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Editorial: Digital tech must be tool to promote democracy, not undermine it

Our society is undergoing rapid digitalization, and life without the internet and smartphones, both on and off work, is no longer imaginable. Digital technology has significantly broadened the potential of communication and of businesses, ushering in what has been called a "Fourth Industrial Revolution."

    At the same time, however, issues posing threats to democracy and individual rights have also come to the fore.

    First, digital technology can be used by those in power to monitor people.

    An Israeli subsidiary of a Japanese company has developed tools to extract data from smartphones and other mobile gadgets -- tools said to have been used to suppress anti-government forces in Russia and Hong Kong, according to a Mainichi Shimbun report from December. It is likely that the authorities collected information including messaging app exchanges from the devices of people they detained.

    The former East Germany's Ministry for State Security, better known as the "Stasi" secret police, is said to have focused on wiretapping, opening letters and tailing people to understand their surveillance targets' personal relationships. Today, government agents needn't bother. A peek into one's smartphone instead is a crystal-clear snapshot of their life.

    -- Meddling with individual decision-making

    It is also possible to map people's inner life from the way they use social media. According to research released by U.S. and British scientists in 2015, an analysis of 300 of a user's Facebook "Likes" could help predict their personality and behavior more accurately than their spouse could.

    This technology was abused in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Donald Trump's camp sorted voters' characters and political inclinations in minute detail, and used that to employ "microtargeting" to deliver individually tailored ads to them. This can be called a sort of brainwashing.

    It has also been pointed out that the "attention economy," or businesses vying for people's attention as they navigate the flood of online information, can have harmful consequences.

    As platforms earn revenue by drawing people to ads, they tend to distribute provocative content to retain users. A "filter bubble" forms, where the user is only exposed to information likely to fit their established preferences. This poses a risk of making people biased and dividing society.

    Until now, it was commonly assumed throughout society that people make decisions and act based on their own will. Yet in a digital society, people could be led to make a choice that they believe to be their own. This could undermine the core tenet of democracy: free choice.

    Even as platforms and national governments can keep track of people's behavior, the latter is unaware of what's going on. To rectify this, it is essential to give individuals access to the state of the algorithms running these systems and the details of how their personal information is being used.

    -- System to protect human rights needed

    Meanwhile, there are moves among citizens to utilize digital technology to monitor authority and improve cyberspace.

    A new style of investigative journalism called "open source intelligence," or OSINT, pursues truth by gathering and analyzing information available online, including social media posts, commercial satellite images, and aircraft locations. This method has exposed facts that could otherwise have been buried, such as war crimes and lies by those in power.

    Fact-checking efforts to identify false information are also thriving. This approach employs similar methods to OSINT, and the global trend is for broad segments of society, such as nonprofit groups and students, to get in on the act in addition to mainstream news outlets.

    In Taiwan, the government shares administrative information with citizens online, and reflects the latter's proposals in policy measures. Digital Minister Audrey Tang has noted that digital is for promoting democracy and freedom.

    Another concern in the digitalized society is how to protect human rights. The European Union has issued a declaration on digital rights and principles. The statement calls for allowing people to control how their personal data are used, and for ensuring that decision-making is not affected by artificial intelligence.

    Japan enacted the Basic Act on the Formation of a Digital Society in 2021, which states that the formation of a digital society contributes to improving convenience for its citizens. Yet the law contains hardly any references to the democratic value of social digitalization. During Diet deliberations on the bill, there were no in-depth discussions on human rights and freedoms.

    The question is how humanity can deepen democracy in the digital age. In Japan, too, principles and systems to capitalize on digitalization in creating a people-oriented society are called for.

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