Freedom of opinion in the digital age

On Sunday 9 December, a collective of more than 120 intellectuals and political leaders from sixteen countries proposed in a Manifesto, published by “Le Monde”, “The Guardian” and other European media outlets, a new architecture for the EU (Piketty, 2018). The signatories intended to demonstrate that Europe, despite its many critics and the populist wave, can always be synonymous with progress for all. Their proposals aimed to create more democratic institutions, through a sovereign European Assembly, and to make Europe a real public power, with a budget four times larger than it currently is. It would represent 4% of GDP and would be financed by taxes levied by Europe on corporate profits, high incomes, high wealth and carbon emissions (Piketty, 2018). In addition to the contribution of economists and historians, this group also relies on many jurists who have mobilised to contribute to the draft treaty. The project for a democratisation treaty is among their main priorities since it would contribute in making the Union more democratic and less perceived as a technocratic body (Piketty, 2018).

 A month earlier, Joseph Stiglitz, Shirin Ebadi, Mario Vargas Llosa are among the twenty-five personalities calling for “establishing democratic guarantees” on freedom of opinion (Deloire and Ebadi, 2018). The Information and Democracy Commission published an “International Declaration on Information and Democracy” that could serve as a working basis for political leaders. The text lists the democratic guarantees necessary to ensuring the right to reliable information, privacy, and transparency of powers in a context of globalisation, digitisation and disruption of the public space (Deloire and Ebadi, 2018).  The Commission also proposes the creation of an “international group of experts on information and democracy”, that would function similarly to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for climate change issues. This International Declaration also challenges the large tech companies of the Web and social media platforms. According to the signatories, it is their responsibility to guarantee pluralism and put in place mechanisms to fight against massive online misinformation and political control over the press and the media (Deloire and Ebadi, 2018).

Although they have two different geographic scope – regional and global, these two declarations a month apart aim to raise awareness about a similar issue: the necessity to increase the participation of all stakeholders in the political processes in the age of digital technologies, but also of disinformation and greater distrust of journalists. This is precisely what this article aims to discuss. 

According to the article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) 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” (United Nations, 1948). In the digital age, a wide array of actors, including citizens, produce, disseminate, redistribute and consume information at the speed of Wi-Fi. Hashtags are the building blocks of social movements, and traditional forms of authority compete with the private sector and civil society organisations to promote their own narratives online. In this context of information obesity, it may seem questionable to discuss the freedom to make an opinion. However, digital technologies have not only increased massively the information production and distribution capacity of many actors on the national and international stages, but they have also enabled a small number of private actors to monopolise the capacity to choose the information sources.    

This article aims to discuss the freedom to make an opinion in the digital age: in other words, it will examine how digital technologies affect the article 19 of the UNDHR. Based on the original developments of internet, digital technologies were often recognised as empowerment tools, providing information and new visibility to many actors, among which the civil society. However, digital technologies have not only increased the amount of information available, but also the role of some private actors in selecting the sources of information on behalf of citizens. 

Information and data are at the heart of the informational society and the knowledge economy. By 2030, 20 billion “things” and devices are to be connected to the Internet, from fridges to cars. Sharing data and information can lead to new levels of innovation and economic development. In the next decade, the Internet of Things (IoT) is expected to alter manufacturing, energy, agriculture, transportation and other sectors of the economy, which account for nearly two thirds of the global gross domestic product (GDP) (World Economic Forum, 2014). 

However, the capacity to collect and analyse data on a large scale is restricted to the most advanced tech companies, who have developed new business models with data collection at their core. Social media platforms, search engines and smartphones are primarily designed by a fairly small number of corporations. The acronym GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple) is often used to refer to these corporations based in the United States of America. 

These global tech companies have developed rapidly since their platforms support the three patterns of interaction: transparency, cooperation and participation. They allow users to interact, share information, produce content in the form of text, pictures and videos, and coordinate their activities worldwide. By offering these online services for free, they gain unprecedented access to large sets of personal data, which they further analyse to better target their online ads, detect new trends and sell some of the data collected to other actors. Personal data is at the heart of the Big Data phenomenon, where huge amounts of data, disclosed willingly or unwillingly, are collected, stored, processed, and traded among a group of private and public actors. 

Moreover, these technologies, and their related companies, are supported by their host country’s policies through the enforcement of specific copyright norms (Jin, 2015).  In addition to earlier comments about technological instrumentalism, these contemporary forms of “platform imperialism” reinforce the sphere of private entities and incorporate specific commercial and ideological values, which stem from the dominance of transnational corporations, and subsequently, the United States of America (Jin, 2015). 

Hence, the centralisation of large amounts of personal data in the hands of a few major global tech companies raises many questions. Indeed, these large corporations not only centralise unprecedented amounts of personal data, but they also combine financial and innovation capacities, and a strong influence on public opinion. In a world where individual actions, online and offline, are constantly monitored, and where personal data is stored, collected and processed by private actors, the accountability of the latter needs to be addressed, and their actions better regulated.

Furthermore, citizens increasingly access news through social media platforms, allowing global tech corporations, such as Facebook, to become the new editors in chief of a “globalised online newspaper”. Social media platforms have become the new conveyor belt between the suppliers and the consumers of information. According to the 2018 Pew Internet Research, two thirds of adult US citizens have a Facebook account and three quarters of them consult the social network every day (Smith and Anderson, 2018). Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, WeChat and QQ are the most used social media platforms globally (Chaffey, 2018). Traditional media outlets such as newspapers have become just one out of many sources of information. 

Hence, GAFA corporations and their likes have captured the attention of billions of citizens, and the main sources of revenues of traditional media, radically transforming the media ecosystem. Today, traditional media can no longer play the same role of safeguarding the plurality of opinions and information. The topics discussed and the choice of what is “newsworthy” is now dictated by the algorithms of social media platforms. Indeed, what citizens see online is not random, but was selected precisely for them, and on their behalf, by GAFA companies. 

Thanks to the concept of the “Filter Bubble”, Eli Pariser (2012) showed accurately how algorithms increasingly restrict the access to the diversity of information,and in particular to alternative views (Lindgren, 2017). Algorithms are similar to black boxes that choose which article, video or website we can have access to, according to our preferences and to what search engines and social media platforms know about each user individually. Hence, we are permanently confined in a bespoke online information space, which is governed by the criteria of algorithms (Pariser, 2012).

The traditional gatekeepers, the elite media for instance, have lost not only some of their readers, but also their role as conveyor belt between the producers of information, such as businesses and political leaders, and the public. GAFA and their likes are the new intermediaries, who choose what information each individual can access online, based on the analysis of the data collected about them, and with the objective of maximising their advertising profits. 

The overflow of continuous information requires a selection of information to facilitate online browsing activities. However, the selection criteria that these algorithms apply are not available to the general public. We cannot choose how the information we have access to is selected. To use a metaphor, it is similar to visiting a public library but with a librarian restricting the access and providing the books he or she chooses for us. Indeed, the goal of these global tech corporations is to keep users online longer, and they therefore give access to information that is easy to consume, maybe a bit sensational, and in most cases that we agree with. For instance, Facebook shows first and foremost the publications of “friends” who have the same political views. 

This unprecedented situation is particularly worrying in a complex world that requires, more than ever, a plurality of opinions and sources of information for citizens to make sense of this changing world: How to explain climate change? How to grasp the local impacts of globalisation? How to solve global challenges such as pollution, loss of biodiversity, migration and cybercrime to name only a few?  

These questions are complex, and so are the answers. In that context, restricting access to information that is easy to consume, a bit sensational, and that we agree with is not satisfactory. A large access to a plurality of opinions is essential for each citizen to form their own opinion.

The world is within the reach of a click. 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 who selects it and to what purpose. According to Jeffrey T. Hancock (2016), individuals continuously evaluate the validity of their understanding of the world: this process is called “epistemic vigilance,” a continuous process of checking that the information a person believes to be true is accurate. With this objective in mind, people can detect lies when they have the necessary time, resources, and motivation. Lies are often discovered through contradicting information from a third source, or evidence that challenges a deceptive account. However, in our contemporary digital landscape, it is increasingly difficult for citizens to verify the source of the information. Indeed, there is no effective mechanism of fact checking that can overcome the overload of information. Moreover, they rarely have the time, motivation and the right skills to perform a thorough analysis of each piece of information they receive – in particular when the flow of information never stops. 

Citizens tend to always visit a handful of sources, where they feel confident about the information they will find. Among them, social media platforms such as Facebook, where a personal and more intimate environment is used to promote brands and share content from multiples pre-selected sources as mentioned previously. Since the information is selected by algorithms, which are designed to feed users with easy-to-digest information in order to keep them online as long as possible, citizens see information that seems true to them. Indeed, it is information that supports their existing view of the world. This is reinforced by a cognitive bias called the “truth bias” (Hancock, 2016): we tend to believe the information we receive. Although being biased toward the truth is almost always the correct response, it is evidently not always the case. The difficulty in exercising epistemic vigilance, combined with the truth bias and the filter bubble, almost inevitably lead citizens to consume and believe the information they are fed with.

In that sense, ICTs, and in particular social media platforms and big data technologies, are threatening the principles of “freedom to hold opinions without interference” and “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” stated in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Today, the frontiers are not territorial borders, but online platforms, who restrict access to information. Instead of creating new public spheres facilitating a free discourse, these platforms help to reinforce existing beliefs, while reducing the plurality of opinion and sources of information.