Data and Democracy

Democracy and Covid-19

The Covid 19 epidemic has disrupted our economic and social life unlike anything seen in peacetime. Its impact on the character of our democracy is becoming apparent; the pressure of social distancing is forcing us to rethink how we structure our democratic institutions.

In the midst of all this, does the ‘white heat’ of technology offer some meaningful solutions? After years of ‘techlash’, where technology firms were accused of damaging democracy, could they be its salvation after all? 

Early signs are promising. Select Committees have been using video conferencing software to continue scrutinising the government. Some have suggested this could be a preferable way to interview witnesses in future, given cost and environmental considerations. 

The Speaker of the Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, has written to parliamentary officials to explore digital innovations that can keep the show on the road in these difficult times. Although we often have reason to be skeptical, any tech driven solutions to shore up our democratic institutions should be an easy win. With this in mind, here is the ORG perspective on what can be done to keep our democracy intact- and even improved- during this unprecedented event. 

Digital Democracy

ORG continues to oppose the use of electronic voting in UK statutory elections. This is for a number of reasons; cybersecurity concerns, cost, and because the principles of verifiability and the secret ballot are opposed. 

Remote voting for MP’s, however, is a useful and essential democratic innovation for these times. Votes in Parliament are never anonymous; indeed it is essential for holding MP’s to account that their voting record is public. 

At the same time, recent legislation has brought the biggest curtailment on civil liberties in peacetime onto the statute book. Whilst all of us recognise the purpose of sacrificing some individual rights for the public interest, it is important that this should be proportionate and accountable. For example, the review period for the extraordinary powers in the emergency Covid 19 bill was shortened from 2 years to 6 months after public pressure, including from civil society groups. An up and running digital parliament could have further held the government to account. In the absence of one, it seems likely that there are measures in the legislation that we will all come to regret.

If remote voting for MP’s can facilitate proper scrutiny of the government, and return us to normal times more quickly, then it should be introduced as soon as possible. 

Information Environments

ORG supports the development of high quality ‘information hubs’ that inform public debate. Information hubs collate and grade information on a topic. Fact checking services can function as information hubs by critically evaluating the content and source of information. This is particularly important during the current public health crisis, where the speed of the situation is liable to foster misinformation (rumours). The recent attacks on 5G mast towers are one example of this.

In addition, the geopolitical dimensions of the Covid-19 epidemic have seen the spread of disinformation by state actors. There is an unprecedented amount of political capital at stake. For example, the Chinese Communist Party has claimed that the American Government created Covid-19, despite there being nothing in the best available evidence to suggest this. 

A high quality information hub that can provide assurance, advice and instructions during a crisis such as this, would be invaluable. The UCL Constitution Unit has already outlined a framework for how this might look.Some parliamentarians have already begun a cross party effort to create a database of good quality information on the pandemic.

Often, digital solutions to these kind of crises centre on takedowns and potential censorship. ORG rejects this. It is these impulses that exacerbated the crisis in the first place. The enemies of the pandemic are freedom of information, strong democratic institutions and public trust – not censorship, autocracy and fear.