Collective Intelligence in Endangered Democracies: Can Digital Technology Enable Civil Society to Fight Democracy’s Threats?


The rapid development of digital technology has been impacting democratic governance in unprecedent ways. Digital tools have multiplied channels and opportunities for citizen participation and compelled governments to open data and commit to transparency. Civil society increasingly rely on digital technology to implement democratic innovations that seek to address all sorts of public problems by means of citizen participation. Digital tools foster political mobilization, reduce the costs of civic engagement, and enable relatively easy, low-cost setups for democratic innovation. Yet, the lack of access to digital technology may also deepen existing social and political inequalities and its misuse may negatively impact on democratic processes, for example, by disseminating disinformation.

As democracies around the world are under threat, how much can digital citizen participation address current challenges such as, for example, social problems resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic and the spread of fake news in electoral processes? Our research aims to tackle those questions by investigating a powerful resource civil society makes available to democratic governments: collective intelligence. The latter draws on digital technology to source, aggregate, and share knowledge, information, and data in order to solve public problems, as well as to formulate and implement more legitimate and democratic policies.

We seek to investigate the potential of collective intelligence to address challenges to democracy in Brazil – a country historically characterized by deep inequalities and low state capacity, and currently threatened by polarization, populism, and authoritarianism. Brazil is the world’s second country most affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, in part due to the government’s unwillingness to respond to the health emergency and its active role on the dissemination of misinformation. Brazil has also a strong civil society, a pioneering experience with participatory institutions, and relatively high rates of internet penetration. These factors have contributed to an exponential increase on forms of digital-based citizen engagement in recent years, among which many rely on collective intelligence.

Our research project is divided in two stages:  

1) Collective Intelligence against the Covid-19 Pandemic in Rio de Janeiro

The first stage of the project focus on how civil society organizations, social movements, and ordinary citizens have relied on digital technology to gather knowledge, information, and data to improve and compensate for the lack of government’s responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

We are investigating initiatives that relied on collective intelligence in order to understand the role of civil society and digital technology in mitigating the impact of the pandemic. We seek to understand how “citizen sourcing” or “civic crowdsourcing” may become relevant problem-solving and decision-making tools in democracies, especially those endangered by low state capacity, high social inequality, and populism.

We are currently on the process of identifying and analyzing technologies of collective intelligence that have been designed to address immediate needs of vulnerable groups and neighborhoods, as well as to tackle a variety of public problems related to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as malnutrition, unemployment, gender and racial discrimination, and disinformation.

We are working on a case study of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, during the first 18 months of the COVID-19 outbreak. Rio de Janeiro combines low state capacity, high social inequality, and a strong civil society, in addition to being a hotspot with record rates of mortality during the pandemic. We aim to assess how successful collective intelligence’ initiatives were in addressing social political, and economic effects of the pandemic in Rio de Janeiro and the extent to which they have fed into the local government’s responses.

2) Collective Intelligence against Disinformation in Brazil’s 2022 Elections  

The second stage of the project will focus on how collective intelligence can counteract the political use of disinformation and misinformation, often associated with populist politicians. There is a rising number of civil society’s organizations and initiatives that use collective intelligence to generate verified knowledge, fact-check information, detect misinformation, gather and publicize reliable data, and produce counter-narratives to uncover fake news.

We will investigate Brazil’s 2022 elections in order to understand the role played by technologies of collective intelligence in the fight against disinformation and misinformation. We are interested on examining their potential to increase accountability by generating verified information and reliable data.

We will run a survey experiment to measure the effectiveness of collective intelligence initiatives aimed at fighting disinformation during the electoral campaign. We seek to understand the extent to which they can impact (and correct) voters’ perceptions of misleading information that circulate in social media in the months preceding the presidential election.


A cooperation between WZB and the University of Oxford

Thamy Pogrebinschi (WZB)
Mariana Borges Martins da Silva (Oxford)


Research Assistant

Maria Dominguez

Funding: WZB
Duration: July 2021 to December 2022


Related Publications

Pogrebinschi, Thamy (2020): Might social intelligence save Latin America from its governments in times of Covid-19?, OpenDemocracy