In order to answer the burning question of “is the internet democratic” we must first ask ourselves, what does it mean to be democratic?
Democracy is defined as “the practice or principles of social equality” (Democracy, 2019). Therefore, for the internet to be truly democratic it should enable social equality.
I would argue that there are 5 Faults of the internet making it undemocratic.
While it is true that dictatorships and other undemocratic entities the internet is heavily monitored and censored, China for example, has banned Facebook and YouTube (Leskin, 2019). At first glance it may seem that the democratic nature of the internet threatens dictatorships, and there might be some truth to that. After all, the internet has allowed for democracy to prevail. In the Egyptian revolution of 2011 (and the Arab Spring) the internet and social media was used to plan protests and communicate (Brown, Guskin, & Mitchel, 2012). It led to the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and to a democratic election (Kennedy, 2016). Currently it is being used by Hong Kong residents to communicate with each other during their protests (Shao, 2019).
However, there is another side to this argument. The internet is not a beautiful, multicultural Souk where everyone can express their individuality through cat pictures and memes. It’s a large shopping mall, where the bigger, profitable platforms get all the traffic and act as public squares vested in corporate interest. If we look at the top 100 websites in the world by traffic, an overwhelming majority of them are American (Hardwick, 2020). YouTube, Facebook and Reddit are all American corporations. China hasn’t banned the internet; it has simply banned foreign influence. Countries such as the United Arab Emirates have also banned websites it views as harmful to its citizens (Gibbon, 2020).
Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter which are perceived as public squares are actually for-profit corporations with their own values. This means that they frequently censor content that is against their values and impacts advertisers, such as violent imagery and nudity (Pham, 2017). However, it can be argued that this censorship is against freedom of speech, which is a fundamental factor in democracy. YouTube for instance banned a conspiracy theory channel for spreading misinformation, instead of labelling it as factually incorrect (Media, 2020). These platforms can decide what to censor and what to keep, if reviewing an advertiser negatively was against terms of service, these companies would have the right to censor them.
Another issue with these platforms is what they choose not to censor. Facebook has been heavily criticized for allowing political misinformation and ‘fake-news’ under their umbrella of freedom of speech (Marantz, 2019). This, in my opinion is a greater threat to democracy than censorship as more and more people are getting their news from social media, and social media platforms don’t have to adhere to the same journalistic standards (fact checking) of News organizations as they aren’t classified as news outlets. Furthermore, because social media platforms are essentially large advertising platforms, they can utilize data to efficiently target individuals to shift their perception.
The internet has reduced also newspaper sales making News outlets more and more dependent on advertisers (Hayes, 2018). As a result, news organizations have to rely on headlines which are more sensationalized, clickbaity, and emotive, for clicks. This means that news in general is getting more emotive and ‘extreme’ to maintain profitability. This unfortunately also means that news is no longer unbiased. New stories are increasingly becoming easier to digest, and something which reinforces existing beliefs instead of challenging them (Nagata, 2011).
This leads to another harmful issue with the internet.
These social media platforms have complex algorithms which are designed to keep us hooked onto the app for as long as possible. These algorithms show content that we might like. Unfortunately, this means that a lot of people are stuck in algorithm bubbles which only show us things that reinforce our own beliefs (BigThink, 2018). A Trump supporter might see pro-Trump content for example. However, this also leads to a lot of people unable to learn new things. This is why we are seeing more and counter-movements exist such as Anti-vaxxers, Flat-Earthers, etc. This is a result of the algorithm bubble, showing them content, creating a community of like-minded individuals, and reinforcing their particular beliefs.
These algorithms can also give advertisers the dangerous ability to influence people.
Social media platforms have so much complex data on each individual that they enable advertisers to utilize hypertargeting to more effectively show adverts and increase conversion. Unfortunately, its utility extends from simple adverts to shifting public perception. In 2016, these same hyper-targeted personality profiles created by Facebook for advertisers helped swing the US election (Ghosh & Scott, 2018). Facebook allows for ads to be displayed without fact checking, which means that these hypertargeted ads can also spread misinformation to a detailed demographic. A horrific example of this was “PizzaGate” where a group of conspiracy theorists believed that U.S restaurants had child sex rings. A 28-year-old man then drove down and shot at a restaurant to ‘free the kids’ (Fisher, Cox, & Hermann, 2016). Perception is easily manipulated online, and with the advent of deepfakes, this is only going to get worse.
The issue of the Internet and democracy go beyond social media platforms. The internet itself is creating a digital divide.
The gap between demographics and regions that have knowledge and access to the internet, and those who don’t (Linford, 2017).
This digital divide goes deeper than old people being unable to access the internet, it can permanently keep a section of the population at a disadvantage. Marginalized people who lack the knowledge or access to the internet find themselves at a disadvantage when applying for jobs, opening bank accounts, and (because of the pandemic) getting an education (Linford, 2017). This divide gets greater as we shift more of our daily lives online.
It is hard for democracy to exist with rampant censorship, widespread misinformation and propaganda, algorithm bubbles that reinforce viewpoints, easily manipulated population, and vast inequality. These are all traits that the internet unfortunately has. The internet itself is a vast ocean, with large corporations acting as cruise ships. Sure, you can create your own raft and sail it across in the name of democracy. But it will always be overshadowed by the larger cruise ships. Even if your platform does take off, the very nature of the internet economy and dependence on advertisers will lead you into conforming to become like the rest.
It is for this reason; I believe the internet is not democratic in nature.
BigThink (2018, December 18) How news feed algorithms supercharge confirmation bias | Eli Pariser | Big Think [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=prx9bxzns3g
Brown, H., Guskin, E., & Mitchel, A. (2012, November 28). The Role of Social Media in the Arab Uprisings. Retrieved October 19, 2020, from https://www.journalism.org/2012/11/28/role-social-media-arab-uprisings/
Democracy. (2019). In Oxford Online Dictionary. Retrieved from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/democracy
Fisher, M., Cox, J., & Hermann, P. (2016, December 06). Pizzagate: From rumor, to hashtag, to gunfire in D.C. Retrieved October 19, 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/pizzagate-from-rumor-to-hashtag-to-gunfire-in-dc/2016/12/06/4c7def50-bbd4-11e6-94ac-3d324840106c_story.html
Ghosh, D., & Scott, B. (2018, March 19). New Facebook Scandal Shows How Political Ads Manipulate You. Retrieved October 19, 2020, from https://time.com/5197255/facebook-cambridge-analytica-donald-trump-ads-data/
Gibbon, G. (2020, April 18). Over 1,600 websites in the UAE blocked in 2019. Retrieved October 19, 2020, from https://www.arabianbusiness.com/node/444991
Hardwick, J. (2020, May 12). Top 100 Most Visited Websites by Search Traffic (as of 2020). Retrieved October 19, 2020, from https://ahrefs.com/blog/most-visited-websites/
Hayes, J. W. (2018, June 25). The Death of the Newspaper Industry. Retrieved October 19, 2020, from https://john-w-hayes.medium.com/the-death-of-the-newspaper-industry-4fa89c593861
Kennedy, M. (2016, January 25). A Look At Egypt’s Uprising, 5 Years Later. Retrieved October 19, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/01/25/464290769/a-look-at-egypts-uprising-5-years-later
Leskin, P. (2019, October 10). Here are all the major US tech companies blocked behind China’s ‘Great Firewall’. Retrieved October 19, 2020, from https://www.businessinsider.com/major-us-tech-companies-blocked-from-operating-in-china-2019-5
Linford, J. (2017, February 05). How Does the Digital Divide Affect Job Search. Retrieved October 19, 2020, from https://careerenlightenment.com/how-does-the-digital-divide-affect-job-search
Marantz, A. (2019, October 31). Facebook and the “Free Speech” Excuse. Retrieved October 19, 2020, from https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/facebook-and-the-free-speech-excuse
Media, P. (2020, May 02). YouTube deletes conspiracy theorist David Icke’s channel. Retrieved October 19, 2020, from https://www.theguardian.com/media/2020/may/02/youtube-deletes-coronavirus-conspiracy-theorist-david-ickes-channel
Nagata, K. (2011, July 12). Why I quit CTV News. Retrieved October 19, 2020, from https://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/2011/07/12/why_i_quit_ctv_news.html
Pham, S. (2017, May 22). How Facebook decides what violent and explicit content is allowed. Retrieved October 19, 2020, from https://money.cnn.com/2017/05/22/technology/facebook-leaked-documents-sex-violence-nudity/
Shao, G. (2019, August 16). Social media has become a battleground in Hong Kong’s protests. Retrieved October 19, 2020, from https://www.cnbc.com/2019/08/16/social-media-has-become-a-battleground-in-hong-kongs-protests.html