According to Persily, Trump’s success was only possible because institutions like the mainstream media and political parties have become especially weak. At the same time, social media has virtually exploded. Critically, these forces are true not only in the US, but around the world. There are numerous examples: Brexit, Italy’s Five Star movement , the Pirate Party in Iceland, Duterte’s “keyboard army” in the Philippines, Indian Prime Minister Modi’s social media following, and many others. The point is that technology has transformed democracies everywhere, which is why we should take Persily’s question seriously.
So what are the specific features that make the internet so disruptive? Persily outlines several factors including the velocity of information, the capacity for content to go viral, the rise of filter bubbles, the ability of foreign governments to meddle, and the monopolistic position of platforms like Google, Facebook and Twitter. The common denominator among these is that the institutions which once determined the flow of information have been replaced by the institutions that now rule the internet. If a democracy benefits from having gatekeepers who determine political messaging, those gatekeepers are in decline.
Google, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and many other platforms claim to be neutral arbiters of information, but one has to wonder what exactly “neutral” means? Each platform decides how content is organized, presented, and delivered to us, the users. Some content is prioritized over others, and content like porn and hate speech may be filtered out altogether. In other words, “neutral” does not mean “unregulated.” Inevitably it becomes a subjective standard, which can be especially problematic when the whole notion of “truth” is up for debate. Whereas once upon a time the arbiters of information may have been political leaders, journalists, and editors, now the tech platforms largely make the decisions – and they do so under the lightening-fast conditions that govern the internet.
It’s tempting to bash the tech platforms for having removed the gatekeepers, and they do deserve their fair share of blame for undermining democracy. But the truth is that the major tech firms are byproducts of the system and the structural features of the internet. In so many ways the internet is imbued with the American ideals of freedom of speech; it’s ironic that such an American technology now threatens democracy.
Maybe it’s a matter of how we frame the issue. Is the internet a platform and an extension of democracy where we’re simply digitizing different features of society, including the democratic institutions that have been built up over centuries? Or is the internet an institution all on its own, and therefore needs customized checks and balances? If it’s the latter, there don’t appear to be any “checks” to speak of. Sure, you can talk about regulating Silicon Valley companies, and maybe it’s even possible to create a bipartisan vision and legislation. But how can we do that while still adhering to first amendment principles?
To make matters more complicated, this is no longer just an American challenge. Right now America does play an outsized role in establishing the norms and conditions of online activity. But the future of the internet may well be determined by The EU, the Chinese, or another global player. Yet almost no other governing body on the planet has the tradition of free speech that exists in America.
Can democracy survive the internet? If the answer is yes, then our first amendment principles may strengthen and spread. If the answer is no, then one has to wonder if the Internet will develop its own Constitution.
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