Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Digital Challenges to Democracy: Politics of Automation, Attention, and Engagement

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Digital Challenges to Democracy: Politics of Automation, Attention, and Engagement

Article excerpt

Digital interconnectedness was prophesized to usher in greater understanding between people. It was supposed to be good for democracy, political participation, and representation of disenfranchised segments of the population. Digital communication did some of these things, but failed to fulfill a range of other expectations. The golden age of information and communication technologies (ICTs) has witnessed greater political polarization, fiercer far-right, anti-immigration and authoritarian movements, and greater confusion within online interactions through mass oversupply of information. (1) Social media has brought like-minded people closer together, but widened the gap between opposing views. (2) Digital tribes have begun to cluster around their online tribal structures and developed hostile views toward opinion, news, and expression from other tribes. (3) Information-seeking behavior, long heralded as one of the strongest political tools of citizens, has been significantly manipulated by fake news. With the help of algorithmically generated search results and automated accounts known as bots that flood online debates with incorrect or old information, the very nature of information flow is disrupted. (4) Information overload did not make people more "rational" and strengthen their verification heuristics; it made them more emotional and automatic in their responses toward content validating their pre-existing biases. (5) By playing into the "feel good" aspect of human psychology, factually distorted news, produced in exponential quantities, have found a life of their own and influenced significant political processes, the most important of which being elections, the foundation of democracy.

Furthermore, perhaps more problematic is the role of technology companies in democratic participation. The social media revolution and its impact on social movements, political engagement, and information-seeking has rendered top social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube political actors, at least on par with media corporations. News feeds and featured posts are run by dedicated algorithms that are either tailored according to a user's past digital behavior, such as likes, comments, and engagement with posts, as well as advertisers who pay large sums of money to be featured. This puts technology companies at the center of political information-seeking and agenda-setting, two fundamental processes of democracy. Furthermore, hate speech, group-targeting, and fake news disseminated by bots significantly increase the volume of negative messaging online, incurring greater weight over how policies are communicated and how voter preferences are formed.

At the heart of the problem is the "intentions versus business model" debate: namely, the discussion over whether technology companies are deliberately, or at least passively, facilitating negative political messaging, or if the issue is more structural, belonging to the for-profit business model of technology as a vocation. Maximizing user engagement to increase revenue, for better or for worse, inevitably leads to more extreme or emotional messaging on social media platforms and balloons into disproportionate effect by platform algorithms. As far as algorithms are concerned, users' engagement volume, favorable or unfavorable, with cat videos and political violence belong to a similar demand pattern. The kind of political messaging users "like" and engage with, including political figures they support and share, lead to the appearance of similar figures and messages online, leading to self-generated and algorithmically supported filter bubbles. Without equal exposure to different views, users end up thinking their view is supported by the rest of the population and develop more extreme and entrenched opinions on politics. This has led to unprecedented levels of polarization over emotionally charged policy issues, fed by bot-generated news that fit into our version of events. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.