Thomas's Rant

Story, myth, writings

The Internet: democracy reset ?

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I open my iPad and click on an app. An unfamiliar screen opens advising me that my privacy is safe due to some new policy or other. I am reassured, apparently, and click to make it go away.

Many have been outraged recently regarding revelations about Cambridge Analytica meddling in the political process of various nations around the world and concerns about the personal profiling undertaken by advertisers on Facebook and elsewhere on the Internet. I’m not so much outraged as perplexed.

B14684EC-87D3-44BC-8CF8-BE1DE59A8EB9The objection to personal data harvesting doesn’t seem much of a problem on the individual level, at least in term of commerce. The general idea of surrendering some morsel of personal detail so that advertisers can more readily entice me with products I might actually want to buy isn’t to me objectionable. I have almost never purchased anything anyway, but it’s nice to think that maybe it might display something less loathsome than an ad for a gas-guzzling CRV or endless gambling. Similarly, I’m not too concerned about other people buying too much bullshit on the Internet as a result of being taken in by expert marketing. It would presumably be a problem if whole swathes of the population followed up every ‘penis enlargement’ scam with hard cash, but the prospect of this seems unlikely.

Of course it is in a political context in which data harvesting is most worrying. It does feel extremely wrong when large swathes of the population vote differently in an election on the basis of, apparently, expertly targeted lies. I’m assured by what remains of responsible journalism that the problem is ‘echo-chambers’ inciting ‘political polarisation’, enclaves of the Internet where trolls and fake news paddlers feed off each other, and the likes of xenophobia and anti-vaxxing is rife.

However, as far as I understand it, I’m not sure that much of this has to do with privacy. Those fake news articles are shared on newsfeeds of course, but I was under the impression that users did this voluntarily.

Going further, I can’t help feeling it’s not the targeting that is the problem but the complicity and stupidity of the people who believe the obvious lies. The horror of all this is in human gullibility. Previously, before the advent of the Internet, when news reached us only via newspapers, radio and a handful of free-to-air TV stations, it was easy to believe that crackpot opinion, unsubstantiated claims and racist drivel did not constitute a risk to democracy because the mainstream media acted largely as gatekeepers keeping such material on the margins (with the occasional public scandal being the exception which proves the rule of course). I can only speak for myself, and maybe I was naïve, but this gatekeeping allowed me to believe that if such warped views were somehow broadcast, the populace would see them for what they are, dismissing or repudiating such dangerous, hysterical opinions, so democracy was reasonably secure.

I’m not sure on what basis I assumed the public would be so critical, of course. Good schooling? I doubt it. Our teachers try their best but beyond high school few people have any compulsory need to undertake refresher courses in critical thinking. I think I just assumed a kind of natural human reason would prevail. The recent concern about online security has exposed the naivety of our democratic process, or at least, my understanding of it.

The democratic process (or ‘myth’ if you like) involves a belief that society works best when the excesses of power are tempered by elections conducted every few years in which preferential voting allows a majority of the public to choose their representatives in parliament. This process is said to work most effectively because the public has some kind of say in who their leaders are. Bad leaders, here defined as those which the public don’t like, can be thrown out of office. The crucial belief seems to be that the public are selecting their leaders according to some reasonable understanding of how their leaders will behave in office and, finally, that when their own interests and wellbeing is being served or harmed by such representatives the public – can somehow recognise that…

So the prospect of voting for someone because they spout xenophobic bile or perform as a largely fictional character in an inane reality TV programme shouldn’t be on the cards, or at least, no majority, surely, would select a representative whose credentials were obviously so, to put it mildly, poor. Yet this happened and whether some dodgy analytics continue targeting us or not, apparently we are easily duped, even corrupted.

The shock for me is that I think all this does is reveal how democracy doesn’t work so well after all. I mean if democracy worked well enough without the intensive communication channels of the Internet couldn’t it be said that democracy works best when certain ideas – xenophobia, anti-vaxxing, etc. – are censored? I mean, that is largely what the old pre-Internet media used to do wasn’t it? Which leads to the question: If censorship is necessary, who should have the right to do so? Surely censorship of certain ideas should be antithetical to democracy. The question of who could have the moral authority to censor ideas is moot anyway since the more pertinent question today is: how would you do it?

Censoring the Internet is no easy task. Perhaps the Internet is the monster here. Maybe it’s not so much that the Internet provides “intensive communication channels” as I wrote in the previous paragraph but that it really provides “poor distorting improper communication channels”. The Internet is not a place of deep interpersonal connection – its anonymity is infamous. It is also not a place of complex discussion of ideas – how often have you read *this* far in an article on the Internet? I suggest the communication is distorting because a discussion between two speakers who are forced to use a limited number of words and means would indeed be restricted and therefore distorting. Such communication could be considered improper in that it seems unlikely that such large numbers of humans beings are properly equipped to be in distorted contact with each other and still be coherent. Maybe we are all wasting our time online, hypnotised by the distorting glimpses of coherency – no one can honestly say it doesn’t often feel like it. It is also improper communication insofar as it is unmonitored. Free-to-air TV back in the pre-Internet days couldn’t support “Info Wars” because space was limited so many eyes were always on anything produced. Today, thousands of people can view content made by someone in his own bedroom (or, more likely, concrete bunker) yet it is also true that almost no one knows about it, let alone any kind of authority, malicious or benign. So any old bile can percolate. (Maybe we’re in “Lord of the Flies” territory?)

2BDF2B31-04BE-44CB-B2C4-9DD9DA6B3BE1This sounds like a bad idea for democracy – not to mention justice, truth, honesty, etc., etc. It’s kind of like everyone is involved in highly addictive covert conversations under the bedclothes whispered incoherently in Morse code to a network of several thousand anonymous secret operatives spread out like one of several hundred million clandestine organisations across the globe. This sounds both horrifying (the description also seems to align with terrorism) and too cool to expect anyone to voluntarily stop doing (our “virtual reality” really).

In which case, maybe the Internet isn’t the monster – maybe democracy is just a political system that simply isn’t very well suited to its functioning nearby. Democracy without the semblance of reason certainly is beginning to look more like, if not fascist populism, at least demarchy: government by random allotment. The system certainly seems to have a virus with no obvious cure. However, destablised democracy “infiltrated” by the Internet is all we have at present and is slated to be the next ‘worst system except for all the others’. Instability, insanity, paranoia are, finally, all relative terms. “In my day,” we’ll carp to our great-grand-kids, “we used to just read good honest newspapers, have good honest conversations with humans present in the room in which we actually were physically present also, and all the newfangled time we didn’t elect none of them celebrity fascists – for if you read no Internet, you’ll be told no lies. Now wash your hands, there’s a good girl, dinner’s nearly hydrated.”


Written by tomtomrant

28 April 2018 at 9:51 am

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