In the age of digital democracy

Tahira Islam | Monday, 3 October 2016

The photograph of Felani Khatun hanging from the barbed-wire fence on the Indian border generated public outrage around the world in 2011.  Facing huge public outrage when the photograph went viral on social media and the Internet, the Border Security Force (BSF) of India arranged, for the first time in its history, the trial of Constable Amiya Ghosh on the charges of killing Felani. Though Amiya Ghosh was freed in the trial and also in the subsequent appeal against the verdict, the popular outrage that Felani case generated was a turning point in the long campaign against BSF killing on Bangladesh-India border.
The ability to relate our thoughts and experiences is an intrinsic part of being human, and therefore restrictions on this ability are viewed as inhibiting both individual autonomy and the ability to attain self-fulfilment. The Internet allows for greater freedom of expression, facilitating citizens' ability to challenge and criticise - a basic democratic right. Therefore, the Internet can be thought as a democratic medium as it opens plenty of platforms to engage people in open debates and public governance. With emerging digital technologies, the Internet and mobile telephony are reaching gradually their inflection points in terms of usage. The increased involvement of people in political debate is evident on an even greater scale on social networking sites through the Internet such as Twitter and Facebook. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression (Special Rapporteur) observes:
"Unlike any other medium the Internet facilitated the ability of individuals to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds instantaneously and inexpensively across national borders. By vastly expanding the capacity of individuals to enjoy their right to freedom of opinion and expression, which is an 'enabler' of other human rights, the Internet boosts economic, social and political development, and contributes to the progress of humankind as a whole."
The virtual world has already become a part of people's day to day lives. The effect Internet exerts on people's daily life is transforming societies as a whole. People of all ages are spending increasingly more time on computer-based online community environment such as Facebook, twitter, etc. Such social networking sites help people meet others "face to face" from thousands of miles apart. Such sites help people express themselves. People share their views, communicate their ideas over the Internet. Widespread technological advancement has led to easier accessibility and a wider audience that has made digital democracy unavoidable. 
Digital media have made strong appeal to the people wanting to improve democratic practices. In many places around the world, increased number of participation has transformed traditional ideas on political dialogue and accountability. This digital age is empowering citizens. People, becoming more knowledgeable, can make informed decisions on matters ranging from their family's healthcare to travel.  Digital technologies can make government more effective, open and transparent, and can make the economy as a whole more flexible and efficient. By putting public data online the government is becoming increasingly transparent and more accountable which again works in the people's favour.
A major problem in our democratic system is the voting method. This breeds corruption before vote is cast, or corruption when the vote is counted. The voting methods as we know them are simply not designed for a digital age with exiting polls, media attention, polls, hypes, etc. Digital technologies are posing a challenge and also offering an alternative to the exiting voting system. If people's opinion can be communicated through digital technologies and the Internet then it will decrease the chance of corruption in voting and also will increase transparency in polls. 
Conversely, there are some disadvantages of digital technologies in the democratic process. They can endanger privacy, disrupt markets, and open the door to cyberterrorism and cyberespionage. Certain factors such as identity theft, IT illiteracy can also discourage participation of people in electronic democratic processes.
The era of digital communications may be the prescription for what ails our current political system. Digital technology is the best way to communicate ideas, and democracy is the best means of realising those ideas. Citizens would be better informed, less likely to be silenced, and able to communicate their views more effectively to their country's leaders. Digital communication may change the political landscape in a profound way. A democratic country must ensure its citizens' freedom of expression as basic democratic right and promote the practice that leads to democratic solutions to the current existing problems. Digital democracy can help in creating solutions to such problems.
Tahira Islam is an undergraduate student of computer science and engineering (CSE) at the University of Dhaka.
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