How technology can strengthen democracy

Pro-democracy activists rely on open internet access. They utilize apps, social media and other technology to raise awareness, recruit activists and organize protests. And they use social media to promote voting drives and other community engagement initiatives.

While activists of many stripes avail themselves of social media tools, an open internet is especially valuable for marginalized voices that might not otherwise reach their intended audiences.

“For people who are on social media, it is virtually impossible to avoid reminders and encouragement to vote,” said Jen Golbeck, a University of Maryland professor who studies social networks.

The free flow of information via the internet and social media contributes to open debate and an exchange of ideas, two crucial tenets of democracy.

“The thing about [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] or Ella Baker is that they could not just wake up and sit at the breakfast table and talk to a million people,” said DeRay Mckesson, an activist with Black Lives Matter.

Protesters kneeling in front of police officers (© Julio Cortez/AP Images)
Demonstrators kneel before police May 30, 2020, in Minneapolis following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (© Julio Cortez/AP Images)

Among social media users in the United States, 23% said they changed their opinion because of something they saw on social media, according to a 2020 Pew Research Center survey.

In the U.S., the Black Lives Matter movement began in 2013 and gained followers via social media in response to the killing of African Americans by police.

Women in the United States who survived sexual harassment and assault shared their stories and organized protests through social media.

While Tarana Burke, a grassroots organizer, founded a movement against sexual harassment and assault in 2006, the group’s visibility increased substantially after actress Alyssa Milano sent out a “me too” tweet in 2017. The #MeToo hashtag sparked worldwide activism.

Women marching while holding banner reading '#MeToo' (© Damian Dovarganes/AP Images)
Tarana Burke, center, founder and leader of the #MeToo movement, marches with others at the 2017 #MeToo March in Los Angeles. (© Damian Dovarganes/AP Images)

Members of the LGBTQI+ community, such as actress Laverne Cox and activist Chella Man, use Twitter and YouTube, respectively, to raise awareness about transgender issues.

Social media tools can transcend national boundaries, empowering international citizen action. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies launched the #ClimateChangedMe Twitter campaign to address climate change, encourage citizen involvement and call for political action on the issue. Volunteers and activists discuss the crisis in shared videos.

“For me, social media is ‘The power of the powerless.’ They are catalysts,” said Andrés Cañizález, a Venezuelan journalist and managing director of the nonprofit Medianálisis. “It is the possibility that ordinary people or activists who do not have a cannon, a newspaper or a news channel, can demonstrate, connect, speak with others and express their rejection of what they are living.”

Man standing on roof while displaying photo on cellphone (© Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images)
Cuban Rolando Remedios shows a photo of his arrest during the July 11, 2021, protests in Havana. (© Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images)

Cubans used social media to protest economic conditions in July 2021, when protesters gathered in Havana and 20 other cities. In response, the government restricted internet access and passed laws to limit the use of social media to organize protests.

Activists in Iran rely upon Instagram to communicate because it is the only social media platform that the government does not block. Anti-government protests in July 2021 spread to Tehran and several cities after video of protesters shouting anti-government slogans circulated on social media.

One challenge digital activists face is repressive regimes that try to restrict, distort or manipulate the free flow of information online. In those nations, activists choose messaging apps they can use without government interference and switch platforms when a ban is imposed.

Citizens in Belarus used their phones to post videos online during demonstrations against August 2020 election results they considered fraudulent. Activists in Burma are relying on Telegram and Signal, the encrypted messaging apps, to protest the government crackdown on media following the February military coup.

Left: School lunch worker holding plate of food. Right: Woman sitting at cafeteria lunch table (USAID/Olexandr Techyns’kyy)
When Ukrainian children frequently became ill after eating school lunches, Olga Nos, right, used digital platforms to investigate. (USAID/Olexandr Techyns’kyy)

Olga Nos in Ukraine heard so many complaints about children getting sick after eating in the school cafeteria, she decided to investigate on her own. To find out how local schools were acquiring food, she turned to DoZorro, an anti-corruption digital network created by the U.S. Agency for International Development. “When I opened the contracts, I saw that there were no requirements for quality or inspections,” Nos said.

Through the DoZorro monitoring portal, Nos and other parents began to track the food contracts. Ultimately, their efforts resulted in requiring that all tenders for school food procurement contain quality requirements.

When a second wave of COVID-19 struck India this year, citizens turned to apps to request supplies they needed for themselves or relatives and posted information about available hospital beds and oxygen supplies.

Americans learned to use technology creatively to overcome social distancing requirements during the pandemic as children attended school online and religious communities met remotely.

“It has opened me up to using video chat to connect with physically distanced friends. I have people that I used to only see on Facebook or in person two times a year but now we do a group video chat once a month and I am closer to them than ever,” a 39-year-old woman in the U.S. said.

A version of this article was published November 15, 2021.