4.4. Challenges reexamined

We have now talked extensively about how digital media enable challenges to institutions. But of course this alone does not guarantee their success. Yes, digital media might help identify and document the weaknesses of institutions, their crises and conflicts. They might help challenges to form, being brought forward, and reach a broad public. But success of challenges is of course not determined by these opportunities alone. Instead, success relies on various context conditions and their specific structural embeddedness.

The other question, we repeatedly ran into was how to assess challenges. As we have seen, some challenges might be judged as strengthening democracy and empowering people, while others might achieve the opposite. Now, how can we as researchers adress this question? Without of course attributing the challenges we happen to sympathize with strengthening effects and those we dislike detrimental effects.

We will focus on these two questions in the final part of this chapter.

4.4.1. How challenges fail

Discussing the different ways in which digital media enable challenges to established institutions can one leave with the not uncertain feeling that these challenges are bound to succeed and that the days of established institutions are over. But just cast a glance left and right and you will see established institutions apparently doing just fine. How do these observations go together.

While digital media have enabled challengers, they also have provided new opportunities for social control. We see this most clearly with digital challenges to autocracies. One of the strongest tales about the transformative potential of digital media is connected to their role during the so called Arab Spring. From December 2010 to 2012, a number of Arab countries were swept by local revolts of citizens demanding for more democracy and greater accountability of their rulers. Digital media featured strongly in these revolts as tools for coordination, tactical support, documentation of the events, and establishment of connections with the international community. The early success of these protests and their public uses of digital media contributed to the public impression of digital media as powerful technologies with the potential to destabilize even strong authoritarian regimes. Subsequent events indicate that both the hopes for sustained change through these revolts as well the diagnosis of the contribution of digital media to their short lived success were overblown.

But not only the West was watching, authoritarian regimes all over the world payed attention to the events and determined not to go down the same route. As a consequence, they started to increase their efforts to control digital communication infrastructures and companies based in their countries. While these attempts at first seemed to Western leaders and commentators futile, subsequent efforts by Chinese and Russian governments showed that state control of digital communication was possible. Especially the Chinese efforts stand out in this, with the Great Firewall cutting off Chinese users from Western digital media and allowing the government to censor content. Going beyond access to information, the Chinese Social Credit System is an even more powerful attempt at monitoring, incentivizing, and punishing behavior of citizens through the state. While its actual workings and effects are still ill documented, it stands as powerful marker of what degrees of digital control are available to authoritarian governments. Under these conditions, digital media provide only limited - if any - opportunities for challenges to the status quo to form through information or coordination.

Let's look at events closer to home. Since the early days of digital media, digital structures have become continuously more centralized. When in the past challengers of the status quo could publish a website on their own server today most people use central hubs - like Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube - to publish or access information. The companies running these platforms therefor have potentially the opportunity to elevate or hide information that they see in conflict with their business. Recently, voices have been raised asking for greater responsibility of companies running these services to identify and censor harmful and incendiary content around politics. The most visible of those was Twitter's decision to suspend the account of then US President Donald Trump after him inciting rioters at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. While the decision was highly contested at the time, after losing access to Twitter and other social media platforms, Donald Trump never achieved the same power to dominate the media agenda that he wielded during his time on Twitter. While, arguable the discourse on Twitter did not lose much through the forced exit of Donald Trump, this episode shows the power companies wield that run central digital infrastructures. By deciding whom and what topics to allow access to their users, these companies are central hubs with the ability to control public discourse, if they exercise this power or not.

Beyond increased opportunities for central control, challenges to the status quo also have to content with the persistence of structures. Even if challengers are enabled through new opportunities provided by digital media, their challenge still has to engage existing structures. Overturning, or changing, the status quo depends on more than putting out sharply worded tweets or coordinating protests. Structures are deeply embedded in society and many people support the status quo. This can be a relief - if we think of challenges intend on weakening democracy or attacking the rights of others - or this can be depressing - if we think of challenges trying to deepen democracy and increase true representation.

In our expectations for the impact of digitally enabled challenges, we always have to consider the contextual conditions these challenges are facing. Sometimes, the opportunities provided by digital media will shift the balance toward challengers. Sometimes they won't. But in any case, digital media will increase the repertoire of available actions to challengers of the status quo.

4.4.2. How to judge the legitimacy of challenges?

Over the course of this chapter, we have encounter a wide variety of digitally enabled challenges. We have encountered challenges intent on shifting the political agenda in order to address the interests and needs of future generations, such as Fridays for Future. We also have encountered challenges intend on foregrounding the ways societies fail many of their citizens by disregarding their rights and bodily safety, such as Black Lives Matters or Me Too. But we have also encountered challenges intend on limiting the rights of political participation for many groups in society, such as far right extremism or far right populism.

Looking at the diversity of goals digitally media is used to achieve, it is clearly not possible to state that digital media is either exclusively enabling those aiming to strengthen democracy or those bend on weakening it. In the early days, writers like Castells seemed to assume that any challenge of the status quo was a good one and that digital media therefore decisively would weaken hegemonic and patriarchal structures and empower citizens. In light of todays challenges by populist far right actors, this seems premature and maybe even wishful thinking. Instead of cheering on any challenge to the status quo, we need to look closely and be explicit in our normative evaluation in why we assess it either as a positive or negative challenge. For this, let us quickly recap what democracy is all about and based on that develop categories that help us in assessing digitally enabled challenges with regard to their impact on democracy.

In the chapter about artificial intelligence, we already have talked about constitutive features of democracy and how they can be touched by technological change. These features also allow us to assess the impact of challenges to the status quo and come to normative assessments of their justification.

As we already have encountered, the discussion of and literature on democracy is vast and multifaceted. Discussions range from the philosophical foundations, normative ideals, historical expressions, empirical variations, to legal and procedural questions. But three important characteristics of democracy consistently feature in theses discussions:

  • Free and fair elections as a process to establish the basis for collectively binding decision making;

  • Belief in the ability of people to make decisions for themselves about societal and political questions;

  • Equality of people with regard to representation and rights.

Each of these characteristics allows us to assess challenges to the status quo. First, how does the challenge impact the representation and rights of groups. Is the goal the extension of political representation and rights of marginalized groups, or is the goal restricting representation and rights to groups somehow conceived as the true electorate. While any hard and fast rule is bound to fail, right of the bat, challenges aiming to extend representation and citizen rights have a better case for strengthening democracy than those aiming to restrict representation and citizen rights.

Second, are we dealing with challenges that accept the results of free and fair elections or do they, for whatever reason, reject the binding power of elections. The rejection of free and fair elections as a binding process of collective decision making is a crucial warning sign for anti-democratic tendencies in challenges of the status quo. This being said, if challenges can bring forward specific and credible evidence for how elections in practice are neither free nor fair but do not, in principle, reject election results, this can be seen as supporting and strengthening democracy.

Finally, do challenges attack the ability of people to make decisions for themselves or do they aim to empower them broadly. We currently experience a series of challenges of democratic decision making in favor of expert rule. Often these challenges are based on the implicit or explicit claim that people would be unable to decide on important issues. Either they are not rational enough, lack foresight, or only act in their own narrow self interest. These challenges often suggest some sort of expert rule or to remove selected important topics from democratic decision making. In this, these challenges are inherently weakening democracy, even if they might be well-intentioned on moving society along on selected progressive paths.

Of course, challenges encountered in the wild might not fit these questions neatly. There might be dominant and radical factions deviating in the extend of their challenge. Or challenges might vary in their impact on democracy across these questions. Some might fight for the extension of citizen rights but feel that this is not an issue the public should decide democratically and elections not recognizing an extension of the electorate are accordingly not binding. Or there might be challenges aiming to restrict the rights of selected groups in society but otherwise adhere to the bindingness of elections. As with any framework, these questions have to be assessed carefully and diligently in each examined case and results have to be weighted carefully.

But if in this process one question would have to suffice, then my money would be on the question whether a challenge aims to extend representation and rights or whether it aims to restrict them. After all, democracy is about the self-rule of empowered citizens, without equal rights and representation across groups within a society, this remains an elusive goal. Challenges moving societies along a path toward greater equality of rights and representation therefor have a crucial function in strengthening and improving democracy.