As an exercise, try keeping a media log—a record of all the media you engage with over the course of a day or week—and from that log, flag the content you suspect was intended to manipulate you, even if it was unsuccessful. Memes and viral content are fertile ground for this subtle form of messaging, but so are traditional media like TV, movies, and music. Increasingly, commercial and political messaging is the subtext to content that is otherwise focused on generic or common subjects. In particular, count how many times your personal information was used to customize or target you in a manipulative manner.
These pervasive attempts at manipulation are compounded by the broader erosion of the public commons. After all, democracy was born in the public square, the common space where common people could assemble and discuss what was important to them. As media evolved, societies grew, and what we used or shared as the commons changed. From pamphlets, to newspapers, to radio, and television, democracy changed to keep up with the places, spaces, and media we use to gather.
However, the commons as we know it may no longer be all that common. Personalized digital media serves each of us a unique and individualized experience that keeps us connected but also isolated. The mantra of Silicon Valley may be “move fast and break things,” but it could just as well be “divide and conquer.”
In the recent article, “The Road to Digital Unfreedom,” University of Toronto professor Ron Deibert argues that the “fine-grained surveillance that companies perform for economic reasons is a valuable proxy for authoritarian control.”
He adds that the “attention-grabbing algorithms underlying social media also propel authoritarian practices that aim to sow confusion, ignorance, prejudice, and chaos, thereby facilitating manipulation and undermining accountability.” Like many others, Diebert argues that users are addicted, and, while willfully participating, they are nonetheless being taken advantage of and being led down a dark path.
What if it’s not that simple? What if we’re not being manipulated, but, rather, we’re making these choices freely? What if the issue is not that democracy is in peril, but that citizens are demanding more from democracy? Their expectations of what they’re entitled to as citizens have grown as the powers afforded by technology have taken hold.
No longer satisfied with representative democracy, citizens are desiring direct democracy. After all, that has been their experience as consumers, where their participation is increasingly easier and convenient and their feedback is often valued—sometimes they’re even able to demand and get action when they complain (publicly).
There is also the perception of greater transparency. It feels as if we live in a world where secrets are hard to keep and information has a strong desire to be free. Data breaches and whistleblower leaks give citizens the belief that transparency is aiding democracy, in spite of governments and corporations being more secretive and more intrusive than ever.