Plurality of opinions

Digital technologies are ubiquitous. From sunrise to sunset, we are immersed in a world where virtual and real intermingle permanently. The decisions we make every day are now heavily influenced by technology.

We have gained new skills in terms of access to information. The world is within the reach of a click. Everything is always available, from the purchase of a book to the latest news. The information has become free and abundant. The concept of information overload or “infobesity” describes this deluge of information, where the question is no longer how to access information, but rather how to select it.

Digital technologies facilitate communication and collaboration between individuals, erasing the notions of time and space. Messages are broadcast at the speed of Wi-Fi, and hashtags are the building blocks of political movements. As a recent example, a post on Facebook has led 2.6 million people to protest in the streets of the US capital to show their support for women. Similarly, it took shortly after the release of the new dress code of the White House, for an opposition is organized and the hashtag #DressLikeAWoman becomes viral.

While digital technologies make our lives easier in many cases, they also present many challenges, particularly concerning access to information and freedom of opinion. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” These principles are being challenged by digital technologies that, once praised for expanding access to information and enhancing freedom of expression, have gradually become filters, as well as tools for monitoring and collecting data.

Many of us access news through social media platforms, allowing digital giants, such as Facebook, to become the new editors in chief of a “globalized online newspaper”. The principle of the filter bubble describes this information space, where we are permanently confined, and which is governed by the criteria of an algorithm. This algorithm is like a black box that chooses which article, what video or what website we will have access to, according to our preferences and to what search engines and social media platforms know about us.

Although a selection of information is necessary to facilitate our research and navigation online, the selection criteria are not available to us. In addition, we are no longer confronted with diverging opinions. The goal of these algorithms is indeed to keep us online longer, and therefore to give us access to information we agree to. For example, Facebook shows first and foremost the publications of our entourage who have the same political point of view.

In addition, the new media ecosystem is the result of a concentration of media and the digitization of traditional media, whose main sources of revenue are captured by the GAFA companies (Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple). This unprecedented situation is particularly worrying in a complex world that requires, more than ever, a plurality of opinions and sources of information.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal demonstrated how contemporary political campaigns use advanced technologies to influence citizen voting: data mining, online polls, bots, social networks, and of course personalized messages. This new generation of political communications makes it possible to adapt the message according to each person’s psychological profile, on a national and even global scale. But the influence of digital technologies on the political landscape extends well beyond the day of the vote. We have entered a world in perpetual campaign.

This overflow of continuous information has left the door open to misinformation, which has infiltrated massively into the public sphere. While social media platforms are known to promote superficial discussions and extremist views, a recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study found that fake news was 70% more shared than real news on Twitter[1]. And the reason is us, not bots. Indeed, many of us do not read in detail the publications on social media. The title, the image or the abstract are enough to like and share the publication.

At a time when Twitter has replaced the press conference, misinformation seems to be everywhere, which further isolates the citizen and weakens democracy. Whether at the local, national, regional or global level, digital technologies have a substantial and visible influence on politics.

While democracy is based on the principle of a well-informed citizen, digital technologies are challenging the basic principles on which our societies and political processes are based. It is therefore urgent to reflect on the role we want to give them in order to define which society we want for the future.

[1]http://news.mit.edu/2018/study-twitter-false-news-travels-faster-true-stories-0308

This blog post was first published in French on blogs.letemps.ch