How the Internet is Redefining Media and Politics Around the World

May 2017

I’ve always interpreted the Second Amendment very literally: a provision that allows citizens of the United States the right to own firearms. But in a recent conversation with a startup founder, he suggested that it could also be interpreted to include digital encryption as a kind of modern weapon for self defense.

I’m no lawyer or constitutional historian, but even if that snippet of legalese cannot be stretched to protect privacy via methods of digital encryption, the thought illustrates how far we’ve come from the world that the framers of the constitution imagined while writing the initial governance for our country. The regulatory debates of our current social-political landscapes would fly over the heads of even the most forward-thinking founding fathers.

The freedom of assembly, listed right next to freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the First Amendment, is a provision guaranteed by our nation that protects the right of individuals to peacefully assemble for any reason or circumstance. Throughout America’s history, grassroots assembly has empowered individuals to organize and protest, enabling much of the change that has happened in American history.

Today, digital communications has become the medium for much of the organizing that formerly took place by physical assembly, stretching the concept of assembly beyond merely physical convenings. In this world, encryption becomes a vital part of giving people the ability to speak freely. In that sense, I’d argue that encryption has more to do with the First Amendment than the second, despite encryption not being mentioned anywhere in the original constitution.

It is this type of modern refactoring that lends itself to a constant need to rethink and refine our systems of government, technology, and social relations. But while every era presents a different set of complex challenges, it would be naive to assert that this notion of political change is new or uniquely of our time. From the renaissance to global colonization to world wars to the internet and every little thing in between, people have debated the very nature of how political and regulatory systems have functioned in a way that I will call “technocratic political innovation”.

By “technocratic”, I don’t mean someone who is leading with the intent of increasing the implementation of digital devices and systems, I mean someone with a scientific, quantitative, and research driven approach to improve outcomes in a political system. In this sense, thinkers like de Tocqueville could potentially be considered technocratic, even if they would call a modern smartphone some kind of witchcraft.

Arab Spring

There’s no doubt that technology is a powerful tool for organizing and taking action. We’ve seen how things like social media and digital communications have been critical infrastructure in instances such as the widely hailed Arab Spring. If we’re not careful, however, it’s easy to give too much credit to social media for the success of political movements that resulted from hundreds of thousands of people organizing and establishing their movement. And as much as social media has the power to unite, it has in certain cases also isolated us from the very movements we seek to partake in. Social media accelerates globalization in a way that connects me to similar people around the world while distancing me from the waiter at the restaurant I had lunch at.

Faulting social media platforms for ignorant bubbles isn’t entirely fair. People lived in filter bubbles long before the internet ever existed. However, social media is causing an upheaval in the way our filter bubbles operate without explicitly intending to.

If social media unintentionally reconfigured our filter bubbles to break down physical distance at the expense of increasing digital distance, civic media is an intentional effort to counteract the growing distance between people.

All over the world, pockets of people are prototyping new ways of digital civic participation in hopes to be successful enough to scale across an entire party, city, or a nation. The term hacktivism has been recently popularized to describe this sort of activism, across a spectrum from anonymous digital vigilantes to publicly-funded digital governance efforts. While hacktivists around the world may not be of the same political leanings, languages, or belief systems, hacktivism is a force that is only increasing in use internationally, and choosing to ignore these movements is choosing to ignore an increasingly potent force in global politics.

The drastic changes in technology and media are only going to amplify and accelerate the pace of change in our modern political establishment, propelling us into more global uncertainty. With the election of Donald Trump and populists around the world, not only are traditional politicians likely an endangered class of individuals, an even stronger wave of Millennials and Gen-Zers are waiting to one day inherit the power from today’s leaders.

It is a very crucial time in world history, and the stories of decisions made by tomorrow’s leaders today are going to have a greater impact than the decisions of today’s leaders today. Ian Bremmer talks about 2016 being a transition between a world led by the United States known as “Pax Americana” to being a world without a clear leader known as “G-Zero”.

In a G-Zero world, no country or group of countries has the leverage to unilaterally champion a single worldview. In fact, a G-Zero world means that no two countries are on the same page in terms of economic, domestic, or foreign policy, leaving the world without a country that is able to advance a specific international agenda. And as the result of globalization, corporations are sitting on greater vaults of wealth, routing assets and finances through many countries with conflicting interests, causing certain countries that would otherwise be in stark conflicts to have a somewhat stable relationship.

One argument to explain why the European Union has been relatively free of conflict in the past few decades can be attributed to the EU, specifically the way that the euro has bound the european countries together economically. A similar argument could be made about the US and China: that the two countries are so interdependent that neither side is willing to risk a conflict for fear of repercussions in their own country.

However, the economics are not enough to prevent tensions between countries. As tensions continue to escalate both between and within countries, causing democratic upheavals such as the massive protests that are taking place in response to Trump’s election in the US, Park’s impeachment in South Korea, Erdogan’s eroding of democratic systems, history tells us that we have the conditions for significant changes likely started from single individuals or group of individuals.

But despite the fact that we’re currently witnessing an alarming number of nationalistic world leaders rise to power, people today are better prepared to face these leaders than we have ever been.

The Historical Rise of Non-State Actors

The role of everyday individuals shaping the political direction runs in parallel with the technologies that everyday people have access to. Technology enables or inhibits the way that ideas are shared and movements are organized. Thus, to think that media and technology are separate is misguided; technology has always been about media, whether that be distributing an idea to as many people as possible or intentionally anonymizing and limiting who knows about something.

In 1969, an employee of RAND corporation named Daniel Ellsberg began making covert photocopies of classified documents about the Vietnam war. Being in an era before files were edited digitally, it took over the span of a year for Ellsberg to manually make copies of the documents in his off-work hours. As the news broke on June 13th, 1971, the story confirmed the suspicions people had that the government was more involved in Vietnam than they were publicly admitting.

Fast forward 40 years later, an intelligence analyst named Bradley Manning was faced with a similar choice that Ellsberg faced: whether to leak documents that detailed US involvement abroad. However, the stark difference between Ellsberg and Manning was that it took Manning less than a day to copy out an archive of data hundreds of times larger than the Pentagon Papers, a cache that would have taken Ellsberg roughly 18 years to copy the way he copied the Pentagon Papers.

Publishing, leaking, and whistleblowing have all become much more accessible from the time of the printing press to the internet, enabling anyone today to use cryptography and internet anonymity tools to avoid surveillance and sound the alarms on governments. Individuals such as Julian Assange can single-handedly create political nightmares for governments, forcing them to be accountable in public to the things they said privately.

And Internet whistleblowing is just one example of how a small group of people are changing the way that governments and politicians operate. Just as the rise of internet media has caused print newspapers and journalists to completely change the way that they operate, it is also forcing groups to change of how they establish influence and power.

One of the most widely cited examples of the Internet’s role in political organizing has been the Arab Spring; where protests organized largely through digital tools radically impacted the relationship governments had with their citizens, including overthrowing leaders and other incumbent regimes. But around the world, the Arab Spring is only one example of how technology is being used by individuals to circulate ideas and incite political action.

Partido de la Red, DemocracyOS, and Argentina

The Outerlands was just the kind of restaurant you’d expect to find in San Francisco. The decor consists of reclaimed wood and bare lightbulbs hanging in a way that is most-definitely more expensive than appears. Here, founders from all over the world are attracted to the prospect of starting their own technology company and achieve the now-cliche belief that they are “changing the world”.

Wearing a hoodie that is typical for Silicon Valley technology types, Santiago walked in after a morning of wrangling code for his new internet-democracy platform. Most stories of startup founders moving to Silicon Valley are similarly unique: as an outsider in their native environment, they made some sort of application or technology, got accepted to an accelerator in Silicon Valley such as YCombinator, and moved out to San Francisco.

Santiago fits right in in San Francisco: passionate about the potential for technology to impact incumbent processes, Santiago called Satoshi Nakamoto’s blockchain the next great invention behind Gutenberg’s printing press and Tim Berners-Lee’s world wide web. In fact, Santiago shared that he documented the birth of his daughter on a blockchain as a publicly permanent declaration of her birth.

But where Santiago stands out is in his history with political activism starting in his hometown of Buenos Aires. In 2012, Santiago started Partido de la Red, a political party in Buenos Aires that was inspired by liquid democracy.

To someone used to following American politics, starting a political party seems more difficult than landing a human on the moon.

Traditionally dominated by Peronism, opposing political parties in Argentina have had a long history playing second fiddle to the long-incumbent Peronist ideal that has won three-quarters of the presidential elections since it started in 1946. The Peronist ideal, rejecting both capitalism and communism, is not a political ideal easily captured by traditional western politics.

Since the ideals for Peronism were laid down in the 1940s, it’s flexibility in political views has allowed it to maintain dominance through a series of coups, martial law, corruption, political violence, and all the other things Argentina has gone through, much of which is still felt today. Walking through Plaza de Mayo, for instance, it’s hard to miss the white scarves painted on the ground as a symbol of the Mothers that would gather to protest state terrorism that kidnapped children without explanation.

Plaza de Mayo

Nevertheless, in an attempt to address corruption in the political system, the Net Party was founded by Santiago as a grassroots attempt to build a political system around the voice of the people, implementing a voting platform to allow citizens to essentially act as a digital parliament. By implementing DemocracyOS, an internet platform for collecting votes from citizens, representatives from the Net Party are better able to legislate in accordance to their constituents.

Liquid democracy, also known as delegative democracy, is an idea that builds on the concept of every citizen being able to elect their representative. Through liquid democracy, citizens are able to vote by vesting power in delegates rather than representatives.

The difference between a delegate and a representative is that the barrier to entry of becoming a delegate is much lower than that of becoming a representative, and that citizens can shift power between delegates much more easily than they can representatives. Such a system aims to give more flexibility to each citizen, allowing individuals to become more or less involved at their choosing, and being better able to keep delegates accountable.

I visited the DemocracyOS office in Buenos Aires to learn more about the open source project. The office is about the size of a large living room, complete with a loft that adds a few more desks for people to work. Since it’s inception, DemocracyOS has been implemented by governments in Argentina, Brazil, Spain, France, Finland, Hungary, and Colombia.

During my visit to the DemocracyOS office, the CTO of DemocracyOS Guido Vilariño, walked me through the code powering DemocracyOS, as I made my first pull request into the Node.js powered application. The ease at which I am able to personally contribute to this project and so many around the world speaks to the interconnectedness of global communities, allowing projects such as DemocracyOS to draw from a global group of volunteers and developers.

To Guido, DemocracyOS describes a future he is working to see to fruition. In our wide ranging conversation, Guido spoke with a guided sense of pragmatism recognizing that progress toward change requires intentional compromises, even if that means DemocracyOS is not quite implemented according to his ideals. Everyone who is a part of the efforts for Partido de La Red and DemocracyOS share a belief that the internet is having and will have irreversible effects on politics, starting with their efforts in Buenos Aires.

It’s hard to imagine a system like DemocracyOS existing prior to the internet, as the logistical challenge of maintaining a liquid democracy system would be impossible without the aid of computers to keep track of the decisions made by each person. It’s still far too early to call DemocracyOS’s implementation of liquid democracy a success, but it’s not a stretch to say that DemocracyOS has impacted Buenos Aires in a tangible way, despite all the setbacks it has experienced.

The vision for DemocracyOS isn’t a partisan appeal, but one they hope to implement at a systemic level. However, because the Net Party is a political party, it is vulnerable to the same political partisanship that any party is subject to. It didn’t take long for Santiago to discover two problems. First, that forcing transparency into a system through political means is going to face pushback from the people benefitting from incumbent systems. And second, that people may use these tools of transparency as a political play to appear more transparent without actually becoming more transparent.

Today, Santiago no longer works on DemocracyOS. Emboldened instead by a mission that is broader and more ambitious in scope, Santiago tells me about the potential for the blockchain to give power back to the people. Calling his new project Democracy Earth, Santiago hopes providing smart contracts via a blockchain for transparent decision making can bring back power to individuals.

The idea of a post-nation state world, as Democracy Earth is preparing for, is hard to picture given the state of international affairs today. And even if such a world will eventually come to pass, it’s hard to predict how we get to that day.

vTaiwan and the Sunflower Movement

Beyond being known for it’s culture of endless street food, Taiwan is arguably the most progressive country in Asia. With a population of 23 million people, Taiwan is comparable in population to Australia. But because of historic geopolitical tensions with China, Taiwan’s relationship with the world is contentious and complicated. Outside of Taiwan, little has been understood about the dramatic political changes starting from Japanese rule in 1895 to the ending of martial law in 1987 to the first free election in 1996 to the vibrant democracy it is today.

Despite being a young, progressive democracy, Taiwan’s internal politics have been rooted in deep controversy. Still formally known as the Republic of China after the nationalists fled mainland China to Taiwan in 1949, the tensions between the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China have never been resolved. Today, only 2.4% of people between the ages of 20-29 in Taiwan identify themselves as Chinese.

The last time I was in Taiwan was 2005, when my travel experiences were still very much filtered through the itinerary set up by my parents, including visits to the zoo and other family excursions. But as I landed in Taiwan this past December, this time I was on my own: determined to ask hard questions about the sweeping, undeniable changes happening in Asia and around the world.

As a descendant of Taiwanese ancestry myself, uncovering the historical events along my lineage often left me perplexed, shocked, and in disbelief as I walked through the streets that raised my parents and grandparents. My grandparents have seen multiple cycles of politics in Taiwan, from growing up under Japanese colonialism and learning Japanese as a part of primary education to the Taiwan it is today.

In 2016, Taiwan elected its first female president Tsai Ing Wen, the former chairwoman of the Democratic People’s Party. Taiwan’s DPP, although with it’s own set of shortcomings, has positioned itself in modern years as being the progressive party advocating for LGBT rights, workers, and other typically liberal political ideologies. The DPP has significant anti-China sentiments, leaning on the side of independence from China.

As the public perception in Taiwan drifts further away from a historic Chinese identity, the Taiwanese identity becomes increasingly distinct from that of the Chinese. It is under these conditions that younger generations are forming their own national identities, growing up only knowing their country as a nation independent from China. I couldn’t help but ponder how easily I could have been Taiwan-raised, but for better or worse life dealt me a US passport instead of a Taiwanese one.

Economically, Taiwan was once the world’s factory. Everything used to come with “Made in Taiwan” tags and stickers. Known as one of the four tigers of Asia (the other three being Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea), Taiwan’s GDP grew at exceptionally high rates between the 1960s and the 1990s.

But today, China is developing economically at rates unlike anything the world has ever seen before, causing Taiwan and other neighbors in the Asia-Pacific to cede markets to China because they can no longer compete.

In a post pax-americana world, China stands to surpass the United States in global leadership, although it’s unlikely to happen in the near future. It is this rapid consolidation of economic and geopolitical power that is worrying the Taiwanese; a political stalemate causing Taiwan to pay extremely close attention to how China treats Hong Kong as a premonition of what Taiwan itself is likely to face.

CKS memorial hall in Taipei

It is these circumstances in Taiwan that provides fertile ground for new political experiments. One effort to digitize civic participation in Taiwan is led by Audrey Tang, the youngest and first transgender official in Taiwan’s executive government. Audrey represents a new generation of political leaders, one that grew up with the internet, recognizes globalization, and is tasked with bringing a technology mindset into old, bureaucratic processes.

Audrey spends much of her time working on vTaiwan. vTaiwan is a liquid democracy platform that resembles DemocracyOS. Like DemocracyOS, vTaiwan gives everyday citizens the ability to weigh in on many issues that are important to them, allowing them to be more directly involved in their country’s politics. Through vTaiwan, citizens have participated in more transparent government conversations.

Audrey calls vTaiwan “a working implementation of multi-stakeholder consultation and crowd-sourced agenda setting”. From the outset, the challenge facing such a platform is making it a place for everyone, and avoiding it from skewing out in favor of one demographic or another.

This type of deliberative democracy was born out of the Sunflower Student Movement of 2014. As a prime example of the kind of organization that young people are willing and active in, demonstrators occupied the legislature for weeks in 2014 as a backlash to a proposed trade deal between Taiwan and China. The scale of such demonstrations was unprecedented, as the legislature has never been occupied by citizens in the history of Taiwan.

In the resolution of the Sunflower Movement, the students declared that one of their goals was to bring deliberation of policies into the community, bringing an even more open democracy to citizens.

As I learned about Taiwan’s history with little prerequisite knowledge, the biases from the different accounts and takes on historical events are obvious in a way that my own biases are not. The media landscape in Taiwan, although existing in a country that promotes free press, struggles with many of the same issues we see around the world. The drop in advertising and print revenue is placing a larger financial burden on publications in the US and around the world. But an additional problem facing Taiwan can be traced to cross-strait relations, creating an environment where pro-China publications are likely to receive funding from China, leaving other publications in Taiwan less staffed and resourced.

J Michael Cole moved to Taiwan as a journalist nearly a decade ago, and after reporting for organizations such as the Taipei Times, he has recently started a new Taiwan-focused media organization called Taiwan Sentinel founded with the goal of providing in-depth reporting on Taiwan to an international audience.

In a brief conversation at the launch of Taiwan Sentinel, J Michael spoke about how even the top news organizations in the world have a hard time covering Taiwan. Austin Ramzy, a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, was forced out of China in 2014 and decided to relocate to Taipei to become the first Times journalist to be based out of Taiwan. Upon arriving, Austin met with J Michael only to realize how starkly different Taiwan is from mainland China.

The number of western journalists covering Taiwan is still next to none, but without a proper array of journalists, it’s hard for Americans and others to recognize the gravity of events happening in Taiwan.

After Tsai and Trump spoke over the phone following Trump’s election, a media firestorm erupted in response to Trump being the first head of state to speak with a Taiwanese head of state since diplomatic relations were cut off under Nixon. This media firestorm was highly critical in western outlets, but highly optimistic to the Taiwanese. Many Taiwanese saw it as a reconciliation of diplomatic relations between the two countries, but unfortunately, relations between Taiwan and the US are unlikely to improve under Trump.

These are the kinds of events that, when reported well, have the ability to shape popular opinion with a broader understanding of geopolitical relationships, prompting people to organize in ways such as the Sunflower movement.

Conclusion

One way to measure the health of a democratic nation is how it protects a citizen’s human rights via rule of law, including protections of speech, assembly, press, voting, etc. However, another way to assess the health of a democracy is to look at how civically engaged it’s citizens are.

The measure of what is protected by law in a country is often an imperfect picture of whether a country’s people are benefactors and users of a democratic (or not so democratic) system. In fact, it’s possible to argue that the democratic health of a nation has more to do with how active citizens are civically than the agendas and laws written by the leaders: it’s the difference between what the system allows and how people are actually using the system.

The 2016 US presidential election saw less than 55% of voters turning out to vote, putting voter turnout in the model democracy lower than the majority of other countries. The decay of American democracy wasn’t in the fact that an inexperienced outsider won the electoral college, but that millions of Americans decided that they couldn’t be bothered to vote. Thus, despite the fact that laws in the US protect citizens’ rights to vote (voter ID laws and suppression aside), America’s democracy is threatened by a constant political apathy.

Whether or not you blame this outcome on a biased media and fake news on social media, news media often serves as the catalyst for political organization and action, manifesting itself as engagements with online platforms, physical protests, lawsuits, or anything else.

By the standards of participation, the measure of success for platforms like vTaiwan and DemocracyOS may not be so much the legislation or opportunities for civic engagement that they bring, but how it enables citizens to become more politically active. Being digital in nature, internet platforms such as the ones we’ve explored tend to skew toward younger, tech-savvy, educated citizens. The benefits of asynchronous, location-agnostic organizing also struggle to making sure a diverse set of voices are present in the constructive conversations and deliberations.

However, despite these challenges, digital platforms for civic engagement will continue to evolve, even as nations continue to wrestle with how to best regulate an internet that is not bounded by borders, easily manipulable, and constantly evolving to give their citizens new ways to engage, while also properly curbing cyberattacks.

Whether it be the blockchain, even more ubiquitous mobile devices, or smarter internet regulations, it’s inevitable that the final frontier for the internet revolution is going to be civic engagement, and it’s going to take far more than a president who uses Twitter to get us there.