Donald Trump’s ban from social networks after the Capitol Hill revolt, once again raises the problem of freedom of speech vs. fake news. Trouble is, when it comes to our democratic right to have access to information on the internet, the social channels that allow for this are run by monopolising private companies. Specifically, it’s Silicon Valley that decides what kind of information is available to us. And that’s not necessarily democratic. 

Does democracy exist online?

When I was in high school, I closed my Facebook profile to ‘detoxify’ myself from the online world, so I could spend my leisure time differently. After a few months, I reopened the account because I felt like a teenager who was ‘out of the events’ loop’. Ten years later, and now with Covid on our doorsteps, the online life has become an increasingly important and safe window to the outside world. Which is why, now more than ever, we need to seriously discuss the challenge of maintaining democracy on the Internet.

The January 6 protests in the US are not the first time that democracy has been rattled by fake news on social media.

In 2017, Carole Jane Cadwalladr, an investigative journalist for The Observer, discovered how the illegal financing and circulation of fake news through social networks affected the Brexit vote in the little town of Ebbw Vale, Southern Wales. There, 62 per cent of inhabitants voted Leave. Cadwalladr showed however, that most of the arguments which brought these people to vote for Brexit contradicted reality. For instance, many of them believed that the EU didn’t do anything for them. They were simply ‘fed up with the immigrants and the refugees’, as she explained during a Ted Talk.

If we look at the facts, Ebbw Vale has many public places that were funded and built by the EU, including its sports centre and the new college. The town also virtually has no migrants to speak of, except an elder Polish woman and a few others. Cadwalladr’s findings showed that people got most of their information, or rather misinformation, through Facebook — a steady breeding ground for all manner of fake news. Remember the alarm bells about Turkey’s imminent accension to the EU? Such news and the like was commissioned by private companies, targeting different groups of people before the vote on Brexit. As Cadwalladr said, the campaign took place online and ‘in darkness’.

To this day, there are no clear answers about who funded the fake news, where the money came from, and how data was collected to target vulnerable people.

These incidents reflect a deep crisis in online democracy and for personal freedom. If we can be manipulated by social networks unlawfully spreading fake news during election campaigns, what does that say about our freedom of choice? I won’t insist that it’s a problem caused by the Internet and social media platforms, per se.   Paraphrasing Max Weber’s thought about the connection between technology, economy and ideology; it seems that the Internet and social media are just tools, while Silicon Valley’s choices on how to run their platforms are a systemic decision.

Democratising the Internet is one of the goals that Millennials should reach. My generation of digital natives has the adequate mental flexibility to start this change by for example, thinking about who should be authorised to evaluate online content. We can create a public, independent, and transnational (at least at the continental level) authority that respects and reinforces democratic rights online. This kind of regulation is not a limit on freedom. It is a shift of social media management from the hands of the tech monoliths, which follow market and contractual interests, to an impartial public authority. The goal is a more trustworthy online environment by stemming Silicon Valley’s power monopoly.

For my generation, the initial question to discuss — which admittedly is a hefty one — is this: how do we redefine democracy and sovereignty for the online world? To protect our future, we must shine a spotlight on the darkness surrounding the private management of our public online lives.

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