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Manufacturing Dissent? Fake-news, Micro-targeting and Democracy

Maria João Rodrigues
FEPS President

For this edition of the Progressive Post, we decided to focus on digital democracy. The European elections are nearing, and as a politician, I am looking forward to them. Elections are the hallmark of our democracy and a moment of optimism. But I am also vigilant, because it seems that our democracy is vulnerable to online manipulation, and that our capacity to take democratic decisions is under pressure from big technology firms.

In her book Surveillance Capitalism, Professor Shoshana Zuboff traces a rapidly spreading business model that revolves around the harvesting of personal data to predict, manipulate and control what people do. This mutation of capitalism, together with the sheer concentration of power in the digital economy, is undermining our individual autonomy, and hence the fundament of our democracy.

To counter this trend, we need new rules and changes on different fronts, but I think the way we do politics is a good place to start. We should not succumb to a race to the bottom, in which we gather ever more personal data, to better target and manipulate individual voters. I want to convince citizens with my ideas, and an initial one would be to enforce more transparency for online political adverts.

Of course, the digital age poses more challenges for our democracy. There are groups that deliberately set up disinformation campaigns. There is a real risk that public opinion will be manipulated ahead of the elections, and we should counter that decisively. It is also dispiriting to see the vitriol people feel licensed to spout online. This spoils our public debate and is a far cry from the democratic promise of the early internet.  

But I am wary of the political energy that is now being spent on combating ‘fake news’. The ‘internet’-based public debate needs to give voice to quality media but also to people who were not heard before, and we should cherish that. We should find ways to turn this cacophony of voices into a symphony, not turn off the sound altogether.

I am not naïve though. I see that the result is often ugly. When ugliness turns into criminality, we have the penal code, and it should be enforced. To do so, we need to work with platforms. But I think that mandating social media to take down content is a lazy man’s solution. Even with safeguards, this will lead to biased interventions and will cement big platforms’ influence over our communications. Most importantly, it will not solve problems; we just no longer see them.

Instead, I am convinced we should undertake the difficult, but crucial, work of engaging all citizens to create a better democracy. We need new models of communication that foster dialogue and that do not appeal to our basest instincts in order to maximise profits. In times of instantaneous communication, we should also reflect whether it is still appropriate that people’s political participation is limited to a single vote. In short, we need to rethink our democracy, to ensure it remains the best model to live together and prosper.

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