The Dark Age of the Internet or a Digital Enlightenment: Is Democracy in Danger in the Information Age?

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This article is part of the Forum Network series on Trust and DigitalisationThe Forum Network is the place for you to debate policies that can shape the issues and challenges of our time with other experts and engaged citizensJoin for free using your email or social media accounts to share your stories, ideas and expertise in the comments!

This article was co-authored by Julie Mastrine, Director of Marketing, Allsides

It may not seem like it but, in 2019, we are still in the early days of the internet. And much like the early days of the printing press, the initial aftermath of such a mammoth new technology has also ushered in some societal chaos. Fake news, overwhelming media bias and filter bubbles are now major problems that we’re still not sure how to grapple with. Is democracy in danger as a result?

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The advent of the internet suddenly gave us access to an extraordinary amount of information. The technology industry solved this problem by creating search engines that filter things out, customise results for each of us and help us to find exactly what we want to see. Similarly, social media companies allow us to interact only with like-minded peers. But by seeing only information and people who confirm our existing beliefs, we are now less informed and more polarised as a society — and it doesn’t fare well for our democracies.

Read the OECD report Measuring the Digital Transformation: A Roadmap for the Future including a chapter on Downsides to the digital transformation

Measuring the Digital Transformation: A Roadmap for the Future

On the internet, we search and navigate by similarity: This person is a friend of my friend; this link is related to that. This makes it possible for us to navigate through unlimited information and the 24-hour news cycle to find just what we want, shutting things out that are not similar or comfortable. Clinging tightly to our own tribe, we are rarely exposed to ideas or information that run contrary to our beliefs. We begin to see anyone who has a different point of view as the “other” – or even evil. A society where people see only one-sided information leads to a highly polarised political environment. This is exactly what we’re seeing in the United States and in other parts of the world today.

For Good and For Evil: The future of technology and democracy by Anthony Silberfeld Director, Transatlantic Program, Bertelsmann Foundation

For Good and For Evil: The future of technology and democracy by Anthony Silberfeld Director, Transatlantic Program, Bertelsmann Foundation

In order for democracy to be healthy and thrive, citizens need to be able to not only see their differences but also to appreciate them, and learn how to work together to solve problems in spite of them. Developing a blind spot to different points of view and seeing one another as evil does not help this task. Democracy thrives when all the best ideas are in the room, not when we shun one another or retreat into ideological purity camps.

If we can learn to understand how misinformation and bias work, we can move through the “Dark Age” of the internet and create a democracy built around truth, not falsehoods.

The internet may be threatening democratic peacemaking, but it’s not all doom and gloom. The first few years after the invention of the printing press initially created chaos – people were printing falsehoods and challenging the establishment. It was unclear how society ought to handle the new technology. But the printing press also ushered in the Enlightenment. It didn’t happen overnight, but we may be on a similar trajectory today.

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If we can learn to understand how misinformation and bias work, we can move through the “Dark Age” of the internet and create a democracy built around truth, not falsehoods. While fake news is easier than ever to spread, our digital information age may also create a new consciousness, one in which people demand well-researched reporting, diverse perspectives and balanced views. This is already happening — AllSides, a website that curates balanced news and provides media bias ratings, was developed out of a need to combat filter bubbles and a desire for more transparency around news and information. Democracy will not be in danger if people continue to demand higher standards of information. If 2019 is the Dark Ages of the internet, perhaps the Enlightenment is not far off. 

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Reimagining Democracy Post-truth

John Gable

CEO, Allsides

John Gable is Co-founder and CEO of AllSides, and partnered with Joan Blades to have their two organizations, AllSides and Living Room Conversations, jointly launch the non-profit initiative AllSides For Schools. John has over 20 years of technology entrepreneurship, management and executive experience, leading product, marketing and consumer teams and divisions. He served on the original teams for Microsoft Office, Mozilla at Netscape, and ZoneAlarm at Check Point Software. He co-founded Kavi Corp (web-based collaboration, sold to Higher Logic) and previously was a professional political campaigner and executive director in the 1980s working for the Republican National Committee as well as for candidates for US President, US Senate, US Congress, Governor and local campaigns. His experience spans consumer technology products, marketing, press, community collaboration and high tech management.