Democracy@Risk - Report and Launch Event

In the wake of the digital surge caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, citizens are spending a record proportion of their day on their digital devices, whilst the level of public dissatisfaction with democracy is at its highest since the mid-1990s. It seems that in this twenty-first century, the demos have never been more online, and democracy has never felt more at risk.

Democracy@Risk is a research project led by Professor Emma Barrett and Professor Rachel Gibson at The University of Manchester. Drawing on existing research and scholarship, the report sheds further light on digital political micro-targeting and online misinformation as two potential sources of harm for democracy in the digital age, and assesses the challenges relating to digital information literacy as one of the most frequently proposed solutions to the problems generated by these phenomena.

Key areas


1. Digital political micro-targeting

This is online advertising that uses personal data about individuals to determine whether, what, and how political adverts are shown to them on digital platforms (such as social media).

The report asks three major questions around digital political micro-targeting:

  • Can it be used to ‘steal’ elections through subliminal persuasion?
  • Does it receive adequate oversight?
  • Does it entrench problematic patterns in political behaviour? 

2. Online misinformation

This covers misinformation, disinformation and malinformation.

The report asks three major questions around online misinformation:

  • Where does misinformation originate and how does it spread?
  • What are the effects of misinformation on political behaviour?
  • What are the harms for democracy?

3. Digital information literacy (DIL)

This is posited as a possible solution to the problems generated by digital political micro-targeting and online misinformation. It entails:

  • Functional digital skills
  • Technical understanding of the digital landscape
  • Critical and interpretive skills
  • Practical application of the above skills and willingness to engage in behavioural change
  • Communal sense-making

The report gives some key recommendations for improving digital information literacy:

  • Recognise the strategic importance of DIL
  • Make DIL a core, cross-subject component in schools
  • Ensure holistic support for DIL education

Read the full report

The full report is now available to read. You can access the PDF below.


Democracy@Risk Launch Event

On Monday 20th September we hosted the Democracy@Risk Launch, a cross-theme event between our Citizens & Democracy and Digital Trust & Security themes. Our speakers discussed some of the potential sources of harm to democracy identified in the Democracy@Risk report, a summary of a multidisciplinary literature review carried out at The University of Manchester in 2020. 

Dr Ariadna Tsenina (Research Associate at The University of Manchester) introduced the event with an overview of the Democracy@Risk report, explaining the main issues identified in the report and putting forward its areas of recommendation.

We then heard from our three speakers who gave further insight into each of the report’s three key areas. Professor Kate Dommett (Senior Lecturer in the Public Understanding of Politics at The University of Sheffield) discussed the recommendations in the report on the topic of digital political micro-targeting.

This was followed by Professor Martin Innes (Director of Cardiff University Crime and Security Research Institute & Director of Universities' Police Science Institute), who explored some of the challenges around online misinformation. Next, Professor Kari Kiniven (Education Outreach Expert at EUIPO Observatory) shared some insights on the importance of digital information literacy.

Professor Rachel Gibson, Digital Futures Citizens & Democracy theme lead, concluded the session with a Q&A session where participants were invited to put their questions to the panel.

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