- The Era of Manipulation
At the beginning of this century, it was widely assumed that the internet would usher in a new era of freedom. This technological wonder of computerized, open-architecture networking would allow people around the world to share information without constraints, eliminate media "gatekeepers," and foster extraordinary connections, bringing unprecedented advances in knowledge and democratic progress. So went the thinking.
But in the arenas of politics and freedom of expression, this optimistic vision has not been realized. Instead, we find ourselves in a dramatically different set of circumstances, living in an era shaped not by openness, but rather by manipulation.
Over the years, digital technologies have transformed how people understand and interact with the world around them. New social platforms now play a critical role in providing news and information. But the powerful algorithms that are the beating heart of these platforms tend to prioritize what is popular over what is important for civic and public affairs. A 2017 report produced by the Omidyar Group, "Is Social Media a Threat to Democracy?" describes the "algorithmic logic" of social-media platforms that "engineer viral sharing in the interest of their business models." As platforms such as Facebook and Twitter grow, so does the predominance of emotional and sensational content. Distortion [End Page 172] becomes a feature of the system rather than a bug. Politically poisonous discourse is elevated. Foreign adversaries insinuate themselves into the discussion with troubling ease.
Writing in the January 2019 issue of the Journal of Democracy, Ronald Deibert trenchantly articulated "three painful truths" associated with social media: first, that the business model is based on relentless surveillance of consumers' personal data; second, that users permit such surveillance willingly; and third, that social media are compatible in certain ways with authoritarianism. This is a harsh assessment, to be sure, but one that is likely to convince a growing number of observers around the world. Facebook has some 2.6 billion users globally, creating what is in effect its own massive information ecosystem. Google, for its part, owns more than 90 percent of the global search market and receives 63,000 searches per second on any given day. While growth in Facebook users recently has slowed in places such as the United States and parts of Europe, it is on the rise in India, Indonesia, and the Philippines, as well as across sub-Saharan Africa. The same social-media pathologies that emerged in the United States and Europe now are manifesting themselves in distinct ways in new settings.
As these problems have grown, the spotlight on the leading social platforms has become more intense. Recently, a scathing 108-page report written by members of the U.K. Parliament concluded that the United Kingdom should adopt comprehensive new regulations so that law-makers can hold Facebook and its peers in Silicon Valley accountable for digital wrongdoing. Policy makers in other democracies are now turning their attention to such issues with renewed purpose.
So how did we arrive at this point? In The People vs. Tech: How the Internet Is Killing Democracy (and How We Save It), Jamie Bartlett argues that a "bitter conflict" has emerged between "technology and democracy," which are "products of completely different eras and run according to different rules and principles." Pitting technology against democracy (or against "the people," as in the book's title) presents a challenge, because technology is now embedded so intimately and seamlessly into our daily lives and, for better or worse, into the fabric of our democratic systems. Political debates and campaigns have moved online. Political pros seeking to reach and influence voters get the biggest bang for their buck by investing in social media. On a personal level, we are inundated and tempted by information as never before. Bartlett acknowledges this reality: "The modern citizen is expected to sift through an insane torrent of competing facts, networks, friend requests, claims, blogs, data, propaganda, misinformation, investigative journalism, charts, different charts, commentary, and reportage" (p. 53).
While Bartlett is critical of the...