How to tackle Big Tech risks to 2024’s election megacycle – Skoll Forum edition

The Digital Action team was delighted to attend the Skoll World Forum in Oxford last week. Funders, activists, movement makers all came together to accelerate innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. And of course our Director of Campaigns Alexandra Pardal was there talking about Big Tech.

Building a global movement from Zoom calls in your sitting room can feel quite surreal. So I particularly enjoyed spending the week in Oxford, meeting people in person at the Skoll Foundation’s World Forum.

On day two, the Digital Action team hosted a breakfast learning session on “Tackling Big Tech risks to 2024’s election megacycle”. Something I’ve been thinking about, discussing with global partners and building a campaign around for the last year. It was fantastic bringing it to a wider audience.

Our fantastic panel included Yordanos Eyoel, Founder & CEO of Keseb ; Ashnah Kalemera, Programme Manager, Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) and Amber F., Executive Director, Media Democracy Fund.

Here’s the key takeaways from our discussion and insight from the attendees in the room:

Digital Action event at Skoll World Forum 2023

Revisit what democracy means in the 21st century

Yordanos kicked us off with a thought-provoking question – do we know what democracy means in the 21st century? It is a concept many of us hold dear and yet has evolved so much over the centuries. Her organisation, Keseb, means “of the people” in Geëz, an ancient South Semitic language, originating in Ethiopia and Eritrea, in East Africa. Although democracy is meant to be ‘of the people’, historically democracies have been led by white males and despite their ambition, unjust. There is a need to revisit what democracy means in a global context, and explore what systemic levers we can pull to make them equitable and diverse.

Work collaboratively to stifle disinformation

Ashnah from CIPESA shared that in Uganda tech has immense potential to influence election results, transmission, monitoring, and voter registration. A young electorate is coming online for the first time and are deeply vulnerable to disinformation on social media. More investment is needed to improve digital literacy, and work with telecoms providers, electoral bodies and service providers in the Global South to combat disinformation through moderation and even strategic litigation.

Be proactive, not reactive

With Big Tech frequently introducing new algorithms, it can be difficult to predict their impact on elections. But many nations and communities have already felt the harms they trigger, digital and online. Digital Action’s Executive Director Liz Carolan urged activists, funders and civil society organizations to share their collective experience and power to become proactive and entrepreneurial when it comes to promoting and protecting democracy, rather than react to isolated incidents.

Make participation possible

Amber from the Media Democracy Fund shared some practical ways funders can support participation from actors from the Global South. Participatory grant-making; paying for people’s travel costs to conferences so they can be in the room and influence policies in person; and supporting existing regional networks were three simple but effective ideas. Flipping the power from top-down investment to a coalition model can democratize power structures and governance.

Embrace inclusive and diverse tactics

Nkem Agunwa from Witness added that inclusivity and diversity are not just good ‘things to do’. They need to be seriously addressed in how we mobilize and organize for change in tech accountability. She shared that the greatest digital threats and harms are disproportionately felt by historically excluded and marginalized communities, and that emerging tactics like democratising access to open source intelligence tools to detect disinformation could pave the way for change.

Yordanos added that values-based leaders and democracy entrepreneurs need to be uplifted and empowered to be a part of this conversation. These are people often taking enormous personal risks, and they need to be supported.

A global movement is needed

I spoke to the need to build a global flotilla movement, harnessing the know-how, skills and approaches of everyone in the room and beyond to challenge Big Tech power. A movement of separate actors all moving in the same direction to hold this global industry accountable, while we support people on the frontlines and collectively shape a better future.

From listening to organisations and communities across the globe, we know for a fact that Big Tech puts extra protections in place to safeguard US and EU elections, but that elections in the global majority are not receiving the same support. Serious harms are happening to communities in the Global South, directly influenced by hate speech and disinformation on social media. One of the worst cases has been Facebook inciting genocide of the Rohingya people in Myanmar. We heard from a Burmese activist who testified to the current military junta’s crackdown on activists and protestors using digital platform surveillance.

Alexandra Pardal

Our campaign will be asking Big Tech to radically step up safeguards and investments to protect democratic and human rights in each of the 70 elections happening worldwide next year. This is just the start. We’re building a movement to challenge the power of the ad tech industry, show the reality of what is happening and uplift the voices of those who are witnessing and suffering harms as they’re materialising. Now is the time to get on board, support activists worldwide to collectively build their power, share knowledge and push for new rules of the game for this largely unregulated global industry.

Thanks to everyone who participated. If you’d like to find out more about our 2024 campaign, get in touch.

Share this post