Is the internet threatening democracy? Progress digital editor Sam Bright reviews Jamie Bartlett’s new book: The People vs Tech
On a sultry evening in April, around 60 people crammed into the first-floor function room of a Bloomsbury pub to celebrate the launch of The People vs Tech. The author, Jamie Bartlett, director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos, made all the usual tributes: to his family, his researcher and his publisher, before making one last toast, to Carole Cadwalladr of the Guardian.
Cadwalladr recently broke a series of stories about Cambridge Analytica, a political advertising firm that allegedly procured the information of millions of Facebook users illicitly. This scandal has caused a dramatic spike in attention around the social implications of technological development. Bartlett’s book now serves as a timely roadmap to this debate.
According to Bartlett, technology is eroding core elements of our democracy. He makes the distinction between the ‘hardware’ and ‘software’ of democracy. The hardware – the physical manifestations of democracy (safe polling stations, accurate counts etc.) – remains intact. But the software of democracy – the ability of citizens to make up their minds freely, based on the widespread availability of accurate information – is being corrupted.
This has been caused, in part, through the blatant hacking of our democratic software by foreign states. We are now well aware that Russian actors have been attempting to sow discord in western democracies by disseminating false information through social media. And this has not just occurred during election periods. Research found that at least 47 Russian bot accounts had posted material in the wake of terrorist attacks at Westminster Bridge, the Manchester Arena, London Bridge and Finsbury Park. And the material created by these bots was reposted more than 150,000 times.
False information, peddled by foreign states, is obviously a threat to the democratic process. But, as Bartlett highlights, our political discourse is being undermined in more subtle ways. Social media, in its current form, promotes simplicity over complexity (it is difficult to convey a nuanced argument in 280 characters), it promotes toxic tribalism (people online are rarely exposed to arguments they disagree with and, when they are, these arguments are rarely persuasive), and it promotes sensationalism (there is an information overload on the internet, and the loudest people are often the only ones who are heard). These characteristics are then reinforced by powerful algorithms that distribute popular content (content which, invariably, tends to be simplistic, tribal and sensational).
Ultimately, this has created a polarised, discordant political environment. As Bartlett writes: ‘I see opposing views to mine all the time; they rarely change my mind, and more often simply confirm my belief that I am the only sane person in a sea of internet idiots.’ Leaders such as Donald Trump have consequently risen to the fore by offering opinions that are swift, immediate and unequivocal – reinforcing these tribal divides.
Bartlett’s analysis is persuasive, but The People vs Tech does have limitations. The book is compact, at little over 250 pages, yet its remit is vast. This means it occasionally reads like an encyclopaedia (if anyone remembers what that is). The book, especially the introduction, could also be accused of hypocrisy – by using the sort of sensational language that Bartlett warns is hurting our democracy.
On the whole, The People vs Tech is an erudite book that sheds light on the unwanted social costs of the big tech revolution. An essential read for pretty much anyone in the world of politics.
Sam Bright is digital editor of Progress. He tweets @SamBright_Ltd
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