The capricious relationship between technology and democracy: Analyzing public policy discussions in the UK and US

Barrett, Bridget; Dommett, Katharine; Kreiss, Daniel
Policy & Internet

This study provides a comparative survey of policy-making discourse in the United Kingdom and the United States from 2016 to 2020 around digital threats to democracy. Through an inductive coding process, it identifies six core ideals common in these two countries: transparency, accountability, engagement, informed public, social solidarity, and freedom of expression. Reviewing how these ideals are constructed in policy-making documents, we find differences in each country's emphasis, inconsistencies in how some democratic ideals are evoked and promoted, conflicts between different democratic ideals, and disconnects between empirical realities of democracy and policy-making discourse. There is a lack of clarity in what social solidarity, engagement, and freedom of expression mean and how they should be balanced; conceptions of an informed public are deeply fraught, and in tension with other ideals. We argue that policy-making discourse is often out of step with the growing literature which suggests that political conflicts between social groups, right-wing extremism, and antidemocratic actions increasingly taken by elites and parties are at the root of growing democratic crises. This state of policy-making discourse has important implications for attempts to pursue regulation and suggests the need for further reflection by policymakers on the democratic ideals they are solving for.