We seem to be at a point where the relationship between civil society and the internet – particularly social media and algorithms – is becoming extremely double-edged. While the huge enabling power of social media has long been recognised and used by campaigners and grassroots movements to effect change – most dramatically illustrated right now by #MeToo – the last eighteen months have also seen a powerful shadow side emerge as algorithms have gained in potency.
I find it useful to think of this in terms of three aspects:
The first aspect relates to the manipulation of individuals at mass scale. Tech companies like Facebook have been accused of purposefully creating addictive products, and former tech insiders have admitted that behavioural techniques are used by algorithms to keep users hooked, as platforms vie for attention. Unfortunately, these techniques rely on stoking negative emotions such as fear and resentment to engage users (as they are more efficient to generate than positive ones) and there are emerging signs that as algorithms become more powerful, the underlying structure of social media may be biased towards favouring more polarisation and negativity – offering more opportunity to those who seek to divide and destroy rather than those trying to unify and build bridges. There is even the risk that positive civil society campaigns will increasingly be overwhelmed by the negative backlashes that they generate. (For a more in depth discussion of this aspect see this interview with Jaron Lanier.)
The second aspect relates to the power dynamics that are emerging as our world becomes more networked and virtualised. The network effects that reshaped the music industry, publishing, taxis and hotels are reaching deeper into our lives now as we become more connected and generate more data. These effects push power upwards – to large digital platforms, their owners and those able to harness them – and downwards (to a lesser extent) to the individuals that use them. The middle ground –where many traditional institutions lie – gets hollowed out.
There are signs that this dynamic may be starting to affect civil society, with unpredictable consequences. There is positive potential for much more participatory processes – but also the risk that the first aspect discussed – the bias favouring negative manipulation – will cause damage to our social fabric if it is not tackled. And many of our current civil society institutions lie in the middle ground, the area at risk. There is also a growing accountability problem as this dynamic strengthens the big tech platforms further.
The third aspect connects to the first two and relates to the vast quantity of data we all now generate and give away, which is used to train the AI algorithms that are currently reshaping our world, manipulating our choices and in some respects abolishing privacy. In authoritarian countries, this dynamic is strengthening the reach and power of government. A case in point is the extraordinary Social Credit panopticon planned by the Chinese government, where every individual will have a trustworthiness rating that takes into account everything from political activity to jaywalking. In Western countries, this dynamic is market-based, but risks having a similar outcome for individuals, of being tyrannised into conformity by our ratings.
Shaping the future?
In short, the structural underpinnings of our shared social world are changing fast, in unexpected and often quite unwelcome ways. However despite the bleakness of this shadow side, its dominance is not inevitable, and there is much that can be done.
For example, the negative bias of social media isn’t set in stone — it’s an emergent property that can be changed by altering incentives within the system. We could rethink the framework around ownership of personal data. Even the problematic power dynamics can be mitigated by recognising the big tech companies as utilities and regulating them accordingly.
And there are many other possible solutions.
We urgently need to regain the enabling, connecting, empowering capability of the digital revolution. Civil society has a key role in responding to this challenge. We need to make sure that we can shape the way in which we are able to participate in public spaces — and this is as true of Twitter as our town squares.