Posts Tagged ‘Dan Balz’

Can Democracy Survive the Internet?

April 24, 2017

The title of this post is part of the title of a column by Dan Balz in the 23 April 2017 issue of the Washington Post.  The complete title of the column is “A scholar asks, ‘Can democracy survive the internet?’  The scholar in question is Nathaniel Persily a law professor at Stanford University.  He has written an article in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Democracy with the same title as this post.

Before proceeding, let HM remind you that the original purpose of the internet was to increase communication among scientists and engineers.  Tim Berners-Lee created and gave the technology that gave birth to the World Wide Web.  He gave it to the world for free to fulfill its true potential as a tool which serves all of the humanity. The healthy memory blog post “Tim Berners-Lee Speaks Out on Fake News” related some of the concerns he has regarding where the web is going.

Persily’s concerns go much further.  And they go way beyond Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.  He notes that foreign attempts to interfere with what should be a sovereign enterprise are only one factor to be examined.  Persily argues that the 2016 campaign broke down previously established rules and distinctions “between insiders and outsiders, earned media and advertising, media and non-media, legacy media and new media, news and entertainment and even foreign and domestic sources of campaign communication.”  One of the primary reasons Trump won was that Trump realized the potential rewards of exploiting what the internet offered, and conducted his campaign through new, unconventional means.

Persily writes that Trump realized, “That it was more important to swamp the communication environment than it was to advocate for a particular belief or fight for the truth of a particular story.”  Persily notes that the Internet reacted to the Trump campaign, “like an ecosystem welcoming a new and foreign species.  His candidacy triggered new strategies and promoted established Internet forces.  Some of these (such as the ‘alt-right’ ) were moved by ideological affinity, while others sought to profit financially or further a geopolitical agenda.  Those who worry about the implications of the 2016 campaign are left to wonder whether it illustrates the vulnerabilities of democracy in the Internet age, especially when it comes to the integrity of the information voters access as they choose between candidates.”

Persily quotes a study by a group of scholars that said, “Retweets of Trump’s posts are a significant predictor of concurrent news coverage…which may imply that he unleashes ‘tweetstorms’ when his coverage is low.”

Persily also writes about the 2016 campaign, “the prevalence of bots in spreading propaganda  and fake news appears to have reached new heights.  One study found that between 16 September and 21 October 2016, bots produced about a fifth of all tweets related to the upcoming election.  Across all three presidential debates, pro-Trump twitter bots generated about four times as many tweets as pro-Clinton bots.  During the final debate in particular, that figure rose to seven times as many.”

Clearly, Persily raises an extremely provocative, disturbing, and important question.

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