back to article Is technology undermining democracy? It's complicated, says heavyweight thinktank

From Brexit to Trump: technology, particularly social media, is in the firing line when it comes to the perceived departure from political norms. But there is much more to it than that, according to new research from think tank Chatham House. Ten years ago, the media bubble was flush with the notion that the burgeoning …

  1. JohnSheeran

    Are they suggesting that I shouldn't believe everything I read on the internets and, as it turns out, others may also not believe everything they read on the internets?

    1. Filippo Silver badge

      I don't believe so.

      1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        I'm not sure I believe that you don't believe that.

  2. Qarumba


    So Chatham House think that social media is anti-democratic because they didn't get the result they wanted? Now they want to return control to the mainstream media and pick 100 people overseen by a select few as a way of bringing back democracy!? I'm not a fan of social media myself but I'm definitely not a fan of limiting democracy to a select few media outlets and some specially selected groups.

    1. lglethal Silver badge

      Re: Eh?

      I think you need to go back and read the article again.

      Chatham House are stating the exact opposite of what you just wrote. Chatham House are saying that the belief that social media is anti democratic and only operates in an echo chamber is false.

      They do not advocate one way or another for the return of control to the mainstream media (whatever you happen to mean by that). And as for the example of 100 people deliberating on issues face to face (they call this citzen assemblies), this was only an example of what they call "deliberative democracy." i.e. getting people together to talk to each other face to face about the issues that affect them. It's hardly advocating for select groups to suddenly start controlling our lives.

      Try reading the actual article, rather than skimming it and finding something to show faux rage about...

    2. Dr Scrum Master
      Black Helicopters

      Re: Eh?

      I'm still wondering why a referendum and an election are a threat to democracy... unless it's because those in power will curtail democracy because the people voted the "wrong" way?

      Oh wait, freedom of speech is already curtailed and is under threat in various democracies...

      1. JohnSheeran

        Re: Eh?

        Freedom of speech is alive and well in the good ole US of A. It's a double-edged sword and many are not fans of the persecution their unpopular/popular ideas may bring about but I've not witnessed anyone being arrested by any government official for saying what's on their mind. I've never heard of anyone disappearing for doing it either. We often confuse government control over these things with other organizations or people when it comes to apparent restrictions. Free speech doesn't come without consequences but it doesn't mean they are government-backed consequences.

        For example; this post. We'll see how many down votes I get because you disagree with my words. Fortunately I won't be restricted from saying any of this by my government.

        1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

          Re: Eh?

          Free speech is about MUCH more than government. Government is simply the object of the constitution. I certainly feel much less freedom to express my views in public than I did twenty-five years ago.

          1. JohnSheeran

            Re: Eh?

            You're not wrong about that at all. Things like political correctness and social media make for poor bed fellows when it comes to freedom of speech in my opinion.

      2. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

        Re: Eh?

        By themselves, referenda and elections are fine. Combinations of other factors are a problem such as the absence of teaching critical thinking in schools and targeted advertising. The £350M/week→NHS Brexit bus got shown to people without the skills to spot it was an obvious lie. 'Better a Russian than a Democrat' goes to the utterly delusional. The 'taking back control' goes to people who think they will get any of this control. A few percent makes a huge difference on a yes/no question with a similar number of people on each side.

        1. Fading

          Re: Eh?

          Obvious lie isn't obvious.....

      3. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: Eh?

        I'm still wondering why a referendum and an election are a threat to democracy

        Oh well, I'm still wondering why some apparently intelligent people think this is the what's at issue.

    3. werdsmith Silver badge

      Re: Eh?

      There has always been misinformation , false news and ignorance in democracy. Once upon a time you might have only heard it from pub bores and the gutter press.

      Now, people have access to the web and can display their own opinions there. It is very alarming to see just how many people believe absolute BS and propagate it further. But it's not new.

      I once looked at a BBC Have Your Say comments page. Never again, just a nutter magnet.

      1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

        Re: Eh?

        Unless by "gutter press", you mean "all press", then you're missing a huge point. President Thomas Jefferson recommended not reading the papers because "It is better to be uninformed than to be malinformed". If you prefer something more recent, how about Rathergate?

        1. werdsmith Silver badge

          Re: Eh?

          Yes, all press published as a news outlet, in print or online. Some seem to hold up the Guardian as some kind of upholder of truth, when it fact it is down there with the worst of the lot playing to the confirmation bias in its readership. Virtually all press is gutter press.

          1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

            Re: Eh?

            The mainstream media do need to sort their shit out - before they can start complaining about social media. The Guardian has given up any relationship to truth now. It's really sad. Anything they don't agree with is automatically "Tory lies". Anything anti-Tory they can find is automatically re-gurgitated as facts from experts.

            I mean, for fuck's sake! Gove didn't even say "we've had enough of experts." He said, "we've had enough of so-called experts who keep getting it wrong." And was referring to all the people like the CBI and such that said not joining the Euro would be a total disaster - and suggested that their forecasts on Brexit might be equally poor.

            Of course, the great thing about economics is that nobody can know anything. We regularly re-state our quarterly GDP figures by 1 percentage point, which means on average they're probably out by about 20%. And that's forecasting the past!

            So we've recently had a bunch of economists telling us that Brexit has cost the UK economy something like 2-3% of GDP. And yet the UK economy has outgrown most of the Eurozone since the Brexit vote - so to do this they've been forced to include higher growth figures from Canada and the US - who were growing faster than us before the Brexit vote too.

            Covering those uncritically, because you agree with their political direction, does not lead to accuracy and trustworthiness. There must have been a Brexit cost - because if nothing else it lead to a fall in investment and caused uncertainty. Plus a fall in the exchange rate, which has more mixed results.

            Sadly the qualtiy of current political debate is pisspoor. But there are loads of people to blame. There are way too many reports commissioned to generate headlines, with numbers deliberately picked to suit whatever political argument is desired. The unions, think tanks, charities, indsutry groups and political parties are all guilty of doing this. This is where we need more programs like Radio 4's 'More or Less'. To cut through the bullshit.

            Politics needs to get a bit more boring. But the media can't pull politicians up for bullshitting - when they're as busy doing it as the politicians are.

      2. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge
        Thumb Up

        Re: Eh?


        Now that is a top phrase.

        Deal El Reg,

        Please can you officially change the name of these forums to 'the Register Nutter Magnet'. We users can then decide on whether we want to re-label ourselves from commentard to nutter...

    4. Chris G

      Re: Eh?

      It seems one of the problems with social media and online magazines, is that people are reading them while they are having a short break or supposed to be working.

      Consequently they are skimming what they read and inferring the content they have skipped.

      People are the most dangerous thing on the internet not the content.

      1. werdsmith Silver badge

        Re: Eh?

        Content deliberately designed to manipulate those people.

  3. codejunky Silver badge


    I like to think people are more aware even though they will still lean towards their biases (as we always do with any information). With information pushed further and faster it wasnt hard to see why trump won. It became extremely difficult to hide the dislike of the EU. When Merkel claims there isnt any no go zones the truth was out (until she finally couldnt pretend anymore). This isnt much different from the Arab spring or even Edward Snowden.

    Taking the 'wrong' answer as proof of a failure of democracy is the mindset of tyranny. Yes lies can be pushed out quickly too because of technology but so can fact. And while some people are incapable of considering a fact if it conflicts with their view it gives those who are open to thinking a platform to discuss and share information leading to more informed people even if they still disagree on the result.

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Hmm

      One problem is the driver has one hand on the wheel, and the other on the CD player. Plus they're smoking a cigarette and drinking a massive coffee. And talking on their mobile phone, and to their children on the back seat.

      And in this case, the driver is the electorate.

      I'm a political anorak/nerd. But most peole aren't. And I know a lot of people who maybe watch the TV news once a week. Fortunately this means they miss quite a lot of the lies - and they're more taking a gernal impression of their politicians. But does mean if a lie sticks, it's bloody hard to shift.

      On the other hand it also makes analysis hard. I can give you a thought out reason for most of my political views. It might be wrong, but it'll have some internal logic, and I'll be able to either come up with some facts or know how to Google them - to back it all up. But that's because I enjoy political debate. However that doesn't mean I came to all my political views by long conscious deliberate thought, it just means I can argue them as if I had. Sometimes, when I've come to do that, I've seen the flaws in my own opinions and gone off to think about them. I'm afraid that to my shame, I've never admitted that at the time...

      But most voters don't talk about politics a lot - and so don't have the language at hand to say what they believe or why they believe it. So just borrow a slogan that fits. I don't think that's because they're stupid, I think it's because they're not part of the debate club. But it can easily make it look like people are falling for whatever the latest slogan is. If you probe a bit deeper with people, in a non argumentative way, about what they believe politically - they tend to sound a bit more sensible.

      Although it was Churchill who said if you want to lose faith in democracy, just spend five minutes with the average voter.

      I do think social media is a bad influence. But papers like the Guardian have fallen a long way from the levels of honesty and quality they were at even 15 years ago. And the whole political class have become lazy and self-indulgent - rather than trying to argue properly. Although the media haven't helped that, by promoting interveiwers like Paxman who won't let them even finish a sentence.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Hmm

        The problem is the level of discorse on social media.

        Who is going to shift their opinion to the opposite point of view when the discussion consists only of those making shouty comments.

        YOU ARE WRONG YOU (insert derogatory term) is not advancing the debate.

        Such content fills up and drowns out those things, particularly when after those wanting to advance it by sensible criticism are then hounded across the internet by an army of lunatics.

        All you need to do to silence an opponent is to create an environment so hostile that sensible opposition views are crushed out of existence.

        That is what happens that would not happen if you were to hold a physical debate in a sports hall etc.

        I've seen the drowning/flooding thing happen on all sides in pretty much all topics. It is seemingly a common tactic to coordinate a savage mass invasion of debates to destroy an opposing viewpoint.

  4. StuntMisanthrope

    Family Fortunes.

    I wouldn’t believe a word of it, and there’s a lot of information still unavailable online or in sphere. #opendemocracy

  5. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Tales of Future Mentors with AI Monitors ... Human Slaves to Creative Machines/Media Monsters.

    "The way that social media undermines the ability of mainstream media organizations to control the flow of ideas and information – which in the early 2010s was identified as a positive change – is now widely seen as a problem."

    It is only problematical when one has failed to channel social media abilities and facilities and utilities to command and control the flow of ideas and information .... therefore, quite righty and logically, harness the virgin enthusiasm and present what is needed and wanted for Otherworldly Bodied Existences to Experience and Experiment with ...? ie listen to their unpolluted views and major concerns.

    Crikey, a Jolly Roger Red Flag Event there for Markets and Special Forces to Ponder for Muster.

    Who Dares Win Wins Teams Compete There Exercising Remarkable Stealth in Progress for some things deserved require special handling with particular attention being paid to Sources of Prime Premium Product for Mainstream Media Presentation ....... thus to Create a Viable Practical Virtual Reality ..... Commanded and Controlled Ubiquitously and Relatively Anonymously by Certain A.N.Others.

    Although the influence of AI on individual decision-making and knowledge may act to undermine democracy in the future, making predictions is difficult

    Oh???? How so if one guarantees actions in future plans? Predictions then become goals achieved with the human machine sublimely and secretly exercised in the building of that enterprise and alternate virtual reality.

    Thanks for that Support .... You're Simply the Best.

    :-) Spooksville might wander down the Cumming to Cummings Route Root there and prepare themselves for AIRaptures ...... with Special AIResearch Services. It's what plush hush hush slush funds are supplied and delivered to Remote Autonomous Control Drivers for ..... for Certain Guaranteed Outcomes.

    As you can imagine, there's no shortage of flash cash to make splashes with in order to create leading engaging waves in that very particular and peculiar franchise.

  6. SVV

    So their conclusion about information dissemination via technology is this.....

    You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.​

    Plus ca change.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "Politicians seem free to repeat long-debunked ideas......"

    This is not news. Goebbels and Hitler used the same idea with their practice of "the big lie" -- make the lie preposterously big and repeat it often, and people will end up believing the lie.


    "The big lie" is alive and well -- the only difference between then and now is that the echo chamber is bigger.

    1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

      Re: "Politicians seem free to repeat long-debunked ideas......" only to capture the retarded?

      This is not news. Goebbels and Hitler used the same idea with their practice of "the big lie" -- make the lie preposterously big and repeat it often, and people will end up believing the lie. .... Anonymous Coward

      "The big lie" is alive and well -- the only difference between then and now is that the echo chamber is bigger to extraordinarily render the Goebbelses and Hitlers of today and tomorrow, deaf, dumb and blind and totally helpless and catastrophically vunerable to even the tiniest nuggets of truth exposing and introducing an alternate reality beyond any big lying fool's system perverse and corrupt subversive command and control.

      Deny that if you will and/or must, and reap the twin whirlwinds of private mistrust and politically adept public insurrection, for such a past abominable state in present current affairs is neither acceptable nor desireable in any Greater Beta Future Experiment for Experiencing with Existences in Instances portrayed and conveyed via Mass Multi Media Shows ........ Adoring Adorable Programs of Rabid Support.

      Get used to it being so .... with IT and Advanced IntelAIgent Memes Leading with Changed Vital Parameters/Fundamental Goals to Achieve and New Destinations to Arrive at and Populate and be Launched from into Further CyberSpace with Deeper and Darker and Higher and Brighter Places in which to Work, Rest and Play ........ CoExist.

      cc Cummings and BoJo @ No 10, and C and M too if they be all switched on to what can now be so easily done anywhere and everywhere.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Social media (and Google, etc.) have pumped out fake news for so long that I now suspect that most people are extremely sceptical about *everything*.

    So now we have a situation where trust in all institutions is lower than it was in the past (I'd guess: a decade or so back). No one trusts the media. No one trusts politicians. That 'customer review' can't be trusted. No one trusts 'experts', in any field, anymore. (See: Antivaxers, etc.). Even photographic evidence viewed with your own eyes is probably fake (thanks Photoshop), and no one trusts that anymore. Nothing can be trusted.

    That's what's killing democracy, and indeed, society. The trust has evaporated.

    Yes, I do think tech companies need to accept most of the blame for that.

    1. Hawkeye Pierce


      I don't think most people "are extremely sceptical about everything".

      I think there is a significant proportion of people who fall into that category - those with the knowledge/education/learning/intelligence (delete as you see fit) to question what they read but in my experience there is a large proportion of people who simply believe what they read.

      People are reading newspapers less and watching the news less whilst spending more and more time on social media platforms. Their "news" comes from the likes of what they see on Facebook (et al) and so their views are formed by whoever has the biggest marketing budget. I bet you that more people "learned" about the £350m we'd get back following Brexit from social media platforms than from newspapers or news websites.

      1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

        Re: Sceptics?

        I don't think most people "are extremely sceptical about everything".

        I think there is a significant proportion of people who fall into that category - those with the knowledge/education/learning/intelligence (delete as you see fit) to question what they read but in my experience there is a large proportion of people who simply believe what they read. ..... Hawkeye Pierce

        In either and both cases, Hawkeye Pierce, is the result certain to be as outed in this unpleasant tale and virtually augmented alternate reality which makes for uncomfortable reading for more than just a chosen few clearly enough identified and identifiable as being instrumental and leading.

        They be undermining and destroying both the markets for democracy and fiat capitalism.

      2. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

        Re: Sceptics?

        The £350m a week is true though. In one sense at least. It's a proper old skool politician's lie, in that they're using statistics in a dodgy way - but at least based on reality. That was our contribution if you ignore the rebate, and what the EU spent here. From memory, at the time it was about €18bn nominal, €13bn actually paid and €8bn net of the €5bn the EU spent in Blighty.

        If you look at a figure Labour have used a lot, claiming 120,000 people have been killed by austerity - it's got almost no truth in it at all. I've seen it debunked by Fullfact and the sainted More or Less, as well as elsewhere. But it didn't stop them repeating it, or certain news organisations parotting it uncritically every so often - even if it was mostly in their comments section. That figure has been spread on social media very widely. But the politicians and media only have the moral force to stop social media lies, if they stop using them themselves. Whereas at the moment, they want social media to block other peoples' lies - but keep spreading their own.

  9. Mike 137 Silver badge


    The link to the Chatham House report is currently dead so I can't comment on the emphasis of the original, but I am concerned by the Reg title to this piece. Equating "technology" with social media alone omits a huge range of issues that are material to the discussion - from electronic ballots to uncontrolled snooping.

  10. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Methinks they doth protest too much .....

    ........ but understandably so given the risks and macros micromanaged and they may be held responsible for

    "The way that social media undermines the ability of mainstream media organizations to control the flow of ideas and information – which in the early 2010s was identified as a positive change – is now widely seen as a problem."

    Now widely seen as a problem by whom and/or what ...... apart from Chatham House type think tanks [all your secrets belong to us?] and Davos crowds ‽

    And Mike 137, that link appears to be working now.

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