Democracy by the Numbers: How Personal Freedoms are Perceived in the Digital Age

A number of recent media reports, including in The Economist and Financial Times, have raised the subject of the declining state of our democracy. Some have likened recent actions by so-called “established democracies” as resembling those of autocratic states – such as the recent banning of social media in Turkey and the US government’s blanket on-line surveillance of citizens worldwide.
How have all these news reports affected people’s sense of freedom and democracy in this post-Snowden age? Is there a democracy deficit developing in the body politic?
The just-released BBC World Service Poll conducted by GlobeScan across 17 countries suggests that trends are going in two directions at once.
On the one hand, the results reveal that many of the personal freedoms that Western democracies have championed in the world are actually fairly well established in the minds of citizens across the particular 17 countries polled1, including freedom of religion, freedom of public discussion, and freedom to marry the person of your choice. It is also clear that most people see the Internet as a tool for increasing their freedom.
However, other results suggest that two important underpinnings of modern democracy are at a low ebb – a media seen as free and fair; and an Internet safe for the free expression of views. Also, freedom from government surveillance is the worst-rated of the five freedoms examined in the poll. Ironically, it is in established democracies where citizens give some of the lowest ratings of some freedoms. For example, the US and Germany are the only two countries in the poll where majorities say they do not feel free from government surveillance and monitoring.
Across eight of the countries surveyed in both 2007 and 2014, the percentage of citizens today believing that their country’s media is “free to report the news accurately, truthfully and without undue bias” has dropped by nearly a third over the last seven years, from an average of 59 percent to only 40% today (see chart below). The biggest drops occurred in Kenya, India and Russia. But worryingly, in the US and UK, only minorities now believe their media is free, down from majorities saying this in 2007.

In the aftermath of the Snowden revelations about on-line surveillance by the US government, fully one-in-two citizens across the 17 countries polled (52%) disagree that “the Internet is a safe place to express my opinions.”
While there are many roles the Internet plays in people’s lives, it is its role in renewing our democracies that get many in Silicon Valley out of bed and into work in the morning. The NSA may literally be killing chances for Internet-fueled democratic renewal if people are afraid to give their honest opinions on-line.
Many of the recent news reports have rightly called on governments and politicians to make changes that will help reverse these negative views of the Internet (reflected in more on-line anonymity) AND our democracies (reflected in alarming declines in voter turn-out).
But politicians are not the only ones with roles to play in strengthening our democracy. With numbers like these, chief executives of media and Internet organizations also need to step into the breach, if only out of self-interest. And the rest of us can speak up as well.

1 A total of 17,589 citizens were interviewed face-to-face or by telephone between December 2013 and February 2014. Countries polled included: Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Russia, South Korea, Spain, the UK, and the USA.

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