Two steps forward. Two steps back. That seems to be the tale that history will tell about the role of the internet as a force for democracy in the early 21st century.
In less than a decade, we have witnessed what amounts to a technology revolution in politics, and then a counterrevolution. The speed of this rise and fall is astonishing. It was only a decade ago that Barack Obama demonstrated the power of the internet as a tool of electoral organizing. Soon after, digital media and big data became common to virtually every campaign. Similarly, in the early part of this decade, the smartphone and social media emerged as catalysts for political movement formation. The inspiration of the Arab Spring even romanticized a narrative about Facebook revolutions.
But now the bloom is off the rose. Today, we are experiencing a darker side of these once-liberating technologies. The same tools that have the power to decentralize knowledge, media and institutions of governance have also proven vehicles for cyberattack, mass surveillance, information control and the manipulation of public opinion.
The elections of 2016 and 2017 — particularly in the United Kingdom, United States and France — ushered in a new era of digital threats to democracy and called into question the power that technology companies hold over society. Our democracies are awash in digital disinformation that feeds a new kind of populist backlash — a movement that has embraced an alternative media system of conspiracy, resentment and polarization. No democracy appears immune to this malady.
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