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Democracy and the Internet may not be as compatible as many had hoped.
The “fake news” allegations of 2016 re-focused attention on longer-standing concerns about echo chambers, filter bubbles, declining journalistic revenue models and a range of issues in the online information space.
The real information problem—which we at the Hewlett Foundation are actively exploring with potential philanthropic interventions as part of our democracy reform work with the Madison Initiative—is biased news, including misinformation, disinformation and propaganda. Research shows that many citizens are psychologically predisposed to want to read biased news that reaffirms their pre-existing beliefs and tribal identities.
This creates obvious pernicious incentives for commercial technology platforms that want to keep people on their sites. So, compared with fake news, biased news will be harder to address. These interests of partisanship, politics, profit, prejudice and power are not new. Nor are problems of propaganda, misinformation and disinformation, which likely preceded the written word.
First, social media and search platforms, which distribute information in a fundamentally different way than print, radio, and television, which were curated and disseminated by media gatekeepers. Second, the extent of foreign government manipulation of these platforms’ quirks is also new. It is these differences that have driven our focus on the role of the platforms.
We at the Madison Initiative have funded a small range of international work to learn from these recent and upcoming elections and translate findings back to the U.S. in ways that may simultaneously address threats from both foreign propagandists and domestic purveyors of misinformation, disinformation and propaganda.
Complicating all of this research is the ongoing lack of transparency and data availability from the platforms, which often leaves academics hamstrung when trying to understand the extent of the problem, much less to explore potential solutions. If nothing else changes in the near-term, hopefully it will be that.