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Experts assess impact of digitisation on Swiss democracy

Campainger collecting signatures from citizens in a street
Digital platforms might help collecting signatures for a people's initiative or a referendum in a short time, but the democracy moves at its own pace, experts say. © Keystone/Jean-Christophe Bott

Citizens can benefit from the growing importance of digital media to make their voices heard in Switzerland’s system of direct democracy, but the risks of abuse must not be underestimated, find three new studies.

TA SwissExternal link, an independent advisory body for technology assessment, which published the findings on Tuesday, said non-digital features should always complement digital processes and that everyone must have access to control mechanisms for fact-checking information.

“To survive, a democracy must keep pace with societal change, and an open discussion about how and why this is the case forms part of the democratic process itself. (…) The consequences of digital technologies should therefore undergo regular monitoring and the population should be included in the ongoing debate on digitisation processes in democracy,” TA Swiss said.

The studies were carried out by the GfS Bern research instituteExternal link along with the umbrella organisation of youth parliamentsExternal link and a think tank for digital transformationExternal link, with the results identifying the ambivalent role of social and digital media in democratic processes.

“Digitisation has an important potential for forming opinions (…) but there is a growing risk of an uncontrolled spread of misinformation and fake news, distortion and manipulation,” TA Swiss said in a statement.

Moritz Leuenberger, president of the TA Swiss steering committee said it was crucial to avoid a deepening of the digital divide.

The speed of digital technology cannot be imposed on democratic processes, as voters need time to form their opinions or change their minds, the former Swiss government minister said.

Pros and cons

The three studies found that access to political information for citizens has become faster, more comprehensive, and less selective, enhancing freedom when it comes to the forming of opinion. Digitisation also opens up new channels for debate and participation and makes it easier to involve smaller marginalised groups in political decision making. Civic tech tools, notably e-collecting platforms, can also help remove existing inequalities.

However, these advantages come with risks.

The researchers pointed out that technology may primarily benefit citizens who are already politically active and digitally literate.

The authors of the study also said that social media platforms are not transparent and not bound by journalistic standards. They warned that the ability to quickly spread digital content, including false information and populist messages, could fuel tensions in society.

Furthermore, the studies found that electronic signature collecting could lead to an excessive number of public votes, potentially overburdening the Swiss political system.

The TA-Swiss foundation has a mandate based on a law approved by parliament. The publicly funded foundation is part of the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences and was set up in 1992.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR