Digital Challenges to Democracy: Politics of Automation, Attention and Engagement



In the last decade, digital media platforms have grown out of their mere communication functions and became inherently political governance systems. They connect politicians, voters, large businesses, and major adver­tisement companies that commodify user attention. This is already changing the nature of the capital-politics relationship and is likely to significantly alter the nature of resource generation in online and offline political networks. Democracies are particularly vulnerable to the shift in online governance and rent structures due to higher Internet penetration per capita. The current business model of digital engagement, advertising, and political messaging are prophesized to lock all sides into a vicious circle increasingly threatened by more extreme content. Fake news, trolls, bots, and algorithms exploit this rent generation cycle by feeding on measurement metrics of the current rentier economics of digital media platforms. This trend has generated degrees of concern around concepts dubbed as "networked feudalism," "Authoritarianism 2.0 or 3.0," and "Cyber-Communism." This article evaluates the claims of all three main critiques of online political structures from a political engagement and resource generation perspective. The article argues that digital space is still very much a democratic space, albeit imperfect, that needs to address two fundamental issues: fixing metrics of digital engagement and bringing human biases in algorithms into more expanded public and political debate. Ultimately, "saving democracy" in digital space largely depends on institution­alizing these two processes by giving users greater sovereignty over their data.


Akin Unver is Assistant Professor at Kadir Has University and Visiting Research Fellow at Oxford University's Centre for Technology and Global Affairs. His article on how to conceptualize and think about democracy and authoritarianism in digital space appears in the Columbia Journal of International Affairs special "Democracy Issue."


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