In the wake of the digital surge caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, citizens are spending a record proportion of their day on their digital devices, whilst the level of public dissatisfaction with democracy is at its highest since the mid-1990s. It seems that in this twenty-first century, the demos have never been more online, and democracy has never felt more at risk.
Democracy@Risk is a research project led by Professor Emma Barrett and Professor Rachel Gibson at the University of Manchester. Drawing on existing research and scholarship, the report sheds further light on digital political micro-targeting and online misinformation as two potential sources of harm for democracy in the digital age, and assesses the challenges relating to digital information literacy as one of the most frequently proposed solutions to the problems generated by these phenomena.
- Digital political micro-targeting
This is online advertising that uses personal data about individuals to determine whether, what, and how political adverts are shown to them on digital platforms (such as social media).
The report asks three major questions around digital political micro-targeting:
- Can it be used to ‘steal’ elections through subliminal persuasion?
- Does it receive adequate oversight?
- Does it entrench problematic patterns in political behaviour?
- Online misinformation
This covers misinformation, disinformation and malinformation.
The report asks three major questions around online misinformation:
- Where does misinformation originate and how does it spread?
- What are the effects of misinformation on political behaviour?
- What are the harms for democracy?
- Digital information literacy (DIL)
This is posited as a possible solution to the problems generated by digital political micro-targeting and online misinformation. It entails:
- Functional digital skills
- Technical understanding of the digital landscape
- Critical and interpretive skills
- Practical application of the above skills and willingness to engage in behavioural change
- Communal sense-making
The report gives some key recommendations for improving digital information literacy:
- Recognise the strategic importance of DIL
- Make DIL a core, cross-subject component in schools
- Ensure holistic support for DIL education