Over the last few years, the potentially damaging impact of the internet, and particularly social media, on democracy has increasingly come to dominate the news. The recently disclosed internal Facebook emails, which revealed that employees discussed allowing developers to harvest user data for a fee, are but the latest in a long line of scandals surrounding social media platforms. Facebook has also been accused, alongside Twitter, of fuelling the spread of false information. In October, the Brazilian newspaper Folha exposed how Jair Bolsonaro’s candidacy benefited from a coordinated disinformation campaign conducted via Whatsapp, which is owned by Facebook. And there are growing concerns that this tactic could be used to skew the Indian general elections in April.
Given these alarming revelations it’s easy perhaps to overlook the ways in which the internet also plays a role in strengthening democracy. It allows citizens to mobilise in authoritarian states and in stable democracies alike. By collapsing physical space and giving access to global communication to the many, it is particularly effective in allowing groups to share their stories, explore their identities and uncover uncomfortable truths about power dynamics. Through the web, disadvantaged groups were able to pierce the media frames that presented their plight as a collection of isolated cases, and unveil the systemic nature of the discrimination they faced.
Understandably, there is considerable disagreement about the net balance, the breadth and the underlying processes that fuel the internet’s impact on society. But broadly, I have identified three competing camps: the ‘denialists’, the ‘narrativists’ and the ‘architecturalists’.
The denialists deny the internet is responsible for the problems we see today. They believe that the internet is as neutral as a mirror and that if people do not like what the internet is producing, they should look at the deep inequality that is pervasive across their societies.
They say that in a networked world, where people can easily coordinate, tolerance for injustice is lower and our unjust societies are no longer sustainable. In the same way that the printing press is considered to have fuelled the collapse of feudalism, today’s information highway is simply making injustices apparent. Social tensions are not just warranted but can only be resolved through political reform. The internet allows people to come together and fight injustice. In short, their message is that we should fix injustice, not the internet.
This camp includes many media analysts who covered the Arab Spring. In particular, those who argued that the internet would become a tool for digital coordination that would lead to a more just world. It also seems like a fitting description of how activists on both the left and right have gauged their success in terms of reaching those who have been disenfranchised and forgotten by institutions and traditional media.
The narrativists claim social cooperation requires a shared narrative and that the internet – where thousands of voices are juxtaposed in a chaotic fashion – undermines this goal. They point to the way that micro-targeting of political adverts allows political candidates to spread different, and often contradictory, messages to different people.
Narrativists also emphasize that the seamless coordination enabled by the internet has undermined traditional power brokers, such as political parties and trade unions, and nurtured thousands of narrow interest groups. In the past, they argue, traditional power brokers would work towards establishing a platform that could consistently arrange a myriad of ideas and demands.
Today, the internet is fuelling a chaotic system of issue politics, where leaders can promise to cater to a wide range of interest groups without explaining how each promise fits within a broader framework of thought. In short their message is that, far from bringing people together, the internet allows them to isolate themselves into smaller groups of like-minded people.
This camp includes many in the traditional mainstream media and communications scholars who rely on the arguments put forward by experts from top universities in the UK and US alike.
The architecturalists claim that the internet is not a fixed structure and that what is causing today’s anxieties can be traced to relatively recent developments in the architecture of the internet. They argue that the original design of the internet created incentives for people to pay attention to the quality of the content they created and shared. In the early days of the internet, there were no gatekeepers and an open marketplace of ideas organically tended to promote good over bad content.
In contrast, the ad-based revenue model pursued by many modern tech giants incentivizes engagement, and with it, content that is explosive, but not necessarily of good quality. Furthermore, whereas the original system was non-hierarchical, decentralized and required active users, a handful of companies now operate as gatekeepers and they funnel content through algorithms to users who are being pushed into passivity. Whereas before users would click-by-click navigate the open internet, users are now placed behind ‘walled gardens’ where they scroll through reams of content curated for them by proprietary algorithms.
Whereas in the decentralized system problems were local, problems in centralized systems spread like wildfire. Furthermore, the predominant ad-based revenue model makes these problems look more like a feature of the system than a bug. Too much power is in too few hands and the ad-based revenue model is making these gatekeepers terrible managers.
The architecturalist camp often builds upon the thoughts of the original architects of today’s internet, as well as a new generation of leaders, who believe blockchain technologies can help replace many of the intermediaries that are responsible for much of what is problematic with today’s internet.
So who is right?
Each of the three camps has a point. At a first glance, one might think these three archetypes are like the fable of the blind men and the elephant: each narrowly focused on a specific aspect, and incapable of grasping the big picture.
Yet, reality could be bleaker. A handful of private companies control the information that is needed to understand how the online ecosystem works. They manage the key infrastructure, and most experts in the field are running this infrastructure after having signed non-disclosure agreements. Thus, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave might be a more fitting metaphor. Control over key data allows these companies to play the role of shadow-masters. They get the chance to reveal only the portions of reality they find convenient, defining how the general public perceives the online space. Information scarcity is therefore not just the natural consequence of the internet’s novelty; it is created artificially and for strategic purposes: To shape public opinion.
Should we break up these big companies? Should we allow them to continue growing, but under strict, utility-type rules? Should we do nothing? Whatever we do should be the result of a robust public debate. One that is based on the best available evidence regarding the effects the internet is having on power relations, and is therefore capable of defining the set of actions that would best serve the public interest. In short, at this point, we need key information to be disclosed and available for public scrutiny. But information is power – and it is unlikely to be disclosed voluntarily. It might require regulation.
When food production became industrialized, the US Government created the Food and Drug Administration, which was tasked with monitoring and disclosing information regarding compliance with quality standards. When government became too complex for the average citizen to navigate, ombuds offices sprouted across the globe. As an independent institution of government, ombuds were given the duty and power to investigate how government units work, and report on matters concerning people’s rights. The current situation requires exploring a similarly bold institutional reform. One focused on ensuring the data needed to inform public debate is made available by the tech industry.
Most people scoffed at the limited understanding of our digital world members of the US Congress revealed when they grilled Mark Zuckerberg. And yet it’s likely Facebook is not the only company behaving recklessly, nor the US Senators the only public representatives that are “ignorant”.
What we have is a growing gap between where power lies and where the institutions that seek to hold it accountable to the people operate. Such institutions are incapable of ensuring that democratically elected leaders can deliver their campaign promises. This is what is ultimately triggering social tensions and undermining trust in our democracies. We need our institutions to interpret these tensions as red flags and a call for a new social contract. And we need institutions to react now. This situation goes far beyond the debate around digitalization. Yet the online space is our future, and is therefore where this gap is most visible and urgent.
If our current institutions of government fail to ensure that the ongoing technological revolution puts people first, these institutions will sooner or later be rendered irrelevant.
A previous version of this article was published at Chatham House.