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Nurturing the Integrity of Political Communication in the Digital Era


An Open Government Perspective

Dieter Zinnbauer

When it comes to the health of democracy and political communication, the perceived role of social media and digital technologies has shifted from hero to villain in record time. High hopes for tech-supported democratic renewal hatched only two decades ago are now overshadowed by acute concerns about big tech and big platforms having degraded into a political wrecking ball that threatens to lay waste to the political fundamentals of our societies by fueling hate speech, lies, polarization, and populism.

Common to both the hero and villain story is a fixation on how the major digital platforms of our time are the dominant characters that drive the plot. This is not a surprise, considering that the largest social network touches more people than the largest world religion, that fake news items flooding elections across the world are counted in the millions, and that the blitz-scaling of specific digital tools tracks closely with a flurry of democratic awakenings at first and democratic degradations more recently.

It is therefore not surprising either that, until recently, most of the attention in the policy world on how to amplify the good and remedy the bad that tech brings to the political sphere has been focused on the platforms and technologies themselves. Depending on ideological inclinations, the focus has been on how platforms can re-architect themselves or be better regulated from the outside to fix a set of problems closely tied to political life.

During the last couple of years, however, this story has become much more nuanced and complicated but also, in some places, more imaginative and hopeful. Major political events in 2019 and 2020 have surfaced new trends and dynamics. A huge wave of new research has significantly expanded our understanding of the issues at hand, reaffirming some assumptions while confounding others, producing new ones, and—perhaps most importantly—tracing the linkages to broader political, economic, and social dynamics that need to be considered when thinking about policy responses. In parallel, the policy world has shifted into the highest gear. Numerous expert committees, think tanks, advocates, and legislators have produced an enormous amount of policy ideas that gradually work their way into draft bills and action templates.

Against this backdrop, this scoping paper seeks to accomplish the following:

  • harvest the latest research and policy thinking on the role of digital technology in politics and democracy to tease out new angles and nuances to received wisdoms;
  • present these insights not in relation to a set of discrete online problems such as digital misinformation but in a broader context of how to promote the integrity and flourishing of political communication;
  • filter for interesting ideas that speak most prominently to and could be most productively advanced by governments and other stakeholders through an open government lens; and
  • cluster and place these ideas in an ecosystem of different, interlinked actors that are jointly responsible for nurturing integrity of political communication.

To make this extensive body of ideas manageable and relevant to policymakers, the focus is on the integrity of political communication, rather than misinformation, hate speech, etc. more broadly. The idea is not to assemble an exhaustive overview of all relevant developments and recommendations but to be selective and summarize:

  • a set of key trends and insights that go beyond the received wisdom and help get a grasp of an unwieldy policy landscape; and,
  • some of the most interesting, and perhaps overlooked, recommendations that resonate with and could be advanced from an open government vantage point.


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