When the World Wide Web was invented in 1989, an excitement gripped the United States as the internet went from a system primarily used by scientists to a system that could one day connect the world. Connection didn’t happen immediately. It took several years before email or the internet were widely available to everyone, and even then, there were barriers to access.
Thirty years later, most Americans walk around with access to the world’s information in their back pocket in the form of smartphones. But how connected is society? Is the internet actually driving us further apart?
In the wake of last November’s contentious Presidential election, these questions have been at the forefront of mass media. Recently, an article in The Atlantic asked if democracy itself is at risk of failing as a result of partisanship on the World Wide Web. The internet is an open system that allows anyone to post nearly anything at any time. On the one hand, this open source format allows Americans to exercise their First Amendment rights in a manner the Founding Fathers could never have imagined.
But this open system also allows bad actors a platform that was not available to them in a world where print ruled. One example of this is the use of algorithms that “control” what a person might see on their social media feeds. In their article, “How Automated Writing Systems Affect the Circulation of Political Information Online,” Timothy Laquintano and Annette Vee mention a “Red Feed, Blue Feed” graphic created by the Wall Street Journal in which one can see the difference between a conservative or liberal Facebook feed “on a variety of issues,” thus highlighting the potential polarizing effect of the Web.
Algorithms, bots, and the Google search engine can all give the effect that humanity is not really in control of the internet at all. Fortunately, as The Atlantic article mentions, there are pockets of the internet that are so far free from manipulation, such as Wikipedia.
The question for American society is how to reclaim the parts of the internet controlled by trolls, bots, and corporations. In order to regain connection over division, tough decisions will need to be made on how to govern the internet without impinging on the rights of citizens. It won’t be easy, but it is necessary for the future of democracy.