China, Digital India, Media, Research

The shaky ground that digital democracies walk on

A decade ago, the Arab Spring levelled the divide — even if briefly — between the Palace and the Street. Powered by social media, the age of digital democracy was upon us. Technology has since become the mainstay of civic activism. Not only are more voices heard, but elected governments are also more responsive to them. And indeed, in many countries, more people are participating in politics than ever before. From attitudes and approaches of platforms and governments to the proliferation of intrusive technologies that invade personal spaces, the gains of the past decade are nevertheless being undermined. The past year or so has made us acutely aware of the weaknesses and threats to digital democracies. Some of these need a coordinated global response.

First, the very platforms that have fuelled calls for accountability often see themselves as above scrutiny, bound not by democratic norms but by bottom lines. The fact is acquisition metrics and market valuations don’t sustain democracy. The contradiction between short-term returns on investment and the long-term health of a digital society is stark. If hate, violence, and falsehoods drive engagement, and, therefore, profits for companies and platforms, our societies are indeed on shaky ground.

To make technology serve democracy, regulation will have to be completely rethought. Big Tech boardrooms must be held to standards of responsible behaviour that match their power to influence and persuade. Moreover, any accountability framework must be global. The global south lives with and depends on technology platforms designed in the north. These platforms have been visibly taken to task by lawmakers and institutions in the countries of their design. Does the larger cohort of users in the developing and emerging democratic world have recourse to such action? And is this denial tenable and fair?

Most democratic constitutions around the world, while protecting expression, do so with safeguards that are meant to secure peace and co-existence in societies that have histories longer and more storied than America’s.

Second, much of Big Tech is designed and anchored in the United States (US). Understandably, it pushes American — or perhaps Californian — free speech absolutism. This is in conflict with laws in most democracies — including in the US after January 6. Most democratic constitutions around the world, while protecting expression, do so with safeguards that are meant to secure peace and co-existence in societies that have histories longer and more storied than America’s.

This American approach to freedom of expression imposed on other democratic societies, at velocities facilitated by technology, is a formula for serious disorder. If American Big Tech wishes to emerge as Global Tech, it must adhere to global democratic norms. Its normative culture must assimilate and reconcile, not prescribe and mandate. In the absence of such an understanding, a clash is but inevitable. It must be emphasised that the fault line would be social norms, not the benefits of technology.

If global democracy and global tech are to coexist, the global south must sit at the high table when regulations are designed and as ethics are embedded in algorithms. Today, the global south’s participation in policy and design decisions that shape our tech future is like the map of vaccinations in our pandemic world — significantly underrepresented in democratic Africa and Asia.

Finally, the greatest danger to the freedom our democracies enjoy is from authoritarian regimes that exploit our liberties and turn them against us. In the real world, Peng Shuai is under house arrest. But in the virtual world, she is presented as being free and happy. Wolf warriors have given a whole new meaning to the phrase “virtual reality”. Recently, an Indian speaker at a transportation conference in China found her microphone turned off because she questioned the Belt and Road Initiative. We are in an unprecedented political landscape where authoritarians weaponise our debates even as we are silenced in theirs. Would any country allow another to open an embassy if it did not have reciprocal rights in the other capital?

The global south’s participation in policy and design decisions that shape our tech future is like the map of vaccinations in our pandemic world — significantly underrepresented in democratic Africa and Asia.

We are living in that perverse reality already. China’s media and government handles conduct aggressive diplomacy in our digital public sphere while we are denied the right to do so in theirs. Beijing and other authoritarian regimes are omnipresent in our digital lives. Their handles bombard us; their chosen narratives besiege and colour the truth. How can we prevent such regimes from gaming the public sphere, and from this perversion of institutions, academia, media, and tech platforms? Their presence on our platforms represents a systemic challenge and a security risk. It must be responded to.

The alleged disruption of America’s elections in 2016 will be child’s play as compared to what may happen in 2024. That year, India, the US and the European Union Parliament will all hold elections — the first such coincidence in the age of digital democracy. We face a perfect storm of misinformation and manipulation. Confronted by wolf warriors, the rest of us can’t be lambs to the slaughter. Open societies have always stoutly defended their borders. Now, they must safeguard these new digital frontlines. At the Summit for Democracy — called by President Joe Biden and addressed by, among others Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it was apparent to all that the democratic world needs to get its house in order. Even as democracies attend to this they need to ensure that other’s don’t burn the house down.

India, Media, Neighborhood Studies, tech and media

We cannot have a vibrant democracy without strong media

Samir Saran, Bangladesh, Asian Age, India-Bangladesh, ASEAN, India Ocean Rim, Kashmir, EU, BNP

The Asian Age (AA): Thanks for coming to The Asian Age. How would you evaluate the current status of India-Bangladesh relationship?

Samir Saran (SS): At the level of the two governments the relationship between India and Bangladesh is stronger than ever before. Bangladesh has very sound political engagement with India. However, the people-to-people relationship needs to be catalyzed and strengthened. We need to do more in terms of trade, connectivity, climate change and regional industrial clusters that create value for our people.

The region can learn from Bangladesh as far as inclusive growth, health, education and grassroots interventions are concerned. Can the two countries work together in showcasing solutions and experiences in these vital sectors for the benefit of others? India and Bangladesh also have an opportunity to play a leadership role in connecting the wider region — for example, South Asia with ASEAN — and harnessing the potential of the Indian Ocean Rim Association. Can we together shape the politics and economics of the Indo-Pacific in the coming decade?

AA: What is the condition of democracy in South Asia in your assessment?

SS: Democracy is under threat globally. Sections of the young populations and those that are marginalized or have lost out are disenchanted. We as individuals and communities need to do more to ensure its sustenance. We have to demand more of our leadership in these times.

Democracy also must not be viewed only from the perspective of electing leaders. It is also as much about building and sustaining institutions that serve all citizens and protect their rights.

Therefore, the quality of governance and equitable outcomes will also implicate the health of democracy. In my view democracy is the most pragmatic political arrangement for the people of South Asia. The diversity within the region can only sustainably aggregate under plural political systems.

AA: What is your opinion about the Kashmir conflict?

SS: The Jammu & Kashmir dispute is certainly a legacy of the partition of the sub-continent and also stems from a viewpoint that religion must be the sole determinant of political unions. India rejects this perspective and as a secular country it has successfully demonstrated over the last seven decades that syncretic and plural nations are viable and desirable. Pakistan, on the other hand, does not hold this view and has fanned organic unrest and incubated terrorist organizations that destabilize the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir and indeed the wider region.

Jammu & Kashmir as a conflict zone also suits the military leadership in Pakistan as it helps them control the society, politics and economics of their country. The Pakistani Army sequesters a huge amount of the country’s annual budget and diverts funds that could be used productively for the development of the country. All disputes must be resolved through dialogue and no country must ever bow down to terror which has become the favored instrument of the Pakistani state.

It is for Pakistan to halt cross-border terrorism and create the right conditions for any meaningful bilateral dialogue. Till that happens, India will exercise all options to protect its territorial integrity and national security interest.

AA: Please share with us your views on freedom of press.

SS: We cannot have a vibrant democracy and a fair society without a strong media. News and information cannot be censored in this Information Age when social media is a reality, nor can the circulation of fake news be entirely prevented. Engaging with and responding to emerging narratives and headlines is the only option. Media can play a role in promoting accountable governance and preserving democracy.

AA: We often see that communal violence breaks out in South Asian countries. What should South Asian countries do to preserve communal harmony?

SS: Preserving communal harmony is a vital challenge for our region. Globalization and technology have made it easy for the transmission of radical ideologies across the world. Radical religious groups adeptly use social networks to propagate their propositions.

Just law and order is not enough to fight communal forces. We need a new awareness, a new coalition of people and governments, and an international resolve to purge this menace. Political parties should desist from fanning hatred. Also, families have an important role to play in guiding the youth and the vulnerable.

AA: Bangladesh has recently held its eleventh parliamentary election. What is your appraisal of these polls?

SS: The process of electing the political leadership is crucial. All democracies must constantly strive to enhance this process and ensure that wider participation and vibrant politics are part of it. All societies and countries organically discover their own pathways and as a young nation Bangladesh is striving to do the same. The political leadership in India has already welcomed the democratic process that was followed in Bangladesh in the recent elections.

AA: Euro is the common currency for all the countries belonging to the European Union (EU). The member countries of EU also have visa free entry facilities for each other. For what reasons do you think the South Asian countries could not do so?

SS: Unfortunately the partition of 1947 has created rigid walls and boundaries between the South Asian countries. We are disappointingly one of the least integrated regions of the world. Ideally we must dispense with such rigidity and should work towards soft borders through sub-regional arrangements.

It is difficult, but not impossible. In the coming days we need to create robust physical infrastructure that connects us, create soft infrastructure that allows information and data to be shared across jurisdictions, and create a regional growth and development plan that responds to the aspirations of all. We share a common future and therefore we must coordinate our individual efforts with greater intensity.

AA: How can Bangladesh become more democratic? Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has rejected the results of the latest parliamentary polls. BNP Chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia has been inside jail for more than one year. How can Bangladeshi political parties overcome the existing   divides with each other?

SS: Legacy battles between parties are not unique to Bangladesh. Like elsewhere, differences are not easy to reconcile. However, what national political parties can do is to create a consensus on a grand vision for the country even as they choose different paths to achieve that. They can also agree on creating, sustaining and strengthening institutions and processes that are important for the evolution of democracy.

AA: The opposition parties of India like Trinamool Congress, Congress and Communist Party of India have complained that dalits and religious minorities have been subjected to a great deal of torment under the present Indian government. What are your views on this?

SS: As per political theory, one of the founding principles of democracy is that while the majority will invariably elect governments, the prime responsibility of these governments is to protect the rights of the minorities. India has always adhered to this as an article of faith and any deviation has seen substantial intervention by the institutions and people that make up the Indian state.

AA: Rabindranath Tagore is equally loved and honored in India and Bangladesh. How can Bangladesh further strengthen its cultural bonds with India?

SS: Rabindranath Tagore is an icon in both countries. To honour his legacy it would be fitting if Bangladesh and India can work to create a cultural bridge that helps nurture more talent that transcends geographical borders. The present Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh Riva

Ganguly Das is someone who can do this. I believe she will play a significant role in the growth of cultural ties between Bangladesh and India. India and Bangladesh should provide more opportunities, scholarships and arenas to artists and youth in both countries to harness our common creative heritage and potentialities.

This interview originally appeared in Dailyasianage.


Water shortage has become a subject of intense public debate in the present political narrative on resource management and riparian rights. In an attempt to discern the divergence on core issues and mainstream media reporting, Re-imagining the Indus is a methodological study based on Media Content Analysis of the reporting on water issues related to the Indus, in the leading dailies of both India and Pakistan. This monograph seeks to capture the existing discourse and stimulate policy dialogue on the subject.

Read here –

Books, Media, Research, Writing

Re-imagining the Indus: Mapping Media Reportage in India and Pakistan