Three perspectives on the relationship between the internet and social change

Also available in Spanish and Albanian. Feel free to translate and republish (CC-BY)

Over the last few years, the potentially damaging impact of the internet 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 fueling 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 to overlook the ways in which the internet also plays a role in strengthening democracy. It allows citizens to mobilize 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 face.

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, there seem to be three competing camps in this debate: the ‘denialists’, the ‘narrativists’ and the ‘architecturalists’.

Denialists

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.

Denialists 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 fueled 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. Since the internet allows people to come together and fight injustice, it should be considered a key tool for reformers. 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 had been disenfranchised and forgotten by institutions and traditional media.

Narrativists

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, argue the narrativists, traditional power brokers would work towards establishing a platform that could consistently arrange a myriad of ideas and demands. Today, the internet is fueling a chaotic system of issue politics, where leaders can leverage micro-targeting to cater to a wide range of interest groups without ever having to explain how each promise fits within a broader political program or 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.

The narrativist 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.

Architechturalists

The architecturalists claim that the internet is not a fixed structure and that what causes today’s anxieties can be traced to relatively recent developments in the architecture of the internet: centralisation. In the early days of the internet, there were no gatekeepers. Today Google and Facebook have influence over +70% of online traffic.

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. Traffic to one’s website depended on other people placing links to it. An open marketplace of ideas organically tended to promote good over bad content.

In contrast, the ad-based revenue model that runs today’s internet chases engagement, and through algorithms designed to keep people hooked onto screens, it fuels the reach of content that is explosive, but not necessarily of good quality. Think about the rise of click-bait on traditional media, for example.

Whereas the original system required active users who, click-by-click, rowed through an open ocean of content, today a handful of gate-keeping companies have herded users into walled gardens. Within these walled gardens people’s agency becomes limited, and passivity promoted: “Remain in this comfort zone. The conveyor belt will provide everything you need: content curated by secret algorithms. Content that is just for you!”

Whereas in the decentralized system problems were local, problems in centralized systems spread like wildfire. And the predominant ad-based revenue model makes many of these “problems” look more like a feature of the system than a bug. Too much power is in too few hands, the architechturalists say, and the ad-based revenue model is making these gatekeepers act like terrible managers.

The architecturalist camp often builds upon the thoughts of the original architects of the Web 1.0, 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 playing a part in 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 these big companies up? Should we allow them to continue to grow, but under strict, utility-styled regulation? Doing nothing is yet another policy. And we should scrutinize it with as much determination as the previous two. I have but one certainty: whatever we choose to 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 made available for public scrutiny. But information is power — and it is unlikely to be disclosed voluntarily.

When food production became industrialized, the US Government created the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 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.

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 have become incapable of enabling democratically elected leaders to deliver on their campaign promises. This failure is what is ultimately triggering social tensions, undermining trust in our democracies, and boosting the ranks of extremist leaders. We need our institutions to interpret these tensions as red flags and a call for a new social contract, and a corresponding set of institutions to ensure its properly implemented. This gap between power and institutions is not exclusive to the internet. Yet the online space is where it’s most visible. Given the pace at which our lives are migrating towards the digital realm, perhaps it’s the space where this dynamic requires our most urgent attention.

If our current institutions of government fail to ensure the ongoing technological revolution puts people first, these institutions will sooner or later be rendered irrelevant.

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All illustrations by ApexInfinityGames & @Juanof9 (CC-BY)

Previous versions were published by Chatham House (Nov 27, 2018), Open Democracy (Dec 7, 2018) and Naked Capitalism (Dec 8, 2018)

Justice & participation. ICTs & Data. Affiliate @BKCHarvard. Alumni: @oiiOxford & @blavatnikSchool . Chevening Scholar. Views=personal. Here-> open discussion.