Research page

Project timeline: 2020 - 2023

Project description: 

The time when the internet epitomized progressive, innovative, bottom-up politics has passed. The business-models of platforms, intelligence services, the use of the internet for propaganda purposes, the proliferation of online political bubbles and the proliferation of trolls and bots have tarnished the romantic image of digital democracy. Questions about the potential impact of the internet are now routinely raised in relation to political events and elections in most places. The internet is an infrastructure selecting, directing, conducting, generating and delimiting the terrain of democratic contestation. Even if people are no digital dupes, concerns about how the internet relates to democracy are amply warranted. This project speaks to those concerns. The project asks how the digital infrastructuring of democracy unfolds through regulatory and political processes, with a heuristic focus on both its transnational dimension and its specific reverberations in democracies of the Global South. It emphasizes a regulatory politics located within digital infrastructures and working with ICT rather than from the outside and against them.

The project will focus on the three main aspects of the digital infrastructure: codes, content, and circulation. It will analyze the place of these in the political and regulatory processes that form one aspect of the broader infrastructuring of democracy. The project will concentrate on one thematic controversy related to each aspect of infrastructure: the accountability of algorithms for code, data protection for content, and encryption for circulation. These controversies will be studied at an overarching level as well as in relation to their unfolding in the Brazilian context. The project will comprise studies of the debates surrounding Facebook’s automated removal of content, the leaks leading to President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, and the contested place of Whatsapp groups. It uses process-tracing methods, combining text and document analysis with controversy mapping and ethnographic methods. The project is interdisciplinary and problem-oriented, and focuses on work packages on the thematic controversies and the related case studies.

The project makes a significant contribution to understanding the political and regulatory aspects of the infrastructuring of democracy by the internet. It studies how digital infrastructures can be understood not only as socio-technical and socio-material phenomena, but also as legal and political ones; i.e. how digital infrastructures are part of legal and political arrangements. It also generates novel conceptualizations of political agency/publics and regulatory rules/normativities-conceptualizations which will be essential to efforts to regulate the interactions between digital infrastructures and democratic politics. The project will direct attention to the transnational dimension of these processes, including the presence of powerful commercial actors, which are inescapably salient for countries such as Brazil. Moreover, the project contributes empirically to research about the digital dimensions of Brazilian democracy and about the regulatory politics in the areas of algorithms, data protection, and encryption. Given the funding modalities provided, the project privileges research exchange workshops and stipends for junior researchers. It focuses on the synergies generated by bringing together expertise primarily from Brazil and Switzerland in a collective research agenda developing a common perspective on digital infrastructuring. This will result, inter alia, in thematic policy papers, two peer-reviewed articles and two monographs, as well as in significant academic and policy-oriented training for the benefit of the junior researchers involved.

Click here to access the project website.

Background: This project is funded through the Brazilian-Swiss Joint Research Programme (BSJRP) from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF). This grant is aimed at researchers in Switzerland who wish to address specific research questions together with partners in Brazil.

Advisory board:

  • Claudia Aradau - King's College London

  • Andrew Clapham - Graduate Institute, Geneva 

  • Philipp Dann - Humboldt University Berlin

  • Caitiln Sampaio Mulholland - PUC-Rio

  • Donatella Della Ratta - John Cabot University in Rome

  • Marcio Moretto Ribeiro - USP

  • Allan Rocha de Souza - UFRRJ

  • Nishant Shah - ArtEZ University of Arts, The Netherlands

  • Bia Barbosa - Intervozes collective

  • Sébastien F. Brack - Senior Political Officer at the Kofi Annan Foundation

  • Yasodara Córdova – Digital Kennedy School


Principal Investigator, collaborators and researchers

Principal Investigators:

  • Anna Leander

  • Florian Hoffman (PUC-Rio)


  • Luis Fernandes (PUC-Rio)

  • Deval Desai

Research Assistant:

  • Pedro Maia