Click here to read GNET's latest report Emergent Technologies and Extremists: The DWeb as a New Internet Reality?

The Time for e-Democracy is Now: How a Digitally Functional Democracy Could Prevent Extremist Accelerationism

The Time for e-Democracy is Now: How a Digitally Functional Democracy Could Prevent Extremist Accelerationism
31st August 2022 Jon Deedman
In Insights

Online hate communities view ongoing democratic backsliding as supportive of their accelerationist cause. Tech companies and governments must therefore seize the opportunity presented by digital tools to rejuvenate democracy, fight extremism at its root causes, and ensure the continued primacy of elective government. Faltering democratic processes and proliferating extremism must be met with the practical application of a variety of approaches toward a more robust and sustainable e-Democracy. e-Democracy can be explained as “the use of 21st-century information and communications technology to extend community engagement, expand suffrage and citizen agency, create real-time decision making, rapidly aggregate opinion data, and pave the way for a shift from representative to more direct forms of democracy.” 

To argue that democracy has reached a crisis point would be something of an understatement. US democracy is withering, the EU is grappling with democratic decline in several of its member states, and the world’s largest democracy in India is experiencing considerable structural and social erosion. These are just a few examples of an observable international pattern of democratic backsliding. Strongman leaders are enacting constitutional changes to remain in power longer; systems of legislative accountability are being eroded to centralise unilateral power in executives; and proliferating misinformation is catalysing the visceral polarisation of electorates in longstanding democracies. Those who are ideologically opposed to the democratic values of liberalism, globalism, and multiculturalism, and are willing to support or commit acts of violence to hasten their downfall benefit significantly from such global democratic decline.

Militant accelerationists predominantly represent a wide array of far- and extreme-right ideological bases, and see the current democratic order as corrupt, failed/failing, and in need of replacement, commonly by a white ethnostate. Various extreme-right post-organisational communities and online movements espouse militant accelerationist and ideologically nihilist, or ‘doomerist’, perspectives which propound that violence and social tension should be used to hasten the downfall of our inoperative democratic political system. We could respond to the flow of such ideology with existing short-term counter-extremism tools, or, we could develop something new – a robust and digitally-enriched democracy that is fast and uncompromising enough to counter such ideology at its root cause.

Whilst the violent actions of several individuals committed to accelerationism could be met with any number of policy responses by states, such policies would not address the systematic limitations of democracies in the digital era that have given rise to the ideas and philosophies accommodating militant accelerationist sentiment. For example, most democracies are representative, in that elected politicians are seen to represent the views of the governed. However, increasingly electorates do not feel represented by a system of democracy that is becoming exhausted. Representative democracy often excludes, and therefore fails to truly represent large numbers of possible voters. This is generally facilitated by disenfranchisement through unrepresentative voting systems which allow large groups of voters to remain on the fringes of democracy. Underrepresented groups can easily become disillusioned with the liberal democratic order designed to represent them, leaving them ripe for radicalisation at the hands of any number of far- and extreme-right groups who espouse militant accelerationist or ideologically nihilist ideas. By restoring democratic representation and accountability through a digital, participatory and direct democracy, the disillusioned may feel heard by a system that has strived until now to ignore them. 

As is often the case with most conspiracies, those propagated by extreme-right accelerationists are built upon a kernel of truth. In this case, such truth exists in the vehement critique of the current democratic system. While democracies are faltering and failing, the public’s faith in them is at the lowest level in decades. Currently, democracies are expediting their own destruction by failing to move fast enough to create tangible solutions for such rapidly changing and internationally pivotal policy areas such as wealth inequality, economic instability, climate change, or the aforementioned backtracking of democratic institutions in some nations. While militant accelerationists would argue that such systematic failures should be expedited towards destruction, these shortcomings can and should be remedied. A renovation of the democratic system could utilise the same digital technologies that have empowered these modern accelerationist factions. Where online hate communities have taken advantage of the free and global nature of digital tools made for community building, they have additionally facilitated uptake of the accelerationist narratives voiced by various groups and individuals predominantly online. These same tools can now be used to rectify the real-world negative implications of digital media proliferation (that we are only now witnessing in the form of extreme, terroristic violence) through the expansion of e-Democracy to strengthen democratic institutions and increase voters’ participation in the democratic space.

The discursive functionality of digital tools is particularly conspicuous when we consider that young people are most at risk of radicalisation. Many young people today find online communities to be places of meaning, which many often lack in their ‘offline’ life. Already demonstrating low levels of faith in democracy, this social group has much to fear about an uncertain future, which can nurture vulnerability to extremist movements who seek to portray the world as corrupt or broken, especially given young peoples’ general exclusion from the current democratic space. By forming tech-driven, deliberative digital spaces for discourse and discussion, we can ensure that this tech-literate demographic is able to participate in and be heard by democracy. Such an action can then contribute to the cultivation of more robust faith in democracy to protect against possible online radicalisation that operationalises negative portrayals of democracy.

Where limitations of contemporary democratic systems are being identified and utilised to justify extreme-right terroristic violence, we must riposte to the endless benefits and possibilities of digital technologies. States and supranational organisations could make use of apps or other digital platforms designed by, or in collaboration with, tech companies to create a more direct and participatory democratic model. Such a platform wouldn’t need to be formed in a vacuum; several large tech companies and start-ups have already set about investing in the development of services that form the basis of a workable e-Democracy. Such services can include the provision of electoral information and awareness; the creation of online spaces for discussion of policy, voting on policies, increasing turnout, fact-checking and combat of electoral misinformation; and increasing election accessibility. The ways in which digital technologies can be incorporated into a democratic political system are abundant, particularly if existing state-tech company partnerships are built upon.

Various political parties and entities have attempted to incorporate e-Democracy reforms into their functionality. Decide.Madrid, for example, attempts to simultaneously utilise all primary functionalities of e-Democracy (e-publication, e-engagement and e-voting). This platform operates by allowing residents to propose new local laws which can then force a binding public vote if supported by other residents after debate and discussion. The existence of state-led applications of digital democratic tools also serves as evidence for the applicability of a wider e-Democracy. Switzerland has incorporated large e-voting reforms into its historically participatory and direct democracy model, which utilises a large number of public referenda. While the traditional use of referenda alone could be argued to increase the representativity of democracy, this relies heavily on caveats such as turnout or an informed electorate. By utilising digital tools, the Swiss model of e-voting on referenda has sought to build upon their already more participatory democratic model. However, Swiss e-voting is still only at the trial stage, with trials resuming in July 2022 after ending in July 2019. As such, whilst serving as a basic model for a real-world e-Democracy, Switzerland should be viewed as an inspiration, not a road map.

While there are several globally dispersed examples of e-publication, e-engagement and/or e-voting, a mix-and-match methodology of e-Democracy implementation is not sufficient to instigate systematic change. Instead, tech companies – in support of the same democratic values many have already committed to upholding through cooperation against violent extremism – must now work together to facilitate and guide states in the summative application of e-publication, e-engagement and e-voting services into a workable national model of participatory e-Democracy. Such a model must seek to both strengthen existing democratic institutions but also expand informed democratic participation amongst those who have until now been left behind by democracy. Doing so should not only prevent the growth of radical, anti-democratic groups but also avert the initial development of such ideological groups by addressing democratic criticism before it foments. If the ideological core of such groups is predicated on the vehement critique of a failing democracy in need of destruction and replacement, then a healthy democracy stands as the most robust defense against such extremist sentiment by delegitimising these groups’ focal messaging points. 

While it may at first appear that including previously underrepresented groups in democracy could present an increased risk of rule by the mob, the creation of an e-Democracy could also stifle this trend through information provision. As contended by John Stuart Mill in support of Women’s suffrage, only by actively participating in the democratic process can those who have been outside of it come to understand it, and feel empowered enough to voice their views within the system rather than in violent opposition to it. Subsequently, the expansion of existing informational services such as TurboVote or Steven Clift’s e-democracy.org, which aggregate large amounts of logistical information relevant to various democracies, would ensure that increases in democratic participation are also informed. Only by ensuring that a digitally-invested and democratically-empowered electorate understands the processes it is engaging with, can we ensure sustainable democratic participation.

Whilst the implementation of true e-Democratic governance (or e-Governance) would be felt predominantly at national or supranational levels, it must come from a multi-stakeholder approach to ensure that it does not simply benefit sitting government(s), but is primarily geared toward fulfilling the liberal and multicultural values upheld by contemporary democracy. For this reason, the implementation of e-Democratic systems must be a collaborative effort led by tech companies that have already committed themselves to the values of electoral democracy. The role of tech companies, then, should be to provide guidance, specific technologies, and other support to national or supranational governments to form their own systems of digital democracy predicated on the need for direct democratic practices and greater public participation. Tech companies, by their global and non-state-affiliated status, are perfectly placed to instigate wider systems of digital participatory democracy alongside governments who wish to implement such systems. Civil society actors must also be included at all stages to ensure such implementation is as much a multi-stakeholder effort as possible and to guarantee that the democratic values of transparency and accountability are upheld.

The democratic world is now observably in decline. By introducing a model of e-Democracy that incorporates significant collaboration between tech companies and civil society actors, we can counter several ongoing issues with modern democracies in one fell swoop. We can provide the next generation – who are overwhelmingly tech-literate – with digital tools for democratic participation, but also knowledge and apparatus for even greater ‘real-world’ offline democratic engagement. We can strengthen democratic institutions through the public provision of extensive and well-organised information regarding such institutions, and allow for digital debates, discussions, and even voting on policy. Further, we can facilitate informed, chronologically and geographically unrestrained democratic participation. We must acknowledge militant accelerationists’ viewpoints as being built on truth – democratic systems are failing. Rather than attempting to sell our slow-moving, outdated democracy to an irreverent electorate, we must update our governance systems with the digital tools available to us to ensure democracy can move fast enough to keep up with the society it aims to govern and represent.

Jon Deedman is Progamming Intern at the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) and a postgraduate student in far-right terrorism and extremism, focusing on the nexus between online and offline manifestations of extreme-right ideology.