DATADRIVEN DEMOCRACY: Cognitive Dissonance

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The social consequences of the way we use data are uncharted. Indications are that we all have become victims of dark forces and hidden influences from data.
     A seduction based on a misunderstood conviction that data and digital technology always call a spade for a spade.
     That seduction I call ‘Data-driven Democracy’ and that concept will shape your life in the future. The question is whether you trust yourself to resist the temptations.


    In contemporary data-driven democracy, we are all exposed to pervasive surveillance either voluntarily or completely without realizing it. Denmark is ranked first among the world’s most digitized – and thus also among the most data-driven societies. This means that Danes are among the most closely observed people in the world. In Denmark, we monitor ourselves – both voluntarily and involuntarily. But we have only just begun to realize it.

    The way we use data as a resource emphasizes that Denmark is already a data-driven democracy. The change has happened and is affecting our lives – here and now!
    There is growing distrust of the way we use and consume data. Digitization has created a culture of surveillance characterized by fragmentation of democratic influence and legitimacy.

    We have become numb to the surveillance culture of our data-driven democracy. We have created a new type of post-democratic society of control in which the individual participates in an interaction with public and private control measures and – consciously or unconsciously – submits to a digital Panopticon of inhibitory self-control or self-censorship.
    Public and private data processing takes place in a gray zone between voluntary and involuntary surveillance. Your personal data is used for commercial or governmental purposes Most often without your consent.

If you’re using an app, consider whether your app gives you more than you give your app.

The surveillance culture disrupt fundamental democratic ideas about a state that guarantees protection of transparency, freedom of speech, the right to privacy and ownership of personal data. In the data-driven democracy, you are forced to defend yourself.
     While involuntary surveillance occurs without your explicit consent, voluntary surveillance is a consequence of a number of ‘free’ choices and decisions that you make yourself. However, it is debatable whether your decisions are based on rationality or informed accept. The surveillance culture has a built-in latent imbalance – a disharmony, which I call ‘cognitive dissonance’.


    Data-driven democracy involves a non-transparent exchange of rights where a number of ethical, legal and human rights issues are challenged.
    It creates cognitive dissonance. If you want access, you are forced to choose between two equally bad alternatives: Acceptance of surveillance – or exclusion.
    Many write-off basic rights in an exchange where online access is traded for ownership of the data generated by the activity.
    Do you pay for access by completely or partially decline ownership of your personal raw data?  Have you also become indifferent or incapacitated towards public and private use of personal data? The consolation is that if you do nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear.
    But cognitive dissonance transform basic democratic and commercial rules of the game. The majority chooses to accept restrictions on personal freedom and other democratic rights. The choice is between going ‘off-grid’ or participating in blind faith. “Keeping trust is glorious and breaking trust is disgraceful,” as the saying goes in China.

If you need to consider if your app gives you more than you give your app – the business model does not include any notion of trust

Cognitive dissonance is a pivotal theme in a growing distrust towards the surveillance culture that dominates data-driven democracy. You are forced to choose between two equally bad alternatives. This means that in given situations you act against common sense or your own beliefs.
     Data-driven democracy promotes a form of social control where you participate ‘voluntarily’ to avoid social exclusion.
    Thus Cognitive dissonance represents a post-democratic marker that poses a central dilemma in a data-driven surveillance culture.


    Although the purpose of digitization initially appears legitimate and commendable, there is a critical lack of compass directions for ethics, morality and democratic control. The initial dream that social media would give global individual freedom, equality, fraternity and increased understanding between peoples is replaced with growing skepticism.

    It requires a transparent balancing act to avoid dissonance in public and private use of data. Governance must balance three elements:
    Firstly, regulating the use of data is a legal quagmire neither providing transparency to the user nor supporting digital innovation. At the same time, private platforms enforce their standards of self-regulation with their own business in mind.

    When children and adults engage data-driven democracy, they must navigate a murky legal complexity. This obscurity  cannot be expected to provide meaningful consent for the ‘uninitiated’. Most people do not comprehend the legal consequences of the choices they make online. This deficiency challenges their legal rights.

    Secondly, technology has intrinsic criminogenic attributes that make the digital domain the ideal setting for committing ‘the perfect crime’. The victim participates in the majority of crime online – either in good faith, inadvertently or in varying degrees of carelessness. A single click may contradict your own interests. This will make anyone feel vulnerable and insecure. Confidence in the future use of data is contingent on how we limit the alarming rise in the number of users who become victims of various forms of digital deviance or crime. It destabilizes the credibility of the online environment.

    Thirdly, interactions between humans and technology hold innate psycho-social enablers that influence the rationality of your choices. It results in a seduction where others challenge your common sense, habits and values. You will be lured into actions that you normally would not engage in or regret later. You will have difficulty trusting whether your choices are indeed your own.
    Overall, there is a critical need for a wealth of confidence-building measures across a wide range of problem areas. But trusting public and private use of data is first and foremost a complex political challenge, where cognitive dissonance is a common theme across the many challenges.


     Trust depends on whether users are able to recognize how public authorities and private companies exploit digital opportunities and new technology. There are no shortcuts or quick-fixes to restore digital credibility. The challenge is to formulate a political direction that balances specific courses of action.    

Transparency is a prerequisite for balance. Cognitive balance is a prerequisite for trust. Specific political openness about the use of data and new technology should pursue the basic principle that transparency means you can trust the digital choices you make online. Right down to the smallest and most insignificant click.

The Danish version of this article was published in Version2 on 14.01.2020

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