Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

How the Internet Complicates Democracy

Let me start by first reiterating that the Internet is a wonderful tool. If you are reading this, you no doubt know of its trappings and utilities. I do not mean to discredit that notion in this reflection. There are many reasons that the internet has been a force for good in the world. However, there are at least a few ways I see that the Internet appears to make democratic societies more difficult to maintain. These four categories are interconnected, but I believe their underpinnings are unique.  I’ve written all of this very casually.

Complications in Decision Making

In a democracy, groups of people have to get together to make decisions on matters affecting the polity. This group of problems outlines how the Internet makes it more difficult to make decisions.

  • The problem of real-time information: Often in the public sphere, governments make plans which take years to implement, maybe even decades. The Internet, however, surfaces new information all the time. Because of the Internet, we are much more able to get a continuous flow of information. That is great when you are managing a problem, but difficult when trying to make decision because it can cause priorities to shift quickly. Pivoting priorities isn’t ideal when trying to do something that requires a long lead time. By extension, the Internet may make it more difficult for long-term projects to make it across the finish line.
  • The problem of crowd validation: Sometimes “the crowd” is very good at making a decision and sometime it isn’t. The Internet makes it much easier to tap the knowledge of the crowd. What’s problematic is that because the influence of the crowd is so strong on the Internet, it could make it much easier to blindly ignore ideas that don’t immediately get traction with the crowd. Many good ideas, more than prior eras, could be left to rot in the annals of the internet instead of being incorporated into a process for making decisions…just because the crowd immaturely rejects them.
  • The problem of convenience: Decisions and ideas don’t get better without tender love and care. Improving ideas takes a special kind of ardor and time, I’d say. The difficulty with the Internet is that it can make it too easy to participate in decision-making activities, which allows people to participate in a cursory way. At some parts of the political process, this is probably fine, but isn’t there some value in having an intellectual cost to participate in a discussion, because it ensures that the people participating are serious about their responsibilities?

Complications of Power

In a democracy, different people can affect the democratic process in different ways, depending on the amount of power they have. This group of problems outlines how the Internet can concentrate power (in a way that’s not desirable) more than in previous eras.

  • The problem of centralized access: Currently, the internet is a centrally organized infrastructure…users connect to centralized websites and centrally managed information technology services. The problem with centralized infrastructure, of course, is that bottlenecked resources have a lot of power. Companies who control access to centralized resources (like the Internet) can charge people a lot of money, and, manipulate people by threatening to withhold access to the centralized resource. That could happen to the Internet…it could be a resource that’s used as a bargaining chip.
  • The problem of signal and noise: There is lots and lots of information on the internet. And, if you’re trying to influence others it’s hard to get your message to “stick”, especially if only a few companies account for the majority of traffic on the Internet. That sort of setup is advantageous for well-resourced interests…they can buy clicks to their websites. By spending generously, they can flood their opponents out of the market for information. On the Internet today, it’s more and more important to be a well-known and influential voice; it’s hard to court a national audience otherwise. It’s easy to speak freely on the Internet, but it’s hard to get people to listen on the Internet, unless you have a lot of cachet or a lot of cash.
  • The problem of anonymity and feedback: On the Internet you can say a lot and not be accountable for the costs. You can spread rumors and lies and do it anonymously. This allows for manipulation, because you could easily slander your opponents without cost (or hire someone to do it for you). In the public sphere you used to take a hit to your reputation if you acted like a bozo or were deliberately misleading. Now, you can very easily devolve conversations by trolling people or blatantly lying, without ever getting caught. This is problematic to democracy, because we may never get over our squabbling long enough to discuss complex or emotionally charged issues.

Complications of Association

In a democracy, groups of people have to associate and find common ground to make decisions. If they don’t, they spend a lot of time arguing. This group of problems outlines how the Internet makes it more difficult for people to “come together.”

  • The problem of shared values: Even though the infrastructure of the Internet is centralized, how information proliferates is not centralized, especially as compared to mass media channels like TV or radio. Because there are so many media outlets, there’s no uniform message that everyone in the country really hears. This, I suspect, makes it more difficult to have shared values across a nation. The logic goes, if you’re receiving different information than the people around you, it’s more difficult to be similar to them. This isn’t wholly a bad thing, but if shared values are a boon to collective action and democracy, the Internet will make democracy more difficult.
  • The problem of trust and empathy: The Internet makes it possible to isolate yourself physically from communities you don’t want to interact with. Lots of micro interactions no longer have to exist. Take getting somewhere you’ve never been before as an example. You used to have to stop and get directions (thereby interacting with a stranger you wouldn’t have otherwise interacted with). Now, on the other hand, you can just use Google Maps and never have to talk to that direction-giving person again. Because of this ability to physically isolate, I suspect it negatively affects building empathy toward people you can now choose not to interact with. In societies empathy is important so we don’t tear each other apart.
  • The problem of self-selecting tribes: This is the intellectual version of the problem of trust and empathy. Basically, you never ever have to read anything you don’t agree with because of the Internet. Researchers are studying this and are finding that folks who consume news in this way tend to be more polarized. Check out this study.

There are also a whole slew of studies about the Internet’s effect on political discourse. (Note, these are really interesting, and a lot of my intuitions are confirmed by these studies).

Complications of Information

In a democracy, political actors and citizens depend on information to make their decisions. This group of problems outlines how the nature of information is changing, and making it harder to execute democratic processes.

  • The problem of transparency: Now, it’s possible to access lots of political information because governments are moving toward transparency. By many accounts this is great. What’s difficult about this is that there’s now more information than any individuals can reasonably process, because the data available is overwhelming. We’re starting to have some tools to make sense of this data, but we still have far fewer tools than we need to de-complicate the volume of data that transparency creates.
  • The problem of quality and veracity: This is simple; you can’t trust everything you read on the Internet. This makes it easy to pass of lies as the truth. It’s hard to trust new information because so much of it can be crap. As a result, a lot of “crap” information influences our judgment.