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Report: Digital Threats To Democracy

The Digital Threats To Democracy report was prepared by research team Marianne Elliott , Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw, Dr Kathleen Kuehn, Dr Leon Salter, and Ella Brownlie for The Workshop, with funding from the Law Foundation.

The report is part of the Digital Threats to Democracy research project.
To see the rest of the reports and the overall findings go to

Report: 1.DigitalDemocracyoverallfindingsreportWEB.pdf
Executive Summary: 2.DigitalDemocracyexecsummaryWEB.pdf


[From the executive summary:]


As we completed this report it was announced New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, would meet the French President, Emmanuel Macron in Paris to “bring together countries and tech companies in an attempt to stop social media being used to promote terrorism.” The meeting will invite world leaders and tech company CEOs to sign a pledge called the ‘Christchurch Call’.

The question is no longer whether something needs to change. The question has become: what precisely needs to change? And even more importantly: what can be done? What evidence do we have as to the interventions and solutions that might mitigate against the biggest threats posed to our democracy by digital media, without losing the best of the opportunities that the internet offers. Those are the questions we set about answering with this research.

One of the challenges of rapidly developing a policy response on digital media in response to a situation like the Christchurch attacks is that this entire area of policy has been relatively neglected until recently. As one participant in this research said, we need a better system for making policy on these issues before we can be any kind of global leader. In order to build our capacity as a country to understand and deal with these issues, we need a better evidence base.

What our research shows is that it is critical that the Prime Minister and her advisors look beyond immediate concerns about violent extremism and content moderation, to consider the wider context in which digital media is having a growing, and increasingly negative, impact on our democracy.


Over recent years a growing body of international research has looked at the impact of digital media on democracy, with particular focus on the US and the UK, where the role played by digital media in the election of Trump and the Brexit referendum raised significant concerns.

Our project was designed to find out if we should be worried about these same issues here in New Zealand, and if so, what should we do about it? In order to answer that question we identified five key features of democracy against which we could measure the impact of digital media, for better and for worse. They are:

>> Electoral process and pluralism

>> Active, informed citizens

>> Shared democratic culture

>> Civil liberties and competitive economy

>> Trust in authority


Critically, we found that digital media is having an impact across every one of those features of a healthy democracy.

There are indicators that digital media has had some beneficial impacts. Our quantitative research here in New Zealand indicates, for example, that people from minority groups have been able to use digital media to participate in democratic processes including accessing political players, and engaging in public debate. Whatever our response to the challenges posed to democracy by digital media, it’s important we don’t lose these opportunities in the process.

But the overall trend should raise serious concerns. Active citizenship is being undermined in a variety of ways. Online abuse, harassment and hate - particularly of women, people of colour, queer people, people with disabilities and people from minority religions - undermines democratic participation not only online, but offline. Misinformation, disinformation and mal-information are undermining not only informed debate, but also public trust in all forms of information. Distraction and information overload are eroding citizens’ capacity to focus on important and complex issues, and their capacity to make the ‘important moral judgements’ required in a healthy democracy.

Likewise, interviewees described a myriad of ways in which our shared democratic culture is being undermined by digital media - including through disinformation, polarisation, attention hijacking and radicalisation.

One of the clearest impacts of digital media on our democracy has been its impact on funding for mainstream media. While Facebook and Google hoover up the advertising revenue that once would have been spent on print, radio and television advertising, they contribute nothing to the work of producing the kind of news and current affairs reporting that is essential to a functioning democracy.

The representative survey we carried out indicates that New Zealand’s small size and relatively healthy mainstream media (relative to elsewhere and despite significant resource challenges) may help us avoid the worst effects of ‘filter bubbles’ and ‘echo chambers’ in digital media on some issues.

Interviewees in our qualitative research nonetheless pointed to examples where debate in New Zealand about issues like free speech, hate speech and gender identity attracted the attention of foreign actors holding strong, even extreme, views on these issues.

Engagement by these foreign actors in the online public debates on these issues here in New Zealand appears to have contributed to a polarisation of views here.


At the heart of the challenges to democracy posed by digital media are three core problems:

1. Platform monopolies: two or three corporations control not only our means of communication, but also the content which is distributed, both of which are core aspects of our democracy. Whilst the market power and global mobility of these companies make it possible for them to avoid national regulatory measures, either by moving operations elsewhere or simply ignoring them;

2. Algorithmic opacity: algorithmic engines are using huge quantities of personal data to make ever more precise predictions about what we want to see and hear, and having ever increasing influence over what we think and do, with little transparency about how they work or accountability for their impact; and

3. Attention economy: the dominant business model of digital media prioritises the amplification of whatever content is best at grabbing our attention, while avoiding responsibility for the impact that content has on our collective wellbeing and our democracy. The negative impact is brutally clear from both the literature and the world around us.


The key message is clear; digital media is having massive, system-wide impacts on our democracy. It affects every part of our lives and the people who run the corporations controlling the major platforms are having a determinative impact on the very structures and functions of our society. While better content moderation is clearly one of the responses we must demand of the platforms, it is not even close to being a sufficient response to the scale of the challenge.

It’s critical that this moment of global cooperation is used to address the wider, structural drivers of the biggest threats posed to democracy by digital media. These structural drivers include the power that a handful of privately-owned platforms wield over so many aspects of our lives, from what information we see, who we interact with, and who can access information about us. And we must do this while maintaining and building upon the many opportunities digital media simultaneously offer, to tackle some of the biggest challenges facing democracy, including inequity of access and declining engagement.




Use democratic processes, which provide some degree of transparency about the decisions being made, accountability as to their impacts, and opportunities for challenge and judicial review. These processes must include meaningful participation by diverse representatives of the people whose lives are impacted by digital media. In particular, Internet users and civil society must have meaningful involvement, as the crucial third party in the multi-stakeholder process.

Draw on the evidence as to what is most likely to work, where it exists. Perhaps the most predictable finding of this research is that there has been little or no investment by people in government or other research funders into experimenting with and recording possible solutions, and there needs to be more.

Evidence-led and principled approach. Where there are gaps in the evidence, there are key principles that can be followed to reduce the risk of implementing solutions that do more harm than good. These include an evidence-led focus on ‘upstream’ structural change and the application of human rights principles.

Focus on structural or ‘upstream’ change. Tackle the structural drivers that underlie all the downstream problems - such as online abuse, disinformation, radicalisation and polarisation. Solutions should be designed to intervene at the structural level and to rebalance power through, for example: governance structures, regulation to restore transparency, accountability and fair competition and genuinely participatory and representative multi-stakeholder processes. None of this is to say that design solutions and platform affordances are not important. As the research shows, they will be essential.

But without some rebalancing of power, without increasing the diversity of people involved in decision-making at the highest levels, those design solutions run the risk of replicating very similar problems to those we now face.

Respect and protect human rights. The following human rights principles should also be applied to policy development in this area:

>> Universality: Human rights must be afforded to everyone, without exception.

>> Indivisibility: Human rights are indivisible and interdependent.

>> Participation: People have a right to participate in how decisions are made regarding protection of their rights.

>> Accountability: Governments must create mechanisms of accountability for the enforcement of rights.

>> Transparency: Transparency means governments must be open about all information and decision-making processes related to rights.

>> Non-Discrimination: Human rights must be guaranteed without discrimination of any kind.

Agile approach. In the absence of a strong evidence base, it makes sense to take an agile, iterative approach to policy change. Experiment with all the policies all the time. Ensure that the funding, design, and implementation of policies reflect a record, learn, and adapt approach to measure the impact of any new initiatives or regulations, and to make adjustments as evidence becomes available as to impact.


Some of the areas in which action is needed sooner rather than later include effort to:

Restore a genuinely multi-stakeholder approach to internet governance, including rebalancing power through meaningful mechanisms for collective engagement by citizens/users;

Refresh antitrust & competition regulation, taxation regimes and related enforcement mechanisms to align them across like-minded liberal democracies and restore competitive fairness, with a particular focus on public interest media;

Recommit to publicly funded democratic infrastructure including public interest media and the creation, selection and use of online platforms that afford citizen participation and deliberation;

Regulate for greater transparency and accountability from the platforms including algorithmic transparency and great accountability for verifying the sources of political advertising;

Revisit regulation of privacy and data protection to better protect indigenous rights to data sovereignty and redress the failures of a consent-based approach to data management; and

Recalibrate policies and protections to address not only individual rights and privacy but also to collective impact wellbeing. Policies designed to protect people online need to have indigenous thinking at their centre and should also ensure that all public agencies responsible for protecting democracy and human rights online reflect, in their leadership and approaches, the increasing diversity of our country.

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