Contents
Digital democracy

Democracy reloaded

Ever greater numbers of people are participating in democratic processes via the internet. But fake news, bots and filter bubbles can so easily lead us down the wrong path. Digital democracy – its implications, and what you need to know.

  • Campaigning to stop massive bee death, introducing a speed limit of 130 km/h on German freeways, blocking plans for a European upload filter – an ever increasing number of people choose to advocate their causes via the internet. Helping shape politics effectively - on the sofa at home, standing at the bus stop or lying sick in bed - the internet makes it possible. Digital democracy facilitates new ways of participating and new ways of exerting influence.

    At the same time, though, there are forces at work on the internet that threaten to damage democracy. Populists seek to manipulate us using fake news and hate speech. Data behemoths can now x-ray our behavior and use the knowledge to influence our future conduct. Filter bubbles put blinkers on us and – whether we’re aware of it or not – narrow down the range of influences that help form our political opin­ions. So how can we maximize the benefits of digital democracy and at the same time minimize the risks?
More sun Bye glyphosate No plastic bags Lower the taxes Speed limit 130

Imagine there’s
an election on, and
everyone’s on their
way to vote

  • My vote counts! That at least seems to have been the attitude of most Germans in 1972 – when more than 91 percent exercised their vote in the elections to the German lower house of parliament, the Bundestag. Since then, however, interest in democracy has been steadily waning. In the last federal elections in 2017 the participation rate was down to around 76.2 percent. And the situation is even worse for European elections. While 63 percent exercised their right to vote in 1979, in 2014 just 43.1 percent of Europeans bothered to cast their vote for their representative in the European Parliament.

    But what’s making us so unwilling to take part in elections? Some argue that “the guys at the top are going to do what they want anyway,” while others just shrug and say that they “don't know who to vote for,” and simply abdicate their voting power.

    But digital democracy has the potential to turn this trend on its head. The concept of a "grassroots move­ment" has recently become a new buzzword: Increasing numbers of people are putting their feel­ing into action that they can have an effective say in politics and their own lives by using clicks to express their views: using online petitions, for example.

    According to the Bertelsmann Stiftung foundation, 40 percent of Germans are either already participating in e-petitioning or are interested in doing so. “Our oceans are not an enormous trashcan,” is how internet user Tobias Kremkau explains his support for an online petition to German Chancellor Angela Merkel urging her to prohibit non-recyclable packaging. In his lobbying efforts he uses the change.org political platform, which is a non-government organization, along with other tools, such as openpetition and Avaaz. He also sends questions directly to the relevant parliamentarians in his federal state’s parliament via a platform called Abgeordnetenwatch (“parliamentarian watch”). He gives you tips on you how you might best get involved in politics here.

    Estonia goes a step further, allowing its voters to elect their parliament online. That makes the Baltic state the first and so far only country in the world to have introduced e-voting. Since its introduction in 2003, participation rates in elections have risen from 58.2 to 63.1 percent in 2019 – and one in every four voters now chooses to vote online. The new digital platforms now available for participation in democracy seem to have captured the zeitgeist. Digital democracy seems to have the potential to improve participation rates, thus helping secure the survival of our democracy.

    From childhood on, we struggle to decide for ourselves on how we are to live our lives. So we really shouldn’t be willing to give up on that struggle when we reach adulthood. Democracy and liberty are not something we can take for granted. A quick look back into history and at the world around us makes crystal clear the risks we run if we leave it to the few to decide how we live our lives. It’s clear that “the sovereignty of the people” can only triumph as long as the people are willing to take part in it. What many forget is that not bothering to vote is also effectively making a decision: the decision to allow other people to decide who makes the decisions over your life in the future. If the political center decides to take the back seat, the effect is to give extra weight to the votes of the radicals, putting our democracy in peril. The jolt towards the right happening all over Europe should be a warning to us. Find out here why it’s important for you to take part in the European elections on May 26.
From childhood on, we struggle to decide for ourselves on how we are to live our lives. We shouldn’t be willing to give that up when we reach adulthood. Democracy and liberty are not something we can take for granted.

How to help shape your future!

Use one of the popular online petition platforms, openpetition, change.org or Avaaz.org and simply express your opinion online on the topics of your choice. But beware: Before you vote in an e-petition, be aware that the petition texts are often formulated so that as many people as possible vote in the spirit of the initiator of the campaign. Important arguments of the other side are often not presented. Therefore, keep to Grandpa's advice and always read two newspapers. The German lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, has also created an online platform for petitions. On all the above-mentioned platforms you can start a petition yourself using just a few clicks. If a petition receives 50,000 signatures within a month, then the petition must be discussed on the parliament floor. And using Abgeordnetenwatch you can ask members of Germany’s various parliaments questions directly and in public. But above all, use your vote – the most intelligent way of expressing your protest and influence European decision making.

Filter bubbles ... or: Grandpa always said that you should read two newspapers

  • If you don’t know what a filter bubble is, then the chances are that you’re living in one. And that’s not a good thing. But what exactly is a filter bubble? Let’s take an example: a business student who runs a Google search on climate change is almost certainly going to receive totally different results from a lawyer who has tapped in the very same query on the latest iPhone. There is one thing the two Googlers have in common, though: they’ll rarely encounter any sur­prises in their results. Because Google always brings back whatever matches their previous internet be­hav­ior. The situation is similar in social networks: once you have created a profile, including your age, gender and all the rest, have liked content from a particular group and followed a particular user, you’re only going to see information that matches your choices. And if social networks are your main source of information, you’re going to get the im­pres­sion that there is no other way of looking at things – your horizons become ever narrower and you won’t find, for example, an article that tells you why it’s es­sen­tial that you take part in the European elections.

    The influence of the filter bubble is dangerous pre­cise­ly because it’s so effective. Every click you make on the internet leaves behind a digital trace that makes you that little bit more transparent and that little bit more open to manipulation. More on this to­pic in “Cache me if you can.” But how can you esc­ape your filter bubble? Check out how in the infobox.

Escaping the filter bubble

Drop Google and replace it from now on with Startpage.com. Because the Google search engine always returns stuff you already know about, carefully wrapping you in your own personal customized bubble. Startpage.com delivers the same results as Google, but without enveloping you in the filter bubble. As an added bonus, startpage.com searches are always anonymous. This prevents your search queries from giving off tell-tale hints of your interests that can be added to your digital footprint. Don’t allow yourself to be manipulated by Big Brother. Be aware that every click you make on the internet leaves behind a personal trace and take a look at our tips on how you can prevent that from hap­pen­ing. And above all – and this is something as true now as it was in the past – make sure to use a variety of sources before you make up your mind. If you get your information on politics via Facebook, be aware that the stream of information you receive from it wraps you in a filter bubble. Use independent media if you really want to find out about the world!

Alternative facts ... or: the lounge bar goes online

  • What used to be the table in the lounge bar is now to be found on Facebook, Twitter and the rest. At the bus stop, in the line at the supermarket – and even within the first minute after waking up – we visit digital lounge bars to check what’s happening in the world, and to feel a connection with our friends. And just as our cronies around the table in our regular lounge bar always informed our opinions, the digital lounge bar does the very same thing today. And the digital lounge bar – just like its real world predecessor – provides a bountiful marketplace for “alternative facts,” following the principle that the meatier the assertion, the more attention it’s bound to receive. Because fake news is by no means an invention of the internet.
  • Any yet we always used to be able to pick and choose the people we sat around the table with in the lounge bar. Things are different on the internet: populists and nationalists slide in uninvited beside us at the table, especially during election campaigns, and blab out their half-truths, repeat their poisonous slogans and propagate their brazen lies. If you’re not careful, you might end up believing that Hillary Clinton is running a porn ring from a pizzeria. And, quick as a few clicks, our political views are twisted all out of shape.

    The populists use bots and algorithms as megaphones in their efforts to spread such content right across the spectrum in a form tailor-made for its target listeners. The personal information that we leave in our digital footprint as we surf makes this sort of precise manipulation possible. It can produce the illusion every time we visit our digital lounge bar that just everyone is against Hillary Clinton, for example, simply because a minority of users – whether they’re real humans or social bots – are particularly energetic in telling us about her real and imagined faults. This phenomenon is referred to as the “majority illusion.” And the concept has its effect in the real world: populists use it to take control of the political debate, endangering our democracy and our freedom.

Protect yourself from fake news

The internet is very good at providing you with information, but be aware that much of what you see online – and particularly in the social media – is fake news. In this article we explain how you can keep fake news at arms’ length using four simple tricks. If something looks a little suspicious but you’re unsure about it, take a look at portals like the fact checker provided by the news programs of public service broadcasters like Germany’s ARD (Faktencheck). Or use Germany’s Reporterfabrik – correctiv, portal, which is designed for serious journalists, and which provides support and instructions to help identify fake news. This very unusual project receives funding from Deutsche Telekom.

Scout the territory

  • The internet offers enormous opportunities for democracy, but it also poses dangers. But there is really no need to be afraid of trolls and algorithms. Because the good news is that we can minimize the risks. The first thing to do is to scout the territory tho­rough­ly. That’s why we at Deutsche Telekom created the “Medien aber sicher” platform (a play on words meaning roughly “Media, sure! But secure.”) with the goal of equipping people to deal with the digital revolution safely and competently. The 1001 Wahrheit (“1001 Truths”) initiative relates a few simple stories from the digital world to help people to learn about such topics as the dark net, digital democracy and digital friend­ships, for example. The “teachtoday” initiative, aimed primarily at children and teens, is there to promote safe use of the media from an early age. Those of us who know how the digital world works, what forces are present within it, and what goals those forces are pursuing, are equipped both to protect themselves effectively and to use the opportunities that the internet offers for the benefit of our democracy and our freedom.