena. In general, the necessity of promoting an informed electorate and the need to safeguard the overall integrity of the electoral process are among the most compelling rationales for regulating manipulated media in the political space.
  • The types of communications that should be regulated. Regulations should reach synthetic images and audio as well as video. Policymakers should focus on curbing or otherwise limiting depictions of events or statements that did not actually occur, especially those appearing in paid campaign ads and certain other categories of paid advertising or otherwise widely disseminated communications. All new rules should have clear carve-outs for parody, news media stories, and potentially other types of protected speech.
  • How such media should be regulated. Transparency rules — for example, rules requiring a manipulated image or audio recording to be clearly labeled as artificial and not a portrayal of real events — will usually be easiest to defend in court. Transparency will not always be enough, however; lawmakers should also consider outright bans of certain categories of manipulated media, such as deceptive audio and visual material seeking to mislead people about the time, place, and manner of voting.
  • Who regulations should target. Both bans and less burdensome transparency requirements should primarily target those who create or disseminate deceptive media, although regulation of the platforms used to transmit deepfakes may also make sense…(More)”.

Avoiding the News

Book by Benjamin Toff, Ruth Palmer, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen: “A small but growing number of people in many countries consistently avoid the news. They feel they do not have time for it, believe it is not worth the effort, find it irrelevant or emotionally draining, or do not trust the media, among other reasons. Why and how do people circumvent news? Which groups are more and less reluctant to follow the news? In what ways is news avoidance a problem—for individuals, for the news industry, for society—and how can it be addressed?

This groundbreaking book explains why and how so many people consume little or no news despite unprecedented abundance and ease of access. Drawing on interviews in Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States as well as extensive survey data, Avoiding the News examines how people who tune out traditional media get information and explores their “folk theories” about how news organizations work. The authors argue that news avoidance is about not only content but also identity, ideologies, and infrastructures: who people are, what they believe, and how news does or does not fit into their everyday lives. Because news avoidance is most common among disadvantaged groups, it threatens to exacerbate existing inequalities by tilting mainstream journalism even further toward privileged audiences. Ultimately, this book shows, persuading news-averse audiences of the value of journalism is not simply a matter of adjusting coverage but requires a deeper, more empathetic understanding of people’s relationships with news across social, political, and technological boundaries…(More)”.