Technology has dramatically altered the way we live and interact, as well as the way democracy works, especially in regards to the main precondition of people’s power: information and citizens’ ability to make informed choices. Professor Elena Herrero-Beaumont explores the risks that the Internet poses to democracy and a possible solution to overcome them.
Previously published on Insights
Essential characteristics of the Internet as the new information infrastructure
The Internet can be thought of as an enormous supermarket managed by a handful of technology giants (namely, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Twitter) which have become the new intermediaries in the digital public communication process by displacing traditional media companies. It is in this market where millions of us interact with infinite pieces of information and where we, as citizens, register an exponentially increasing number of information options that are personalized through various filters and algorithms designed by these tech giants. Our activity is converted into data that can be replicated, compressed, stored, manipulated, and then sold to their advertisers.
Of all the aspects mentioned above, the one that presents higher risks to our democratic life is the increasing surveillance of our online activity, which is converted into data that can be manipulated through algorithms to offer us personalized content and better catch our attention.
It is thus our attention that has become the technology giants’ main commodity – and the ways in which they capture it is being continuously refined and sophisticated. Another risk to our democratic life is the concentration of power in the hands of these five technology corporations. This oligopoly is far from the utopian libertarian idea of what the original Internet creators of the mid-90s had in mind when they envisioned a new system that could bring back the power to us, citizens, away from corrupted institutions. As Mathew Hindman noted regarding the Facebook-Google duopoly, in his book The Internet Trap, “What we have built on the Internet is not an ecosystem, but a pair of commercial monocultures.”
The new post-truth ethos and its impact on liberal democracy
There was once a time in which the traditional news media played an integral role in determining what topic captured the public’s attention. Journalism scholar Maxwell McCombs details this phenomenon in his seminal book, Setting the Agenda, concluding that the Internet has brought “the end of [conventional media] influence in the agenda setting as we have known it for the past decades.” Or, in the words of Andrew Shapiro in The Control Revolution, “net users will shake the base of the Fourth State.” Nonetheless, as the Internet’s dynamics and infrastructure concentrates in a handful of technology companies, whose main goal is to sell our attention to advertisers, a new edition in the same family of risks is emerging for us as digital citizens.
“Millions of citizens in this global digital democracy are building their own reality”
To begin with, technology companies are setting the rules of the game not only for themselves but for the conventional media companies, who must also compete for our attention. The end result is that many media companies follow the new rules of the game, mainly: attract more followers, generate more comments and shares.
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