The influence and advancement of tech on democratic elections, participation, and transparency  

2024 has been hailed as “the year of elections” with half of the world taking part in local and national elections. The second installment of the Digital Dialogues series in 2024, hosted by CTIN and the International Civic Society Centre (ICSC) took place on 7 March 2024 and explored the role of tech and its influence on democratic elections, participation, and transparency.  

Written by: Rofhatutshedzwa Ramaswiela and Yasmin Shapurjee  

The discussion highlighted the role of several types of technology, specifically citizen platforms and transparency tools in the context of supporting elections. As tech continuously advances, there is a need for more citizen engagement to understand these digital tools, how to engage with them, and to understand the various risks of technology and how to mitigate them. This article will summarize the debate alongside reflections between the attendees and the panelists. 

Yvonne Eweka a GoVote Project Coordinator at Co-creation-Hub Co-Creation Hub opened the conversation by sharing that she works across thematic areas, such as elections, governance, cybersecurity, and civic tech, and how GoVote is a tool used to empower citizens to participate and engage in the election process at local levels. Yvonne mentioned how tech’s influence in democratic processes in Africa is significant because tech not only raises awareness but also assists with the voter registration process and allows for access to information that can assist voters in making better-informed decisions. Therefore, civic tech enables young people to actively participate in the democratic processes, even with its current challenges.  

Robyn Pansensie is a My Vote Count Political Party Funding Researcher, who leads research on political funding as well as creating awareness of the need for public education and party funding frameworks. Through her engagement with various stakeholders, she found that it is significant to understand the interplay between tech and elections. Not just that, but how access to information contributes to the transparency of elections. Robyn mentioned, ”In SA, it will be 30 years since our first democratic elections in 1994, a watershed moment”. Therefore, it is critical that voters have access to accurate information to make informed and sound decisions. Civic tech tools such as ‘Who’s Vote Counts’ play a crucial role in establishing political party funders so that people can follow where the money comes from. However, the question remains ‘What are the parallel processes that can be implemented to support civic tech adoption and scalability?’’ 

Cassie Cladis, is the project coordinator of Tactical Tech Data and Politics project. One of their projects is the Influence Industry which focuses on where big data companies collect and use personal data for political communications which leads up to political campaigns that aim to garner support in elections. With 17 identified companies, the Influence industry has identified gaps that exist in public knowledge but also uncovered the widespread tools used and large datasets that can be used to leverage political power. Cassie mentioned that “tech is just a tool and one that requires examination.” and “We hope that by sharing our findings and resources as well as highlighting other organisations and other investigators around the world who are doing work on these other topics, we can help contribute to the discussion around policymakers, journalists, and voters as well”. Digital technology is needed such as open-source registration databases, and electoral financial spending of databases.  

During the discussion among panelists, some key arguments were made such as :

  • Understanding the role of TikTok influencers and influencer networks on political spending – how would this play out during elections? Would the concern be spending on these spaces that are unknown and accounted for or would the concern be targeted mis/dis information campaigns? 
  • The importance of tracking the spending and the various influencers and discerning political messaging coming from such social media accounts.  
  • Awareness of microtargeting during elections and how to prevent or minimize harm 
  • Educating and empowering citizens through advocacy and grassroots mobilisation is crucial.  

In closing, educating and empowering citizens through advocacy is essential. Hence, Robyn calls for regular in-person community engagement, with more traditional ways of interaction through workshops, and focus groups as these are critical to bringing more voices into the room. Robyn further explains that ”there are multiple ways where digital influence can show up” and different methods of influence can be integrated on various platforms because as tech advances, there is a need for more citizen engagement to understand these digital tools, how to engage them, and what to do and not to do. Cassie added the significant role of tech in increasing transparency and access to information, although cautioning that discerning accurate information will be crucial in the context of widespread misinformation and disinformation. Cassie asserted ”for many reasons, including lack of information, lack of accountability, and even consistent global media, and digital literacy communication, we as a global community are often left without necessary information to approach this topic and to really debate about how we want digital technology to be applied to communications during our elections”. 

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