The internet is not the only to blame

Book analyses the asymmetrical informative system that opens way to authoritarian majoritarianism

Published originally in Ilustríssima. Folha de São Paulo

The rise of the extreme right in various parts of the world has cast the internet into a threatening dystopic terrain. The optimism surrounding its democratizing and decentralizing vocation has entirely faded away even for its most fervent apologists. Commemorating twenty-five years of the world’s most important publication on technology, Wired Magazine, Nicholas Thompson at the very beginning of the ‘not to be missed’ conversation he had with Yuval Nohah Harari and Tristan Harris[1] declared: “when the magazine was founded the whole idea was that it was a magazine about optimism, and change, and that technology was good and change is good; 25 years later, you look at the world today; you can’t really hold the entirety of that philosophy”.

“The internet apologizes”: that is the title of a set of interviews the American magazine Intelligencer[ii] held with iconic Silicon Valley figures like Jaron Lanier (whose most recent book[iii] proposes that people should abandon the social networks altogether), Guillaume Chaslot (who helped to develop the YouTube recommendations algorithm and who now denounces its nefarious effects) and Roger McNamee (an investor and one-time counselor of Mark Zuckerberg’s and currently one of his most implacable critics), among others. In the last two or three years there has been an accumulation of scientific articles and a huge quantity of books denouncing the business models of the contemporary digital giants for conducting a public asset, the internet, in a direction entirely opposite to the one its creators had in mind.

Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris and Hal Roberts (all three attached to Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center For Internet & Society) have just published Network Propaganda[iv] in which, even though they acknowledge the threat to contemporary civic life coming from the business models of the digital giants, nevertheless, make it clear that in the United States the social media cannot be considered the fundamental vectors of the ascension of what they call “authoritarian majoritarianism” and that is probably true for the rest of the world too.

Individualization en masse

At the base of that business model are the technological changes that began with the smartphone, cloud computing and the progress of machine learning and artificial intelligence. Image and voice capturing devices that recognize people’s movements even when they are not carrying their cell phones complete what Shoshana Zuboff refers to as “surveillance capitalism” [v]. The data that we involuntarily and permanently supply not only when using digital devices but eve when we are just walking in the street or shopping are collected, stored and processed and they make it possible to obtain individualized knowledge about each and every one of us and in greater detail than conventional political and commercial marking could ever have imagined.

Such thorough personalized knowledge, not only of our behavior but also of our intimate feelings, opens the way for a business model that has enabled the digital giants to amass a degree of wealth and power that is unprecedented in the history of modern economy. As Woodrow Hartzog showed so clearly in his recently published work Privacy’s Blueprint[vi], the same design of digital devices and the applicatives they contain assails some of democracy’s most important values, starting with privacy. However, given that this permanent invasion of privacy is a collective phenomenon that currently involves billions of people, Hartzog warns about the dangerous power, on the part of whoever possesses the knowledge of the profiles of each one of us, to influence the choices made by consumers and citizens. The scandal of the leaking of Facebook users data collected by Cambridge Analytica aroused suspicion that the 2016 US election results might have been different without the manipulation that made it possible to send out personalized messages on a massive scale designed to destroy the public image of Hillary Clinton

The diagnosis seems to be irrefutable whether it concerns Trump, Brexit, Orbán in Hungary or Duterte in the Philipines: the business model of the digital giants, the generalized collection of personal data, the way such information is processed by increasingly sophisticated algorithms and the individualization of the knowledge that opens the way for all of that makes it feasible to exercise an influence on civic and electoral life that jeopardizes democracy itself. Add to that the use of such devices by foreigners (especially Russians in the case of the USA) and you have a scenario that can be synthesized in a single grim sentence: there is no way that democracy can survive the internet.

Asymmetrical polarization

 Network Propaganda contests that conclusion basing itself on a colossal mass of empirical data. Not to say that the internet is exempted from any threats to democratic life or that the social media have not been the means of fake news transmission on a grand scale. However, according to the research surveys that Benkler, Faris and Roberts cite, only 14% of Americans identified the social media as their most useful source of information in the 2016 electoral process. Does that mean the voters went to the polls well-informed?

To address that question the authors demonstrate the existence of an impressive asymmetry between the informative ecosystem that voters of the US extreme right live in and the one that marks those of the center and left. 47% of Americans who identify themselves as “consistently conservative” get their information on government and politics almost exclusively from Fox News. That is a cable TV channel that does not hesitate to disseminate and ‘report’ on Hillary Clinton’s affiliation to Islamic Fundamentalism (to ISIS), Saudi Arabia’s power in the Clinton Foundation, the secret deal for America to sell uranium to the Russians, trafficking in children from Haiti promoted by the Clintons with a view to pedophilia, or about the head of Hillary’s election campaign, John Podesta (currently a visiting professor at the prestigious Georgetown University), alleging that he practiced black magic. However profuse the postings of such stories on Facebook may have been, it was only the main source of information for 7% of Trump voters.

The people who declared themselves to be “consistently liberal” had much more diversified sources of information: 15% watched CNN, 13% watched NPR, 12% watched MSNBC and 10% read the New York Times. In a similar pattern to that of the Trump voters, Facebook was the primary source of information for a mere 8% of the Democrat voters

It is a fact that distrust of the press has increased greatly in the USA since the 1970s when it affected from 10 to 20% of the population (Republicans a little more than Democrats). By 2016, however, that distrust figure had soared to 40% among Democrats and as much as 60% among Republicans.

Those data point to three conclusions: the first is that the social media’s influence in the United States elections in 2016 was far less than innumerable studies have estimated. Even if it is true that the massive sending of personalized messages is a threat to democracy, it was not the main factor responsible for the information that fed the American voter in 2016. The second conclusion is that television played a decisive role. The third, and the most important, because it contains lessons about the ascension of the far right beyond the bounds of the USA, is that the sources of information for Trump voters are far more concentrated and exclusive than those drawn on by the Democrats.

If that concentration were the result of the format or design of the social media then it would be more or less homogeneously cross-cutting for the entire political spectrum. What is highly impressive among the extreme right is the willingness to believe, and the lack of any means of contesting the totally absurd stories and the fact that they can only be shared by that closed political and cultural circle which reiterates the identity that constitutes it, namely, white supremacy, aversion to immigration, traditional values contrary to the sexual revolution and contrary to female emancipation. In the United States, the sharing of fantasy information without any endeavor to check its veracity has now systematically been embraced by no less than 40% of the population. However, the distribution of that kind of fantasy in the political and electoral spectrum is by no means homogeneous.

The use of the term ‘polarization’ fails to reveal a notable asymmetry between the media behavior of the extreme right and the rules that orientate the informative ecosystem of those that are not affiliated to it. They are two epistemic communities functioning on the basis of very different logics. Obviously there have been false stories circulated on the left too, like the one in 2016 alleging that Donald Trump had abused a thirteen year-old child in 1994. That information, however was far more intensely submitted to critical screening and checking alternative sources than those created by Fox, by Breibart and innumerable columnists (many of whom are engaged in the powerful tele-evangelism), disseminators of stories that one can hardly imagine people would ever believe in.

The decline of objectivity

The power of those fanciful narratives becomes even more intriguing when one remembers that in the course of the 20th century almost all professional fields developed institutions and a culture of curbing charlatanism. That materialized in the form of Medical Associations, the generalization of the practice of peer review for scientific publications, associations of economists, political scientists, lawyers, and in the edition of style guides, on the part of most major newspapers around the world to enable the public to share a belief in the information being transmitted and in the basic objectivity of journalism. Obviously lies, misinformation, intentional disinformation and bad faith have always existed and all the more so in the heat of electoral disputes. The 20th century, however, especially after the end of World War II, was marked by institutions and the strengthening of a culture, in the democratic societies at least, directed at curbing lying narratives and false information.

That world collapsed, notably in the second decade of this 21st century when, in the United States, there came on the scene a whole set of sites, blogs (Breitbart, Infowars, Truthfeed, Zero Hedge, Gateway Pundit) and journalists with national outreach but without the slightest commitment to those norms of objectivity. Even broadcasters like Fox News and Daily Center who announce that they abide by the norms of objective journalism, do not actually do so.

Benkler, Faris and Roberts show that in the United States the informative ecosystem is not marked by a right/left polarization but rather by one between the right and all the rest of the media. The data show that on the right that the echo chamber models are concentrated and their participants are endowed with a high degree of impermeability to anything that does not belong to the cultural universe they live in. That makes them even more susceptible to believing in conspiracy theories and other unlikely theories. The news, the opinions of columnists with a national repercussion and the blogs most visited have a permanent propensity for confirming the cultural identity of those who receive and transmit them.

So what does that conservative identity consist of? In the American case, it is a reaction to the civil rights movements (combating racism), to the struggle for female emancipation and to the revolution in customs that the 1960s ushered in and against which a vast set of religious preachers, columnists and TV and radio broadcasters (who achieved a national outreach after changes were made to the broadcasting legislation) organized themselves. Much more than any supposed program for governing the country, setting a high value on the patriarchal family and a vehement defense of individualism were the pillars that the coalition that led to Donald Trump’s occupying the presidency used to imbue millions of Americans, who nurture themselves spiritually by enclosing their informative ecosystem within their own selves, with a sense of identity.

Two conclusions emerge from Benkler, Faris and Roberts analysis. The optimistic one is that the internet is not condemned to be the driver of democracy’s destruction. It is not only possible, but fundamentally important to establish rules that enable the public to identify toxic political propaganda and there is a strong ongoing movement in that direction and not only in the USA. The pessimistic one is that there is no simple way of facing up to the epistemic crisis in countries in which a great part of the population lives in cultural circles that make use of distorted, often false information as a means to strengthen those identities and meanings based on which people view the world.


[i] Senior Professor at the USP’s Instituto de Energia e Ambiente. Author of Muito Além da Economia Verde (Planeta Sustentável/Abril). Twitter: @abramovay –






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