Is giving everyone a voice through technology the ultimate manifestation of democracy?
Technology is a double edged sword, on the one hand capable of advancing democracy and keeping watch over government, while also being vulnerable to false information being used to manipulate elections and control voters.
From the Jasmine Power movement in Tunisia in 2010 to Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement in 2014, wave after wave of democracy movements, facilitated through technology, have ignited discussions on such hot topics as technology’s relationship to freedom of speech, control over the dissemination of data, popular participation in government, and open government. (Read: Inside Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement)
The recent passage of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) by the European Union has elicited widespread concern over personal data protection and the privacy policies of Big Tech platforms like Facebook, Google and Apple. (Read: It’s Time for Facebook to Fix Itself)
Technological progress having reached this juncture, what are we to do?
In 2012, a self-described group of “angry engineers” formed the Taiwan g0v (pronounced “gov zero”) group, marching to the rally cry of “social transformation through programming.”
An outgrowth of this collective, the g0v Summit, a biannual event, opened its third edition in Taipei on October 5. The three-day conference, hosted at the Humanities & Social Science Building at Academia Sinica, kicked off under the theme “What’s Next After Openness?”
Speakers not only looked back at the successes and failures of the Taiwan experience, but civic hackers from 23 countries worldwide also weighed in on government custodianship of information and the fight against fake news, discussing the next possible moves for grassroots digital activists.
When everybody has a say, how can information be trusted?
“A decade ago, we doubted the truthfulness of information on Wikipedia, and now even Google openly praises its collective editing mechanism as a guarantee for cross-referencing. A decade ago, we thought bloggers would replace journalists, but today we must reconsider the professionalism of news fact-checking, as everyone suffers from misinformation and fake news,” remarked Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media and founder of Global Voices, during his presentation entitled “Mobilizing Distrust” at an annual conference. In an interview following the address, he spoke about the changing landscape of thinking on civic technology and freedom of speech.
What can the average citizen do to avoid “fake news”? Sharing his reading habits, Zuckerman relates,
“I subscribe to numerous reputable media feeds, and when I’m interested in a certain subject, I follow the social media accounts of five to ten opinion leaders in related academic research or fields.”
Returning to the perspective of a media professional, just where does one draw the line between making a post (on social media) and publishing a news report? “These days, media is out for volume and timeliness, but journalists should take pains to make time to go back and verify information,” says Chien Hsin-chang, reflecting on the values of professional media.
However, the media profession must also look for different means of verification. Having previously worked at The Reporter and Mirror Media, Chien’s current platform is READr, where he has enlisted journalists, engineers, audience members, and designers to take part in new media experiments in the effort to forge a new news production culture.
Opening up the editorial office, guest editors are invited to choose the news, after which the editorial office narrows down keywords and issues to produce news content.
Technology has broken down borders between professional fields, giving everyone control over their own channels for speaking out. However, this has also shaped an environment saturated with a high volume of rapidly flowing information and a proliferation of fake news.
In response, people are trying to think of how to instill discernment in reading habits, circling back in search of professional solutions. Meanwhile, as information sources, how can government agencies facilitate the transparent, effective dissemination of information to bring about public participation in public issues?
Participatory Democracy, Taipei and New York in Sync
For government information to be open and transparent, it is not just a question of simply posting information online. “Once information is open, you have to figure out how to exert a positive influence on people’s lives and policy,” says Michael Cañares, senior research fellow at Open Data Lab Jakarta, as a major objective of open government is to improve the public’s lives. He also cautions engineers not to be too anxious about using technology to setup platforms or apps.
Instead, they should first categorize information by topic and understand the usage requirements of two cohorts of users, namely civil servants and the public, so that the public can be able to effectively employ information and create opportunities to achieve political influence.
“Participatory democracy” is the embodiment of the smart city, open government model of recent years. During the g0v conference, representatives from New York and Madrid shared experiences with “participatory budgets”.
Workshop speaker Devin Balkind flatly stated, “New York is really no better than Taipei, and a lot of politicians just want to make platforms so they can take credit for them.”
In Taipei, members of the public can make proposals to begin reusing unutilized public land, and help forge mechanisms in aging corners of the community.
The Taipei Public Land Census website was set up under the Great Public Land Movement spearheaded by g0v, disclosing information on 14,000 plots of land within Taipei City’s jurisdiction. This was made possible with the assistance of civil servants across agencies including the Taipei City Department of Land Administration, the Department of Urban Development, and the Department of Information, who not only brainstormed and discussed ideas with g0v for setting up the platform, but went so far as to help resolve issues and amend regulations, such as those mandating that public land can only be open to public bids.
Such efforts ensured that the public’s creativity and good intentions are enshrined in public lands. “We believe that ‘as long as it’s not illegal, we can find a way,’” says Wei-Bin Lee, commissioner of the Taipei City Department of Information Technology.
Democracy and facilitating communication are not simple matters, while the rapid advancement of technological tools brings about change from the individual level of changing daily lives to the macro level of reshaping collective government operations. And no matter how technology innovates, civilization is not a simple matter of wiping the slate clean and rewriting a program; it requires taking a moment to consider actual human needs.
Translated by David Toman