Q&A  | 

Tech to take sovereignty back to the citizen with Ismael Peña López

“The poor are more at risk of disinformation.”


Reading Time: 6 minutes

Ismael Peña López is PhD. in Society of Information and Knowledge and Bachelor of Economic and Business - his work focuses on the impact of ICTs on the development of society and on educational and political institutions.

Peña López is also the General Director of Citizen Participation and Electoral Processes for the Government of Catalonia, implementing a strategy for citizen participation to make public decision-making more engaging and understandable. "We aim to transform the administration through participation, and we aim to make this participation possible," he explains. His ultimate goal: "to fight populism and anti-politics."

How has technology transformed politics?

Technology has radically changed all human activities, especially interpersonal relationships – and yes, information and knowledge are interpersonal relationships deferred in time.

The institutions of democracy – parties, unions, civil society organisations, parliaments, etc. – put simply, serve as intermediaries for those relationships, managing knowledge that was previously scarce and expensive to manipulate. Thus, we realise that technology not only transforms politics, but also blows up the foundations upon which everything was built in the democratic system.

We have already passed a turning point from which the trend has clearly changed – in Spain between March 13, 2004 and May 15, 2011.

In politics, technology opens up opportunities, such as increasing pressure for greater transparency and ethics; it makes it possible to directly influence the public agenda; minorities excluded from the political debate become critical masses that can set trends; and new actors show up in new spaces and with new tools across all stages of public politics, from diagnosis to impact assessment, through design, deliberation and decision-making itself. All this for better and for worse, of course.

Do new information and communication channels improve or worsen the quality of the political information that reaches citizens?

The Internet, in general, does not simply add, it multiplies. If we multiply positives, we are better off; if we multiply negatives …we are worse off. In this sense, the Internet confirms the so-called knowledge gap hypothesis, following which knowledge and the ability to learn depend largely on one’s social extraction. Information, when made more available, doesn’t spread equally but rather increases inequalities, since the wealthy are in a better position to take make the most of opportunities than the poor.

This hypothesis has been tested in different areas: greater access to media does not make us better voters. The wealthy vote in a more informed way whereas the poor are more at risk of disinformation; public libraries are used more by those who already have access to reading or culture in general; computers in classrooms help “good” students with their homework and distract “bad” students thus worsening their academic results.

The same is happening with the new digital channels of information and communication.

Educated classes use transparency and open data webs to stay informed, and their contacts and social networks to influence the public agenda. Meanwhile, the not so wealthy are so shaken and overwhelmed by toxic information that they do not have the time or often the knowledge to analyse in depth. This leads to them forming an opinion that, paradoxically, ends up being contrary to their own interests.

How can a democratic society ensure that information and communication are not detrimental to citizens' own good?

Guarantee and information are two words that hardly go together. The former requires, by definition, a strong intervention from a third party. If the Administration intervenes in the field of information and communication for the sake of its quality, it will most likely end up breaking information diversity, and if it does it in the name of safety it’ll take freedom away.

The best way to control great power, such as the power to inform or the power to stay informed and to communicate, is to tie it to great responsibility.

Citizens must take responsibility for looking for the best sources, for not spreading information that they consider doubtful or biased. Democracy and political institutions must take responsibility for communicating in an ethical way, for making available as much information as possible and in the best possible way; and finally, the media must prioritise deontological ethics over economic or political interests.

Of course, they can receive assistance and incentives to take on all these responsibilities: training, resources for greater autonomy and independence, laws for political parties, transparency, patronage and funding, anti-corruption laws, democratic professional associations with high legitimacy and representation, etc.

The bottomline should not be how to influence information, but rather how to make different actors assume more responsibility, and how to encourage ethical actions and social control.

Does technology foster populism?

This debate already took place with Gutenberg: the printing press made it possible for anyone to publish a book, without the “quality control” attributed to copyist monks. There’s no doubt that this contributed to amplifying “populisms” from the 16th century onwards. But it is also true that property and, above all, the interpretation of books ceased to be the monopoly of very few economic and social elites. As I mentioned before, technology amplifies all voices tremendously, as did the printing press, radio and television – the “old” information and communication technologies. “Bad” voices are amplified, but tech also amplifies silenced ones, those of minorities, voices not articulated or institutionally represented, as well as their interpretations and the debates and deliberations around them, etc.

The fact that almost anyone can carry a TV or radio station or a global newspaper in their pocket and that information can be created and disseminated in real time reduces the time to reflect upon it, makes boycott or intoxication through information cheaper and strengthens all the catalysts of populism like never before.

But it also empowers advocates of democracy in equal measure. What really contributes to the rise of populism are poor educational systems, economic models that perpetuate or increase inequality, and institutions that are badly designed in regards to citizen participation as well as public governance.

In one of your articles you point out that, over time, populism ends up leading to fascism. Do digital channels accelerate this process?


We live in a situation of great social inequality and global governance crisis. In regards with the multiplying impact of the Internet, the former is growing faster, much faster than the processes to correct these inequalities or to redesign the institutions of democratic governance. Thus, the double trend that began in the 1980s with the loss of sovereignty by the citizens and their leaning toward populisms is effectively causing a growing drift towards totalitarianisms.

Secondly, digitisation fosters great network economies. The economies of scale of the industrial era caused a concentration of resources and means of production, and network economies accentuate and accelerate this trend. They do so by fostering concentration not only on the supply but also on the demand side, both in terms of economic production and social relations.

Should the citizens' sovereignty be restored and how can technology help?

It is essential that sovereignty is restored.

The digital revolution has put us at a crossroads with two completely opposite paths: on the one hand, the possibility of increasing the concentration of power both in the amount of power and in the number of hands that will hold it.

The current trend, and I don’t want to be an alarmist, leads to a feudal society with a vast majority of no-haves and a tiny minority who have everything.

The other path, impossible in the industrial and possible now, is the redistribution of access to the means of production but also to all kinds of social institutions, since technology so allows. In a society of knowledge, increasingly based on the intangible, it is more possible than ever to distribute sovereignties among all citizens.

However, technology just provides the means. For both trends. Again, responsibility falls back on social control and the design of institutions. And by institutions we understand how we vote, how we are represented, how we participate, how we learn, how we work, how we make laws and how we enforce them.

And we close the circle: by assuming more responsibilities in terms of public management, we will be able to redesign the institutions, thereby regaining sovereignty in the public sphere and consequently in the personal sphere too.

On November 3 the US presidential elections will take place. What's the US Political communication and campaigning impact on the rest of the world?

In my opinion, it’s the economic, technological and social model that is affecting the rest of the world, in all areas of society, rather than the way they do political communication.

If we combine economic power, size in terms of population, and power in terms of technology, the United States is exporting an explosive combination to the rest of the world: a technology – that is never neutral – with a strong individualistic part, supported by an economic and legal model that favours this individualism – often at the expense of the collective – and with a breeding ground of 320 million people that allows it to grow in a culturally homogeneous environment.

By the time that model goes out to the world, it is mature and strong enough, not only as a market product, but also as a cultural model in society. Recently, conflicts have arisen between Europe and the United States due to cultural models rather than economic issues.

Therefore, I think it’s not US political campaigning or communication that’s transforming our culture, it’s sovereignty over technology and sovereignty over our institutions. Sovereignty not in terms of nation, but community.