The Sunday Edition

How the internet turned from a tool for democracy to a threat against it

The early promise of the internet was that it would empower citizens, but it has now become a threat to democracy. What went wrong? And can it be reclaimed again for the democratic good?
The internet was once celebrated as a force for democratization, giving movements like the Arab Spring the tools to topple repressive regimes. But it's now increasingly seen as a source of misinformation and a threat to democracy itself. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
Listen33:50

It seems like an eternity in internet years, but it was only about a decade ago when people talked about the web as a transformative tool for democracy. 

The internet was going to shift power to the people, but it's now dominated by some of the biggest companies in the world. 

It's increasingly considered to be a potent threat to liberal democracy. It's used to spread misinformation, polarize the electorate and put the integrity of elections in question through meddling by bad actors. 
 
But how and when did the internet transform from an instrument of democracy into a threat to democracy? 

"The source of so many of the pathologies of the digital media landscape today are the business model," Astra Taylor told The Sunday Edition's guest host Peter Armstrong.

Astra Taylor is a Canadian-American documentary filmmaker, writer, activist and musician (Isabella De Maddalena)

Taylor is a Canadian-American whose books include The People's Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, as well as Democracy May Not Exist, But We'll Miss It When It's Gone. She's also the director of the documentary, What Is Democracy?

"When you have a business model that's founded on advertising, you essentially have a system that's a disinformation system by design. It's not just that bad actors are using it to spread untruths," Taylor said.

Pia Mancini is an Argentine political organizer and democracy activist. She co-founded the online communities Democracy Earth and Open Collective. She says too many people were naive about the promises of the internet in its earlier days.

"[It] was happening everywhere in the world at the same time ... a generation of activists that were using the same tools at the same time," Mancini told The Sunday Edition. "Essentially what we saw was building democracy outside of the traditional ways of building democracy."

"That was so exciting that we absolutely missed the whole point — we missed what was happening," she said.

A woman holds a smart-phone displaying a lit candle during a vigil in Hong Kong on June 4, 2019, to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown in Beijing (ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP/Getty Images)

"The promise of democracy that comes from the internet is this mirage that we've kept on chasing," Elamin Abdelmahmoud added. 

He is the editor of curation for BuzzFeed News and the social media editor for BuzzFeed Canada.

"I think what we've actually delivered is one of the most effective advertising platforms in the history of mankind," Abdelmahmoud said. "And it feels like a shame, because we've gathered all these people in one place. We've built such beautiful communication platforms. Only to be like, 'This is how you best sell these shoes.'"

'Global town square'

For Mancini, the impact of the internet in bringing together global communities has been inherently paradoxical.

Pia Mancini is an Argentine political organizer and democracy activist. She co-founded the online communities Democracy Earth and Open Collective. (Pia Mancini)
On the more positive side, she said, it has created a "global town square" that transcends the nation-state and ensures that people's access to a voice isn't determined by "an accident of birth."

On the other hand, the business model of the internet has meant that private companies are essentially vying for a monopoly over our very identities, she added.

"The thing is that democracy has not globalized but other forces in this world have," Taylor said. 

"We live in a situation where capitalism is global. The economy is global ... The digital platforms through which we experience the internet are multinational.

"So the problem is that the international space we inhabit ... is all privately-owned space. And I think we have to be careful with our metaphors. We often revert to calling the online sphere a sort of digital commons … or a town square … But day by day we are rarely on anything but private space when we're online," Taylor said. 

Democratizing the internet

So what would it take to reclaim the internet as a force for the democratic good? Elamin Abdelmahmoud believes we've gone too far to turn back. 

"Fundamentally, the tools that these companies have given us to talk to one another have made ... democratic dialogue itself just so much worse," he said. "We simply don't have the tools to beat back the poor habits that the internet of the last 15 years has sort of beaten into us."

Elamin Abdelmahmoud is the editor of curation for BuzzFeed News and the social media editor for BuzzFeed Canada. (Submitted by Elamin Abdelmahmoud)

Abdelmahmoud added that he was particularly concerned about the ability of younger generations to rebuild the internet as something new.

"There's a generation at least that is so invested in these platforms that they may not be able to conceive of those alternative systems," he said. "I don't think it's apathy ... I actually just think that they're more invested in using the infrastructure that is already there on the internet to continue to build out their lives as opposed to being interested in tearing it down."

For Taylor, though individual consumers have little leverage in how their data is extracted, there is power in the actions of tech workers, and in the public's collective action as citizens.

Worker-led movements against big tech companies like Amazon can go a long way in reclaiming the internet as a tool for democracy, says Astra Taylor. (Kevin Hagen/Getty Images)

"Tech workers could have real power. They're just beginning to flex their might," she said, pointing to the Amazon Prime Day strikes and the Google walkout.

"We [also] have leverage as citizens," Taylor added. "It does matter if we elect people who are enthusiastic about antitrust and reining in monopolies."

"Power is conservative," Pia Mancini added. "It's very difficult to convince the status quo to change."

Other than putting pressure on the system to change, we need to also come up with alternatives, Mancini said.

"You're not gonna win anything by fighting existing reality. You just need to build an alternative system that renders the existing one obsolete."

Click "listen" above to hear the full interview.  

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