From great promises to pitfalls

If the US presidential campaigns of 2008 and 2012 seemed to confirm the conviction that digital tools, including the internet and social networks, empowered civil society organisations and grassroots movements, and thus reinforced democracy, the US Presidential campaign of 2016 highlighted the challenges posed by digital technologies.

Internet and digital technologies were first seen as democratization forces. This perception was based mainly on Habermas’s conceptions of the public sphere (1). The first modes of communication facilitated by the Internet – e-mails, mailing lists and discussion forums – seemed indeed well adapted to facilitate the formulation of rational argument, take into account the diversity of opinions, and obtain a consensus based on the best argument rather than strength and coercion (2).

However, this perception of digital technologies as instruments of democratization was quickly defeated, especially during the Arab Spring and Winter.

Indeed, technological determinism, which recognizes technologies as absolute power for transforming societies, should inevitably have led to greater freedom of expression and democratization in the countries affected by the Arab Spring (3). But the Arab winter, like other examples, has shown that such determinism is inaccurate. Secondly, technological instrumentalism, which claims that technologies are value neutral, is also refuted by a large number of empirical and theoretical analysis, which point to the explicit and implicit values ​​that technologies incorporate and then reproduce through their use and applications. Thus, to attribute the power of democratisation to digital technologies reflects above all their Western origins (1).

All digital communications, including social media platforms, search engines and smartphones (4), are primarily designed, implemented and controlled by four multinational corporations: Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft (GAFA). Instead of offering open public spheres facilitating a free discourse, these platforms help to reinforce existing beliefs and beliefs, while reducing the plurality of opinion and sources of information, notably because of the emergence of filter bubbles and the commodification relationships on social media (5).

In addition, traditional media no longer play their role of safeguarding the plurality of opinions and information. The topics discussed and the pace of election campaigns are now dictated by influencers on social media platforms. Political parties and their candidates form networks of groups, consultants and companies specialised in fundraising, micro-segmented communication, and voter mobilisation (6).

GAFA technologies, innovations and businesses are supported by US policy (as host country) through the enforcement of specific copyright norms (4). Reinforcing earlier comments about technological instrumentalism, these contemporary forms of platform imperialism reinforce the sphere of private entities (instead of the public sphere) and incorporate specific commercial and ideological values, which stem from the dominance of transnational corporations, and subsequently, the United States (4).

Thus, for liberal democracy, the great promises of the Internet are also its pitfalls. Its liberating and “anti-establishment” potential can also be exploited by unscrupulous leaders who appeal to the worst impulses of society. By challenging traditional institutions, such as traditional media, digital technologies have left a void that can then be filled by fake news and propaganda (6).

Faced with these challenges, the citizen holds a part of the solution, in the responsibility to develop  the virtues necessary for a successful digital life, such as honesty or transparency (7), but also in acquiring knowledge about the tools and strategies used by GAFAs and political parties (and their candidates). In this context, the motto of the Enlightenment, sapere aude (have the courage to think (and act) for oneself), remains crucial today more than ever (1).

References:

(1) Ess, Charles. 2018. Democracy and the Internet: A Retrospective, Javnost – The Public, 25:1-2, 93-101, DOI: 10.1080/13183222.2017.1418820

(2) Habermas, Jürgen. 1983. Morale et Communication : Conscience morale et activité communicationnelle. Paris : Flammarion.

(3) Ess, Charles. 1996. “The Political Computer: Democracy, CMC, and Habermas.” In Philosophical Perspectives on Computer-Mediated Communication, edited by C. Ess, 197–230. Albany: State University of New York Press.

(4) Jin, Dal Yong. 2015. Digital Platforms, Imperialism and Political Culture. New York: Routledge.

(5) Lindgren, Simon. 2017. Digital Media and Society: Theories, Topics and Tools. London: Sage.

(6) Persily, Nathaniel. 2017. The 2016 U.S. Election: Can Democracy Survive the Internet? Journal of Democracy, 28: 2, 63-76 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/jod.2017.0025

(7) Vallor, Shannon. 2016. Technology and the Virtues: Towards a Future Worth Wanting. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.