- Rebooting Democracy
Few social scientists have done as much to expose the internet's risks and dangers as Canadian political scientist Ronald Deibert. Measured and soft-spoken, he has been fearless and relentless in exposing corporate, criminal, and government efforts to hijack the internet for profit and power. For this, he and his interdisciplinary research center at the University of Toronto, Citizen Lab, have earned the ire of autocrats, securocrats, and kleptocrats as well as harassment from digital-surveillance companies such as Israel's NSO Group. In this riveting and eloquent book, Deibert distills two decades of Citizen Lab research and a lifetime of civic commitment into a seminal dissection of what has gone wrong with digital life, and how to "reset" it.
The core problems, as Deibert identifies them, have been known for some time to savvy social-media users and analysts. But in Reset, he vividly sets them forth, unpacking the alarming trajectory of digital life with rare levels of technical and moral clarity. A scrupulous researcher and philosophically committed liberal, Deibert is not given to hyperbole. But he believes that human society has reached a "turning point" (p. 27): We risk irreversible losses of human freedom and privacy if we do not impose democratic controls on digital technologies and the companies and governments that deploy them.
The bulk of the book articulates four "painful truths" about social media and the highly globalized technological infrastructure underlying them [End Page 179] (p. 27). The first truth is embedded in the term "surveillance capitalism." Unlike print and broadcast media, social media have a revenue model that does not depend on subscriptions or even primarily on selling ads (though social media do a lot of that, too). Rather, it depends on amassing, analyzing, and commercializing personal data. Hence, social media have become "relentless machines that dig deeper and deeper into our personal lives, attaching more and more sensors to more and more things, in a never-ending quest for unattainable omniscience" (p. 28). Companies design their apps and platforms to track our movements, conversations, locations, and emotions—even when we are not using them. Terms-of-service agreements give users the illusion of individual choice and control, but they are so dense and ritualistic that they have come to "trivialize" consent (p. 96).
To extract as much data as possible from us, social media must shock, awe, and addict us to their platforms—this is the second painful truth. The longer we remain engaged with their services, the more data the companies collect. To accomplish this, "social media engineers use techniques from advertising and behavioral science to make the uses of social media more compelling—and more difficult to ignore" (p. 91). With the aid of artificial intelligence (AI) and the massive troves of data they collect, social-media companies continuously fine-tune the addiction loop to fit the preferences, biases, and anxieties of each individual. As the companies update their algorithms and game designs to make them "unquittable" (p. 102), people surrender ever more of their lives, personal autonomy, manners, and even mental health. The more "sensational, extreme, scandalous, and even horrifying" the content, the more it "shocks us and pulls on our emotions" (p. 91). Unfortunately, it also pulls apart society in the process, and renders it vulnerable to manipulation by predatory actors, foreign and domestic. "Huge waves of outrage … spread virally in a few hours … and vulnerable groups dive for cover" (p. 112).
Social media have become, as Deibert entitles the second chapter, "toxic addiction machines," spewing gossip, disinformation, racism, "xenophobia, ignorance, and malice" (p. 89). As a result, the public square has been drained of civility and the capacity for reflection and reasoned debate. Certainly, human history has featured no shortage of ethnic and religious violence, but social media readily inflame identity divisions and enable outraged mobs to be mobilized with a new speed and virality. Meanwhile, electoral politics faces a "dystopian future" in which (as in the Philippines today) "disinformation operations are run with impunity" [End Page 180] (p. 126) and campaigns become a...