Inside the Information Society: What is the impact of the internet on politics?

This week’s blog looks at the impact of the Internet on politics.

Last week I wrote about the need for us to think about the Internet and social media in a more nuanced way. ‘Too much debate about the Information Society is binary,’ I said. ‘To advocates, anything digital looks good. Others are spooked by impacts that are uncontrolled and unbenign. If we’re serious, we need to be more nuanced.’

That’s especially so when it comes to thinking about the Internet’s impact on politics.

When the Internet was young

When the Internet was young, its early users thought that it would bring about a change in politics: that access to more information and easy, free communications would undermine authoritarian governments and give citizens more say.

For some the goal was libertarian or anti-government. For more, and rights activists especially, it was to do with citizens’ engagement, empowerment, capacity to take control of their own lives. Development agencies bought into this Internet of hope. The Internet was seen in many ICT4D proposals as a way in which citizens could engage in public debate, challenge corruption, shift resources in their favour.

The ‘Arab Spring’ was probably the highpoint of belief in this inherently ‘progressive’ Internet. Facebook and Twitter were widely credited – by the US government, by online businesses, by activists – with enabling more effective protest and thereby (at least partly) with the power to overthrow regimes. (The extent of influence they exercised remains contested, but they clearly played some part in facilitating protest.)

What has happened since

The Internet’s now middle-aged, so we can take a look at what effect it’s had. If the Internet were going to have a liberalising impact, we’d expect by now at least some shift in global politics towards more liberal values.

But that hasn’t happened. If anything, the last decade’s seen the reverse: a tightening of authoritarian control in many countries; a shift away from rights-based politics towards a politics of populism; more power going to demagogues than democrats.

If social media facilitated the ’Arab Spring’, it certainly did not sustain it. Authoritarian regimes have learnt how to use it to influence opinion in their favour. And within democracies, of late, it’s political forces on the right rather than the left that have made most effective use of online services and social media. There’s been an upsurge in racist propaganda online that has poisoned political discourse in America and Europe in a way most people thought would not be possible ten years ago. Trolls routinely abuse those with whom they disagree in ways that deter them from participating in public debate. As one of Twitter’s biggest names might put it: ‘Sad!’

So why the disappointment?

This has not happened because the Internet does not open space for liberalising, rights-based politics. It clearly does. But is also opens space for authoritarian, rights-denying politics. For every liberal online, there’s a conservative; for every rights defender, there’s an authoritarian; for every feminist, there’s a misogynist; and so on.

The mistake is not in seeing the Internet as liberating, but in seeing it as only liberating. In thinking that it would only challenge authoritarianism, and not also enable it. It’s just a tool that anyone can use, like every other medium before it. Some uses we will like, and others not.

I want to raise some points about this before suggesting a way forward.

How things are …

First, there are two counterbalanced – and both inherent – aspects here of ICTs. By enabling greater communications, they’ve facilitated expression and association. But by digifying them, they’ve facilitated surveillance and monitoring of citizens’ behaviour (whether for law enforcement, commercial exploitation or political repression). This was always going to be the case. ICTs have changed the ways in which citizens and state relate, but not the underlying conflicts within that relationship.

Second, power structures are resilient. In all societies, power’s concentrated within particular social and economic groups. Changing these power structures is extremely difficult (and when it happens leads in any case to newer power structures). ICTs and the Internet can certainly be useful to the powerless, but they’re just as useful to the powerful. And the powerful are better placed than the powerless to exploit them because they have more money and other resources. (The biggest change in power structures as the Internet’s become pervasive has been that which favours global data corporations.)

Third, public opinion’s diverse. Not everyone’s in favour of rights-based liberal politics, as some Internet pioneers seemed to think. Some people will use social media to support the libertarian or liberal causes that were backed by many of those pioneers. But others will use them in support of other causes of whatever kind. Those other causes will include, say, environmentalism, and animal rights; the first amendment to the US constitution (freedom of expression) and the second (gun rights). They’ll also include racism, misogyny and homophobia. This should have been expected.

and how they’ve changed

I’m arguing that ICTs and the Internet are just tools that anyone can use, in other words. But there are aspects of how they have evolved that are worth noting. I’ll focus on three, but there are more (see, for example, this week’s edition of The Economist.)

First, it’s recognised increasingly that, with so many media opportunities around them, people home in on content that they know they’ll like or (in politics) that they’ll agree with. Our attention spans are limited. High use of Internet and social media hasn’t diversified exposure to political opinion; it’s concentrated it. Instead of fostering consensus, this seems to have helped polarise politics and coarsen political debate.

Second, not everything you read online is true (a truism if there ever were). The deliberate manipulation of opinion online’s now widespread. It’s easy to spread propaganda. Lies – ‘fake news’, false accusations, etc. – go viral, and can’t easily be contested by ‘fact-checking’ websites or nuanced journalism. Technology can make fabrications most convincing – see, for example, this video of President Obama appearing to say things that he did not. As well as real people voicing real concerns, Twitter includes fake people voicing fake concerns; the role of automated bots in spreading online content’s now significant.

Third, networks tend towards monopoly because networks with many users are more useful than networks which have few. This gives enormous power to platforms that could, if they chose, manipulate opinion in the same way that they use data-mining to support the interests of advertisers. They haven’t, in the West at least, so far aligned themselves with particular political parties or movements in the way that newspaper proprietors routinely do. But what would happen if they did?

So what is to be done?

This blog’s aim is to be realistic: not optimistic, as discussion of the Internet’s impact on politics once was; nor pessimistic, as much of it’s become.

My point, as I put it last week, is that the Internet’s on no-one’s side here. It’s not a tool for the powerless alone, and it does not support particular political perspectives. It can, and will, be used as readily by those that oppose me, you, any of us as by those that we agree with. And it can, and will, be used by those who wish to harm as readily as those who wish to help.

The assumptions that were made about the Internet’s impact on politics, back in those heady early days, were, therefore, misplaced. It isn’t inherently on the side of human rights, or inherently against them. It can be used by those of us who wish to support them, and it will be used as well by those who wish to undermine them. If we are to use it effectively to support human rights, then we must recognise and deal with that.

One final point. Like everything else about the Information Society, its impact on politics is likely to change in time. We’ve been through a phase of public optimism about the impact of the Internet on politics. Much of what’s said about it now is negative. But we’ve been through phases like this in the past. Look at the cartoons in eighteenth-century British newspapers if you want to see how viciously past media could treat politics.

The ways in which we use the Internet are going to change over the next few years. We will adjust in time to the ways in which it impacts politics. But it would be well to think ahead this time rather than just assuming that we know what’s going to happen, or hoping for the best.

Image: Dennis Skley on Flickr.

More about David Souter.

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