Local Government Essays

Authoritarian regimes constantly need to think about how to protect their own power while maintaining some economic and political efficiency.

They thus view the open Internet as threatening their stability, but they also worry about how restricting information can hurt economic growth and damage the ability of the higher levels of government to keep track of what the lower levels are doing.

To pursue this project of repair, we need a better understanding of democracy’s resiliency in the face of information attacks.

Building that understanding is harder than it might seem.

At the same time, information flows can be manipulated to undermine democracy by allowing the unchecked spread of propaganda and pseudo-facts, all made more efficient by the Internet, automation, and machine learning.

This is Democracy’s Dilemma: the open forms of input and exchange that it relies on can be weaponized to inject falsehood and misinformation that erode democratic debate.What we need now is to understand the corresponding Democracy’s Dilemma.Democracies depend on the free flow of accurate information more fundamentally than autocracies do, not only for functioning markets and better public policy, but also to allow citizens to make informed voting decisions, provide policy input, and hold officials accountable.Understanding Democracy’s Dilemma will require that social scientists—who try to explain democratic legitimacy and why people accept election outcomes that aren’t in their short-term interests—think more carefully about the information and knowledge that democracy requires.It will require, too, information security specialists—who model information systems and their vulnerabilities—to think more carefully about how the more complex systems underpinning legitimacy and shared beliefs can create serious vulnerabilities.Political science questions about what citizens need to know (or believe they know) for democracy to be stable must be translated into information security questions about the attack surface and threat models of democracy, and vice versa.Over the past few decades, political scientists such as Adam Przeworski and Barry Weingast have explained democratic stability as a kind of institutional equilibrium: it depends on rules that citizens and politicians respect.The Arab Spring wasn’t the twilight of dictatorship, yes, but today isn’t the twilight of democracy, either.Still, we agree that to the extent democracy has revealed systemic weaknesses, we should be working overtime to repair them.We can begin to understand what the fundamental threats are, and how best to respond to them.On the other hand, freely available information can also undermine an autocracy.


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