August 7, 2020

Can we still prevent the internet from taking on democracy? | Trends


INCOMPATIBILITY. So, in capital letters and stressed syllable by syllable, so as not to forget that this word is the fault of many internet problems, at least if we pay attention to Jamie Bartlett, author of The People vs. Tech, whose subtitle mixes dystopia and hope: How the internet is killing democracy (and how we save it). Bartlett explains to EL PAÍS RETINA the origin of this threat: "We have an old analogical democracy with institutions, rules and norms that were designed for a world offline. And, on the other hand, we have a digital technology that does not follow that same logic, so we run into a problem of incompatibility. "

To illustrate, this British author, who runs the Center for the Analysis of Social media from the ideas laboratory Demos, uses the business model of social networks, based on free services in exchange for data and advertising: "This encourages companies to stay engaged as long as possible and continue to perform tests on an industrial scale to capture and retain our attention. The result is a democracy increasingly unable to concentrate without consulting devices, which damages our own ability to handle complex political ideas and arguments, nuanced and elaborated. " Bartlett points out that this same reason makes the content "populist, emotional and divisive" work very well online because it is more likely to capture our attention and keep us reading and clicking.

What happened then with those beginnings of Web 2.0 that looked promising from the democratic point of view? As you remember Mayra Martinez, PhD in Communication Sciences and Sociology and Professor of Technology and Media in the Classroom at the Camilo José Cela University, at the beginning it was considered that "the internet, because of its ubiquitous, horizontal and permanently accessible nature, was going to constitute a space very interesting citizen participation. " The Network would open new ways to influence decisions and public policies by giving voice and capacity for self-organization to audiences that until now enjoyed little social and media representation.

"However, the dark reverse has been seen soon," says Martínez, who is part of the European project's research group Practices and techno-political profiles: emerging notions of citizenship. In his opinion, the levels of political participation are lower than expected, especially when it comes to deliberate and debate rationally. "In addition, we have witnessed with some discouragement how social networks have proliferated xenophobic and hateful discourses, much more than in traditional media. Added to this is the fact that States and corporations also use digital networks for their own propaganda purposes, often with extremist and sensationalist messages, if not openly false, "said Martínez.

Although it seems that we have not yet reached the point of no return. Antonio Lucas, Professor of Sociology, points out that the way forward to solve these problems is to ensure that all people clearly understand the power of the Internet and are able to handle the many possibilities it offers: "You have to know your numbers and your ability to influence, to have a digital education that the State must ensure to all citizens, since access to the Internet is one of the new human rights. " According to Lucas, who has been researching for more than 20 years the effects of new technologies on society, it is also necessary to educate citizens in the love of truth and in hatred of lies, as well as to appreciate the freedom of others as well as ours. "With educated and truth-loving citizens, if they are also liberal and equal in fundamental aspects, we will have achieved much," he says.

  • We are the problem

Mayra Martínez also advocates that training, since for her the internet is, in itself, a "neutral space" and the use we make of it is what sometimes turns it into a hostile terrain or an instrument to distribute partial information or biased: "In that we contribute all the users. Of course there are power groups with very specific political and commercial interests that have many more resources and, therefore, use them in this sense. But they are not armored against compromised leaks either. In fact, despite everything, the internet can share with the press that democratic function of monitoring power. "

If something fails, according to Martinez, it is not the Internet itself, but the social and political structure, as well as the current culture and values, which ultimately determine those practices and uses of digital technologies. This is observable in the great milestones achieved and developed in social networks such as anti-austerity movements or feminism, whose messages and visions of reality have monopolized the public debate in countries such as Spain and which, however, have not achieved the same scope in other places that do not share the same degree of civil liberties or educational level or where censorship and religious institutions have more presence.

"The Internet is, after all, a reflection of our society and exercising controls in the virtual space can be undemocratic and an attack on freedom, apart from that it is very difficult technologically speaking," says Martinez. Therefore, this researcher believes that the best antidote against inappropriate uses of the internet is a strong democratic state, an education that activates critical thinking about the dangers of technology and a society in which key values ​​such as honesty prevail , tolerance, respect and responsible participation: "Assuming these principles depends on each of us, as well as the transmission of them to future generations. It seems clear that the school and the media, as primordial socializing agents, have not yet fully assumed this responsibility. "

The Matthew effect and other internet monsters

"I do not know what would be my knowledge of reality without computers, without mobile or without networks." So the professor of Sociology Antonio Lucas makes clear the enormous expansion of the communicative capacity that the internet has brought, although he recognizes that the development of this tool has also resulted in three negative consequences:

  • It makes us more unequal. It gives power to some people, geographical areas, cultures or ideologies, while many others are denied or even taken away for lack of educational, technical or economic capacity. For Lucas, the internet reinforces what Merton called the Matthew effect: "the one who has is given more and the one who does not have even the little that he has is taken away from him. In this sense, the Internet provides a reinforcing utility to those who already have a greater capacity to use new technologies ".
  • It turns us into merchandise. The large technological companies that dominate the Internet possess users through the knowledge of their lives: habits, tastes, education, skills, social relations, needs … "They can offer us apparently free services, but they sell us, our ability of consumption or vote. They know our personal ecosystem of information that they objectify and sell through bubble filters, "recalls Lucas.
  • It misinforms us. Democracy could be greatly enhanced with new technologies and in fact it is a task that is facilitated by making the proposal of "one man, one vote" available everywhere. However, among the counterproductive aspects of the internet we find the facility to distribute junk or low quality information, which distracts from topics of more interest or importance.

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