The Era of Manipulation

Issue Date April 2019
Volume 30
Issue 2
Page Numbers 172-175
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The People vs. Tech: How the Internet Is Killing Democracy (and How We Save It). By Jamie Bartlett. New York: Penguin Random House, 2018. 246 pp.

At the beginning of this century, it was widely assumed that the internet would usher in a new era of freedom. This technological wonder of computerized, open-architecture networking would allow people around the world to share information without constraints, eliminate media “gatekeepers,” and foster extraordinary connections, bringing unprecedented advances in knowledge and democratic progress. So went the thinking.

But in the arenas of politics and freedom of expression, this optimistic vision has not been realized. Instead, we find ourselves in a dramatically different set of circumstances, living in an era shaped not by openness, but rather by manipulation.

Over the years, digital technologies have transformed how people understand and interact with the world around them. New social platforms now play a critical role in providing news and information. But the powerful algorithms that are the beating heart of these platforms tend to prioritize what is popular over what is important for civic and public affairs. A 2017 report produced by the Omidyar Group, “Is Social Media a Threat to Democracy?” describes the “algorithmic logic” of social-media platforms that “engineer viral sharing in the interest of their business models.” As platforms such as Facebook and Twitter grow, so does the predominance of emotional and sensational content. Distortion [End Page 172] becomes a feature of the system rather than a bug. Politically poisonous discourse is elevated. Foreign adversaries insinuate themselves into the discussion with troubling ease.

About the Author

Christopher Walker is vice-president for studies and analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy. He is the author (with Shanthi Kalathil and Jessica Ludwig) of “The Cutting Edge of Sharp Power,” which appeared in the January 2020 issue of the Journal of Democracy and “What is Sharp Power?” from the July 2018 issue of the Journal.

View all work by Christopher Walker

Writing in the January 2019 issue of the Journal of Democracy, Ronald Deibert trenchantly articulated “three painful truths” associated with social media: first, that the business model is based on relentless surveillance of consumers’ personal data; second, that users permit such surveillance willingly; and third, that social media are compatible in certain ways with authoritarianism. This is a harsh assessment, to be sure, but one that is likely to convince a growing number of observers around the world. Facebook has some 2.6 billion users globally, creating what is in effect its own massive information ecosystem. Google, for its part, owns more than 90 percent of the global search market and receives 63,000 searches per second on any given day. While growth in Facebook users recently has slowed in places such as the United States and parts of Europe, it is on the rise in India, Indonesia, and the Philippines, as well as across sub-Saharan Africa. The same social-media pathologies that emerged in the United States and Europe now are manifesting themselves in distinct ways in new settings.

As these problems have grown, the spotlight on the leading social platforms has become more intense. Recently, a scathing 108-page report written by members of the U.K. Parliament concluded that the United Kingdom should adopt comprehensive new regulations so that law-makers can hold Facebook and its peers in Silicon Valley accountable for digital wrongdoing. Policy makers in other democracies are now turning their attention to such issues with renewed purpose.

So how did we arrive at this point? In The People vs. Tech: How the Internet Is Killing Democracy (and How We Save It), Jamie Bartlett argues that a “bitter conflict” has emerged between “technology and democracy,” which are “products of completely different eras and run according to different rules and principles.” Pitting technology against democracy (or against “the people,” as in the book’s title) presents a challenge, because technology is now embedded so intimately and seamlessly into our daily lives and, for better or worse, into the fabric of our democratic systems. Political debates and campaigns have moved online. Political pros seeking to reach and influence voters get the biggest bang for their buck by investing in social media. On a personal level, we are inundated and tempted by information as never before. Bartlett acknowledges this reality: “The modern citizen is expected to sift through an insane torrent of competing facts, networks, friend requests, claims, blogs, data, propaganda, misinformation, investigative journalism, charts, different charts, commentary, and reportage” (p. 53).

While Bartlett is critical of the impact of the internet (especially social media) on democracy, he is no technophobe. Rather, as director for many years of the Center for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos, [End Page 173] a London-based think tank, he has devoted considerable thought to the large and complex contradictions that the internet and other communications technologies pose in a democratic context. Over time, Bartlett’s views on the impact of these technologies on democracy have shifted from “optimism” to “realism” to “nervousness” and then, finally, to “a state approaching panic.”

The basis for Bartlett’s panic is that the pillars needed to support democracy—including active citizens, a shared culture, free elections, and trust in authority—are at risk in the digital era. Bartlett gives special attention to social media’s enabling of manipulation and “hidden persuasion” (p. 30). Today, he grimly observes, “no one understands how modern manipulation works,” and this ignorance is itself a threat to democratic institutions. His chapter on “software wars,” which examines “how digital analytics has changed elections,” makes for especially worthwhile—and troubling—reading. On our present trajectory, “far more important than any one election is how the continued evolution of [data-analytic] techniques will change the way we form political choices, what sort of people we elect, and even whether we think our elections are truly free and fair” (p. 83). Absent new norms that take into account the new realities of fast-developing tech-heavy election campaigns, things are bound to get worse before they get better.

Critically, as the major tech platforms have amassed greater power, they have failed to take on the responsibility for maintaining public trust in news and information that their new role requires. As Bartlett argues, “newspapers have long traded on public outrage and sensationalism, because they’ve long known what algorithms have recently discovered about our predilections. However, the difference is that newspapers are legally responsible for what they print, and citizens generally understand the editorial positions of various outlets” (p. 63).

In contrast, social-media companies are not held accountable for what appears on their platforms. In part, this is because they are controlled by algorithms, which “give the impression of being neutral … even though the YouTube algorithm alone shapes what 1.5 billion users are likely to see, which is more than every newspaper in the world combined” (p. 63). The leading social platforms have taken on the role of publishers, but they have not developed mechanisms to provide sound editorial scrutiny of the billions of pieces of information that they disseminate.

So now that the roots of online manipulation and distortion have grown alarmingly deep, what should be done? Bartlett lists twenty responses to meet this “long-term challenge with no immediate fixes” (p. 207). Many of his recommendations call on consumers of information to change their behavior. For example, Bartlett advises citizens to “beware of outsourcing the responsibility to think for themselves,” to “fight distraction,” and to “teach critical thinking” (pp. 208–11). These are excellent suggestions, but one wonders how much of the burden can be [End Page 174]shouldered by ordinary consumers given the “insane torrent” of information they confront, as well as the force of “algorithmic logic.”

More intriguing are Bartlett’s ideas on strengthening the transparency of Big Tech algorithms, rethinking the internet economy’s advertising model, and updating rules governing the use of personal data in campaign contexts. “Analogue regulations,” he asserts, “need to be brought up to speed with the digital reality” in order to promote free and fair elections (p. 214). These proposals are more likely to help us meet the complex, multidimensional challenge that has emerged in the digital age, because they are better suited to target the problems at their sources in a way that would alter the structures that convey information to people. As policy makers, scholars, and citizens address the challenge of bringing transparency, accountability, and democratic norms to the digital realm, Bartlett’s recommendations deserve serious thought, particularly as the era of AI comes upon us in earnest.

The paradigm for understanding the internet has shifted, and we all need to rethink our assumptions about whether democracy can flourish, or even survive, in an era of such intensive and relentless manipulation.


Copyright © 2019 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press