2024 is going to be the biggest election year in history. More than 4 billion people will be eligible to vote in local, regional or national elections – over half the world’s population. Some may see this as a signal that democracy is thriving, but in reality, it’s facing great uncertainty everywhere. Concerns suggest that these elections may only serve to illuminate exactly how much democracy is currently under threat.
According to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) report, there is a total of 76 countries scheduled to hold elections in 2024 – and only 43 will experience fully free and fair elections. That significant drop illustrates just why holding elections (while incredibly important) does not guarantee a fully free and fair democracy. Indeed, there are varying levels of ‘democraticness’ around the world, with some examples like authoritarian Russia, due to hold elections with a guaranteed result. Although it feels foundational in the West, democracy is not as stable or guaranteed as we might wish to think. The latest conclusion is that on an international scale, democracy has, at best, stalled or, at worst, declined, even after pre-pandemic freedoms have been restored.
10 factors that are threatening democracy in 2024
- Misinformation and disinformation – which distorts reality and undermines public trust.
- Polarisation and extremism – which weakens societal cohesion and democratic values.
- Electoral interference and voter suppression – which undermines the integrity of elections.
- Corruption and lack of transparency – which erodes public trust in government.
- Concentration of power and erosion of checks and balances – which can lead to authoritarianism.
- Decline in civic engagement and political participation – which can weaken democratic institutions.
- Foreign interference and cyberattacks – which can undermine democratic processes (like elections) and institutions.
- Climate change and other global challenges – which can strain democratic systems and create societal tensions.
- Economic inequality and social injustice – which can undermine democratic values and fuel political instability.
- Lack of access to quality education and civic literacy – which can weaken the foundations on which democracy is built.
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, and these various threats are often interconnected and exacerbated by each other, especially misinformation and disinformation – arguably the most infiltrating factor of all and, perhaps ironically, it’s an issue that pre-dates democracy itself, having been traced back to humanity’s origins.
What makes misinformation and disinformation such a threat today?
The biggest factor is definitely the rise of ‘the digital age’, the time when personal computers and other technologies were introduced to provide individuals with easy, rapid access to transfer information. Of course, social media platforms were born from this and have only compounded the range and speed at which information can travel, including misinformation and disinformation. Within seconds, non-factual or purposely misleading information can now reach global audiences. There’s no ability to ensure corrections are disseminated effectively, and with the rise of emerging technologies and AI, it’s getting increasingly more difficult to differentiate between true and false information. That is the frightening reality of modern times, which in turn, causes some very frightening consequences to democracy and its core pillars.
What harm does misinformation and disinformation pose to democracy?
Arguably, the biggest threat is the decline in trust – because democracy without trust is like windsurfing without a board. As we highlighted in our LGIU@40 For the Future of Local Government Manifesto at the end of last year, democratic institutions at all levels are facing a decline in trust. False information or campaigns of disinformation have been used to erode public trust in democratic institutions, processes and traditional media. This decline also causes a rise in scepticism and apathy, making it harder for institutions to regain lost trust even when being truthful and trustworthy.
Another significant area of concern is its ability to distort elections by spreading false information about candidates, policy or issues. Elections are, at the fundamentals, based on citizens obtaining information and using this to cast votes for candidates that align most closely with their views. If the information attained is false or misleading, that can skew the election process; and undermine the legitimacy of the process and those in power who are not a true representation of the population’s will.
In a time where polarisation and extremism are growing, misinformation and disinformation can add fuel to the fire by promoting ideologies, conspiracy theories and hate speech, which can radicalise individuals and groups. This can fully undermine core democratic values like tolerance, compromise and pluralism and contribute to societal divisions. In turn, people become more isolated in echo chambers of similar views, causing the divide to grow further. As we saw during Covid-19, there is also a threat to public health due to misinformation and disinformation undermining the advice and trust of government and scientists.
Last but not least, holding space to rightly scrutinise those in power is a fundamental part of a functioning democracy. In a sea of misinformation that obscures the truth, citizens will struggle to be able to hold government and leaders to account. This can result in a lack of transparency and overall weaken the democratic systems as people become disengaged and disenfranchised.
Overall, the cumulative worst-case impact of misinformation and disinformation is a weakened democracy, where citizens are misinformed, trust is destroyed, elections are distorted, polarisation runs rampant, and systems collapse due to a decline in civic engagement and an increase in disillusionment. That’s why, in the biggest election year on record, perhaps a uniting focus at all levels should be on countering the damage and aiming to restore trust back in democracy so that people do want to participate and protect it in the first place.
What can local government do to help build trust back?
Despite the current climate of threats against democracy, there are still reasons to be hopeful. Local government can play a crucial role in combating the effects of misinformation and disinformation. Some actions can include:
- Develop and disseminate media literacy programs – From workshops to public campaigns and partnerships with schools and community groups, this can help educate citizens about how to identify and counter misinformation.
- Support local journalism – Local journalism is the bedrock of local democracy. A lack of legitimate, trusted information sources will inevitably provide a bigger space for misinformation and disinformation to thrive. Support can involve advertising in these publications, providing funding or grants and promoting their work to citizens.
- Collaborate with social media platforms – Local government can work with social media companies to help identify and remove misinformation, particularly during elections or public health crises. They can also use the sites to promote digital literacy programs to help citizens navigate social media.
- Promote transparency and accountability – The best way to gain trust is to be trustworthy in every aspect of governance by closing the gaps for misinformation and disinformation to infiltrate and cause concerns and doubts. This can involve providing accurate and timely information, holding open meetings and being transparent to encourage citizens to trust in local government as the leaders of the community.
- Encourage civic engagement – The best way to strengthen democracy is to get more people involved, and without a doubt, most opportunities for regular civic engagement stem from a local government level. Encouraging citizens to participate and stay informed about local issues through public forums, citizen advisory boards, campaigns, and so forth, is one of the biggest tools for a thriving democracy, and it sits well under the local government remit.
- Collaborate with others – The threats facing democracy and far too big to tackle alone. Just like the principle of democracy’s own origins, societal-wide collaboration will be the key to its survival. Local government can work with other levels of government and organisations to share best practice, develop regional and national strategies and help run coordinated response campaigns to threats like misinformation and disinformation.
Are you doing any of these in your local community or something else to combat misinformation and disinformation? Tell us and your colleagues in local government about the work you’re doing so we can share best practice and tackle the problems that unite us together!
Overall, it is crucial local government take steps to combat misinformation and disinformation by educating citizens, supporting reliable information sources, promoting transparency and accountability, and fostering civic engagement. By working together with citizens, media, national government and other stakeholders, local government can help build more resilient and informed communities.
Ultimately, the state of democracy by the end of 2024 will depend on the actions and the attitudes of citizens, leaders and institutions like local government – nothing is set in stone yet.
Read more about what can be done to build trust in local government and democracy in our LGIU@40 Manifesto for the Future of Local government