How Software Shapes Democracy (hidden)

Published: August 2018    |    By: Ben Rowswell and Caroline Allante    |    Vol. 66 No. 2


As more and more political debate takes place online, the software that hosts our conversations have come under fire for exacerbating polarization, spreading fake news and harassment. The quality of democracy has unquestionably been undermined, but to understand how we must examine each platform separately.

This article explores how three prominent platforms shape the public conversation by examining how their affordances – the actions they make possible – each generate a different social dynamic. The dynamic on Facebook, for example, is not unlike a school cafeteria, where likeminded people group together in suspicious isolation of other groups. Twitter, on the other hand, resembles a crowded public square where the size of the throng can often result in antisocial behavior. Wikipedia is akin to the world’s largest library, both in the scale of the information and in the rules that govern behaviour inside.

The insights generated help equip us to improve the quality of democracy as the internet expands political participation. Governments, citizens and technologists all have a role to play in adapting what Alexis de Tocqueville called the “art of associating together” to the digital age.

About the Authors

Ben Rowswell, a pioneer in the practise of digital diplomacy, served until recently as Canada’s Ambassador to Venezuela (2014-17). Currently on leave from Global Affairs Canada, he is exploring the future of citizen diplomacy through Perennial Software, a tech startup venture he recently established with Farhaan Ladhani to build phone apps for citizen engagement and change. He is a Distinguished Fellow at the Canadian International Council. He also founded Cloud to Street, to connect democracy activists with Silicon Valley technologists. At Global Affairs Canada he was director of innovation and director of Iran/Iraq/Arabian Peninsula from 2012-13. A veteran of ‘hotspot diplomacy’, he was part of the United Nations operation in Somalia in 1993, and also served in Egypt (1996-8), as chargé d’affaires in Iraq (2003-5), in Afghanistan (2008-10) as deputy head of mission in Kabul, and as Canadian representative in Kandahar. He is a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service (1989-93), holds a MPhil International Relations from Oxford (1998-2000), and spent a sabbatical at Stanford University from 2010-11 as a visiting scholar in liberation technology at the Center for Democracy Development and the Rule of Law.

Caroline Allante is currently a University of Toronto GPLLM graduate student and Junior Fellow with the Canadian International Council. Her background includes an Advanced Masters in Public International Law, specializing in transitional justice, from Leiden University. She is a graduate of King’s College London and the Sorbonne (Paris 1) with an LLB in English and French Law. Past experience includes working as a Global Research Assistant for the Faculty of Information at University of Toronto, and internships with both the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the International Criminal Court.