On Sunday 4th December 2016, a man walked into a crowded Washington D.C. pizzeria with a gun. He wasn’t there to rob the place. He wanted to “self-investigate” reports online that the Democratic party was operating a child sex ring from the basement of the restaurant. The man threatened employees, and at least one shot was reportedly fired before he was taken into custody by police.
The gunman had been duped by fake news stories online, spread by users of Reddit and 4chan. He distrusted mainstream media so much that he felt compelled to commit multiple felonies and risk jail in order to see for himself.
Everyday, people are being bombarded with information online. And, as the so-called “pizzagate” conspiracy demonstrates, not all of that information is accurate. So, is the internet having a detrimental effect on democracy? Are people now more likely to believe salicious “fake news” stories than good, accurate information?
We had a comment from Hasan, who worries about the threat of “disinformation” being spread through fake news stories (though, in the long run, he is optimistic that people will learn to spot the fakes). How worried should we be?
To get a response, we spoke to Anthony Zacharzewski, Director of the Democratic Society (speaking here in a personal capacity). What would he say to Hasan?
I think the internet is a great way of communicating in general, and one of the lessons we’ve learned in the last few months – with the Trump election and Brexit – is that well-presented bad information can drive out badly-presented good information. However, that doesn’t mean the internet is bad for democracy. It just means that good information needs to be presented in more attractive and useful ways.
We’re still at a very early stage in terms of the impact of the internet on democracy. Everybody always says the current election cycle is the first “internet election”. Well, what we’ve seen in the last 6 months is, I think, genuinely the first internet election. We’ve seen new ways of campaigning, and sometimes it’s been positive (such as crowdsourcing policy platforms), and sometimes its been quite negative. But I don’t think we’ve seen the end of the story yet.
I’m sure the institutions looking for truth and accuracy, media partners, all sorts of NGOs and civil society organisations, will use the communications power of the internet to tackle false stories earlier. They’re one or two steps behind at the moment, but they will learn and they will do better. So, I think the internet is a good thing for democracy.
For another perspective, we also put the same question to Róbert Bjarnason, Co-Founder of the Citizens’ Foundation, an Iceland-based NGO founded in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis to promote electronic collaborative democracy around the globe and to develop the software needed for that purpose. What would he say to Hasan?
Overall, I think the internet has had a very positive impact on democracy. The internet allows a wider group of people to be heard; we have a lot more transparency; and it’s easier to spread information (for example, looking at all the leaks that have happened recently). The average citizen knows a lot more about how the world works around them.
In recent years, we’ve had two problems. One is fake news, but I think a bigger problem are so-called ‘echo chambers’. Basically, over past five or six years, since our news feeds have been curated by algorithms, we have started to see much more of a tendency towards showing people what they want to see. The reason for this is that the algorithms are designed to sell you as much advertising as possible, and that means keeping our attention for as long as possible. So, showing news that you like is more profitable.
However, over the last two years it’s gone totally to the extremes. The algorithms are not only showing you news that you’ll like, they are actually showing you fake news that you’ll like. So, it’s actually created a demand for fake news, so that people can click on the advertisements.
In fact, this was exactly the comment we had from Neag, who warned that citizens are retreating into safe bubbles of their own like-minded friends and contacts online. So, is he right? Are we at risk of creating “echo chambers” out of people who share our beliefs and ideologies? And could this ultimately harm democracy, and lead to more combative, less cooperative politics?
To get a reaction, we put Neag’s comment to Anthony Zacharzewski. What did he think?
I think there’s a natural tendency for people to cluster with friends online. I’d struggle to say there were many Trump supporters in my Facebook friend group. So, maybe people do like living in their own bubbles online, but then people also live in their own bubbles offline. Your regular friends often share your own views and interests as well. There is definitely a filtering or sorting effect, but I think it’s a normal part of society.
Having said that, it is a good idea to interact with people (and with information) that offers different views from your own. I do think people should try to make an effort to interact with people from across the political spectrum… and I think it’s up to us as citizens to step outside our comfort zones.
Finally, what would Róbert Bjarnason say? Did he see this as a real risk to democracy?
Absolutely. If the world continues to split into ideological camps, with people on the internet only seeing information from people who think exactly like they do, then I think it’s going to be the end of society as we know it. Because society is built on cooperation, and having groups of people with different ideas come together and do things…
The good thing is that this problem is being discussed… I’m quite positive that we can solve this problem. But in the end, if companies and the market can’t deal with this, then government needs to step in.
Has the internet been good for democracy? Has it given us greater access to information (and to politicians)? Or has it harmed democracy by spreading ‘fake news’ stories, and by encouraging people to retreat into bubbles of like-minded friends? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!