Could angry online politics ultimately make democracies ungovernable?

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4 January
15:33
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4 January
15:37

The lowering of the transaction cost, making it easier to engage online, incentivises a lot of different behaviours – some of them good, some of them bad. But online engagement itself is still changing.

The internet of 2016 is different from the internet of 2012 and the internet of 2008. In 2012, we had Facebook but not Facebook video, and we didn’t have the same Facebook advertising styles as in 2016. The Trump campaign, for example, was using Facebook advertising to selectively hit targeted individuals with demobilising messages – that’s a thing that couldn’t have been done in 2012, and could only be done in 2016 because of policy choices that Facebook made.

"There isn’t anything inherent to the internet that makes fake news so easy to spread. There’s a set of policy choices made by major digital companies which make it easy to spread..."

The same is true of the fake news phenomenon. There isn’t anything inherent to the internet that makes fake news so easy to spread. There’s a set of policy choices made by major digital companies which make it easy to spread, but they could make different policy choices – particularly if they were pressured.

I think that in general, if we’re making a choice between more engagement and less engagement, leaning towards more engagement is generally going to be the right course. But figuring out how to build institutions which turn that into healthy engagement rather than unhealthy engagement – that’s where it gets tricky. In recent years, we’ve been falling behind the pace of the internet in building those institutions in a way that fosters good democracy.

"The fundamental question is: how much can we blame the internet for this mess we’re in right now? I’m assigning partial blame."

The fundamental question is: how much can we blame the internet for this mess we’re in right now? I’m assigning partial blame. I don’t think that the United States’ particular demagogue could have been elected without the internet. But the interesting thing is that the way the internet has been most helpful to him is the way he has used digital media and social media to create leverage over traditional media.

During the primaries, everyone was assuming that this celebrity candidate would be a flash in the pan – we’ve had celebrity candidates before, and they’ve almost always immediately fizzled. But what was so different when those first articles were written about Donald Trump was that news organisations, through their online analytics, were able to immediately see how much more popular Trump stories were than stories about any of the other candidates.

"I think we’re going to see some attacks on independent journalism that, comparatively, will make the challenges of organic digital misinformation look quite small."

So they provided more Trump stories, assuming people would get tired of them eventually. But Trump, being a reality TV star, is very good at is continuing to create drama and keep attention on himself. If he’d run 12 years ago, he’d have had the same instinct for gathering headlines, but the news organisations themselves wouldn’t have been able to see how much more popular he was, and they’d have used their old news regime, and covered all the candidates in a much more even manner.

Facebook and Twitter could put out some pretty simple fixes in order to solve some of these misinformation problems, and we’re seeing that starting to happen. The bigger challenge, if I’m looking at what problems the United States will face in the next year or two, isn’t that news organisations need to keep correcting Donald Trump, but that he will set up a quasi-state media apparatus, and shut independent journalism out whenever it asks adversarial questions. I think we’re going to see some attacks on independent journalism that, comparatively, will make the challenges of organic digital misinformation look quite small.

David Karpf is the author of The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy.

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