Mike German writes: Democracy, digital technologies and trust

A new report from the House of Lords has shone a searchlight on the effect of online activity on the health of our democracy. Over the past year Paul Scriven and myself have been members of a Select Committee taking evidence, investigating the level of harm, and developing proposals for tackling this critical issue. As Liberals we see technology can be a tool to help spread power, and improve democracy. But that can only happen with the correct framework around it.

Trust in our democracy is being eroded. Our key conclusions are that democracy should be supported rather than undermined by technology platforms, and that misinformation poses a real and present danger to our democratic processes.

There have clear examples of dangerous misinformation online during this Covid-19 pandemic. The online references to the 5G network and its connection with the virus, led some people to damage the telecommunications infrastructure. Other spurious medical advice has abounded. In the last General Election the Tories changed their website for the day. They claimed it to be an authoritative source of independent information in which -guess what – the Tory policy was the only right course!

The net effect of online misinformation is to threaten our collective democratic health. It is damaging trust in our democracy and takes us on a downward path where no-one listens, and no-one believes what they read and see. The government has promised an Online Harms Bill, but progress is moving at a snail’s pace. Ministers have been unable to even say whether we will get the new law before 2024. It is clear to us that the Tories are running scared of tackling the big online platforms. Our report calls for OFCOM to be given the power to hold these platforms legally responsible for content which goes out to their huge audiences in the UK.

Trust in what you find online has declined. People, particularly those coming up to voting age (16 in Scotland and Wales – catch up England!) need the skills and confidence to navigate online and find sources they can rely on. Too much of our education curriculum is about computing skills and not critical digital literacy.

There are lessons for all political parties as well, but the report singles out the Tories and Labour for their inability to see problems within themselves. Political parties must be held accountable for what we say, if we are to gain and expect the trust of the British people.

Electoral law has simply not caught up with the impact of online activity.

Why has it taken so long for the smallest of law changes to ensure that imprints are on digital ads as well as on our paper literature? The government has left policing of online misinformation to the digital platforms – Facebook, Google, Twitter and the like. And these companies have taken decisions which best suit commercial rather than democratic principles.

Our democratic institutions must be able to wrestle power back from unaccountable corporations and begin the process of restoring trust. Technology is not a force of nature and can be harnessed for the public good.

This Report follows hot on the heels of many reviews and investigation. What is needed now is action not further review. The report in its 60 or so recommendations lays out the way forward.

The full report on Democracy and Digital Technologies can be viewed online here.

* Mike German is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords. He was Party Treasurer from 2015-2021.

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  • Innocent Bystander 29th Jun '20 - 10:34am

    If peers had any respect for the notion of democracy they would abolish themselves.

  • While not a user of these online sites such as Facebook and others, I certainly agree that a code of conduct by the people in charge of these businesses is vitally important. On the issue of the Lords, for all its faults they are, in my opinion, the only hope of maintaining some sort of democracy in country whose government is seemingly being controlled by unelected advisers, more power to the Lords elbows.

  • William Wallace 29th Jun '20 - 11:27am

    This is a really important report – tackling the impact of digital campaigning on democratic politics, and the need for legal changes to ensure that this does not bias politics in favour of the wealthy and powerful and the malicious. The Conservatives will not want to accept many of its recommendations: we must push to persuade Parliament to do so.

  • William Wallace 29th Jun '20 - 11:32am

    ‘Innocent’ Bystander: It’s easy to attack the Lords as currently composed, and No. 10 has been actively briefing the press with critical stories in recent months. But with the Commons back under the control of government whips, the Lords is now the main source of critical scrutiny of government policy – which is why No.10 is trying to discredit it. Of course, it should be reformed, and elected; but both Labour and Tories resisted LibDem efforts to do so under the Coalition government, since it would make for stronger parliamentary checks on a single-party government.

  • Innocent Bystander 29th Jun '20 - 12:30pm

    And easier still to ostentatiously call for “reform” whilst hiding behind the skirts of the Labour and Conservative parties, continuing, of course, to enjoy the sweet fruits, both personal and political, that the institution delivers.
    If the party were to withdraw its contingent and decline any further involvement it would refute the widely held belief that the party preaches but does not practice.

  • William Wallace 29th Jun '20 - 3:40pm

    Innocent, perhaps even ‘sweet’, bystander: I was the coalition minister who tried to carry the next stage of reform through the Lords – though it was sabotaged by Conservatives (and Labour) in the Commons. Mike German’s Committee provides an example of the useful work the Lords undertakes, even in its current half-reformed shape. The structure of British governance is in a dreadful mess, and Johnson and Cummings are making it worse. We need to reform the Lords, but also a great deal more than that. And neither Tories or Labour are interested in doing so.

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