Screened Off: The dangers of an insular web

Corporate control, and the "tyranny of the popular." Fake news, filter bubbles, and apps as "walled gardens." Have we lost a free and democratic internet? And did we do this to ourselves? Sue Gardner, ex-of the Wikimedia Foundation, writer Hossein Derakhan, and Brodie Fenlon of CBC Digital News join Paul Kennedy onstage at Ryerson University's Centre for Free Expression, in Toronto.

Corporate control, and the "tyranny of the popular." Fake news, filter bubbles, and apps as "walled gardens." Have we lost a free and democratic internet? And did we do this to ourselves? Sue Gardner, ex-of the Wikimedia Foundation, writer Hossein Derakhan, and Brodie Fenlon of CBC Digital News join Paul Kennedy onstage at Ryerson University's Centre for Free Expression, in Toronto.

Once upon a time, the world wide web was an idealistic place. In the early 1990s, it was full of blogs and chat rooms and long, hyperlinked articles holding forth on all manner of topics. This open version of the web was a lively cacophony of voices, where anyone with internet access was free to write and participate. 

But in the nearly 30 years since its invention, the web has increasingly closed into little corporatized nooks. Big companies such as Apple, Facebook, and Google have changed the rules. Their products and services are convenient and often fun -- but at what cost?

In this episode, our panelists look particularly at how the mobile phone, with its handy little apps, changed the game for everything from self-expression, to news and information. Instead of acting as pit-stops in a more wide-ranging web experience, the goal of these apps is to keep users inside their universe for as long as possible -- exposing us to ads, and mining our private data to create an even more captivating experience. Increasingly, we don't have to encounter things we're not already interested in -- be it consumer items, or points of view. 

Sue Gardner
Who really bears responsibility for that narrowing of experience and viewpoints? Aren't corporations just giving us what we want?  Sue Gardner -- longtime director of the Wikimedia Foundation -- has spent years observing Silicon Valley and its devotion to creating the ideal user experience. She knows how deliberately engineered these "sticky" experiences are, and how hard to resist:

"If you're going to engage the modern world, you're going to use the internet the way tech companies are making it for you. And you're going to benefit from it in a bunch of ways. But you're not really exercising a completely free choice."
-- Tech thinker Sue Gardner

Brodie Fenlon (Twitter)
Brodie Fenlon, Senior Director of CBC Digital News, agrees, but says that we all play a role in this increasingly closed web. Media companies caught up in the 24-7 surge of the digital news cycle puts out a huge amount of information, which social networks like Facebook are all too happy to tailor to their users through their individual feeds on the service.  And with kittens, Kardashians, and other clickbait scrolling past, most users don't dig too deeply, or hit the "share" button on news of complex issues like the war in Syria, says Fenlon.

"Aleppo doesn't share...The problem is that Facebook favours shareability over public interest." -- journalist Brodie Fenlon 

The mysterious algorithm that chooses news for each Facebook user's feed favours things akin to what we've previously "liked" and shared on the site. That results in keeping us inside our own circles when it comes to politics and opinion. 

As the recent U.S. election has demonstrated, there's also been a significant rise in fake news on social networks like Facebook. The uniform look of the feed makes everything seem equal, and our tendency to rush-read what's there -- or believe what we want to believe -- has legitimized highly partisan or sensationally-false stories. 

Hossein Derakhshan
Blogger and media analyst Hossein Derakhshan is particularly concerned about the rise of video over text. He notes that both Donald Trump and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi are masters of television, and entirely at home in an online world that increasingly favours video over text. 

[With the rise of video over writing, we're seeing.. ] "a shift from thinking to emotions…This proliferation of emotions is actually one reason that demagogues around the world are becoming successful in twisting the facts and creating this environment which is now called 'post-truth.'" - writer Hossein Derakhshan

Since our panel was recorded in November 2016, Facebook has taken some steps to address fake news, and the backlash it received. But will that be enough? Our panelists call for transparency around the nature of the Facebook algorithm, a greater ability for users to customize their experience outside the filter bubble, and more awareness and debate around the growing insularity of the web.

Guests in this episode: 

  • Hossein Derakhshan is an Iranian-Canadian writer and media analyst, based in Tehran.
  • Brodie Fenlon is Senior Director of Digital News at CBC, based in Toronto. He's also worked at Huffington Post Canada, and The Globe and Mail. 
  • Sue Gardner is a self-described "Internet do-gooder" and former Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation. She is former head of, and is a Canadian based in San Francisco.

Further reading: 

  • Hossein Derakhshan mentions -- Amusing Ourselves to Death:  Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman (1985).
  • Sue Gardner references - The Attention Merchants: The Epic Struggle to Get Inside Our Heads" by Tim Wu (2016) and  The Big Sort: Why the Clustering is Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, by Bill Bishop (2009).

Related websites

Brodie Fenlon's recommends these websites for more on the state of digital news:

**This episode was produced by Lisa Godfrey