Two Paths for the Digital Age

April 24, 2018



Europe today is not the same as the post-war Europe of De Gaulle and Adenauer. Nor it is the integrational Europe of the 90s that decided to accomplish the greatest diplomatic achievement in the history of the world. This statement may seem obvious and trivial at first, but a more acute and extensive research on the matter may give us some perspective on the current development of our society. To some, it may seem as if Europe faced and overcame the populist wave with its two most important members, France and Germany, choosing pro EU, moderate candidates in national elections. Still, an opposite argument can be presented by pointing out that it is the first time after WWII that a far-right political party got into the Bundestag. Similarly, France chose Macron instead of Le Pen, but only because he presented his candidature as an anti-establishment runner. Populism is a quite widespread phenomenon in Europe. Some countries are more affected than others, but all have to face the problem of the mismatch between political establishment and significant parts of the electorate.  


This political setting produced a frightening amount of misinformation, disseminated across the political spectrum to the sole scope to win the ideological battle and gain the support needed to win elections. For instance, when the subject of blatant fallacy and misrepresentation is engaged, the famous bus that featured Boris Johnsons first comes to mind. The bus had as a cover a text saying: “We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead”. This statement was immediately debunked. Nevertheless, many Brexit voters still believed in the claim. Providing the most accurate information is not the priority anymore; making sure certain elements are depicted and accepted by the viewers as valid is more important today.


We also may underline the key role that major social media platforms have played in enabling those movements to win major battles against information. As social media platforms work through algorithms that determine what one might like, we tend to only be exposed to “news” that we agree with or which reaffirm our pre-existing beliefs. This is related to the concept that it entails a higher cost to accept to be wrong on an issue. Feeds that show you only what you want to see essentially exacerbate this bias towards denial when facing evidence opposing our world views.


The development of incredibly large and powerful corporations like Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook and Netflix may seem to have little to do with our political state. Differently, this article aims at underlining the dangers of this excessive involvement of digital companies in the political sphere. To prove the involvement, one only needs to point out the multiple scandals surrounding the digital sphere, with the recent Cambridge Analytica case being only the tip of the iceberg. The issue of data-breach is recurrent. Still, it seems to raise less awareness in the public than what it should. The Equifax security failure underlines perfectly the undergoing changes. Data on users have become a product a company can sell to third parties. As such, a firm would try to provide the best and most complete product to differentiate itself from its competitors. The incentive lies in gathering the most information possible on every user, and the public seems to be fine with the idea as long as the companies are able to secure the data from cyber-attacks. Public discourse is scarce when it comes to allowing the general use of data. 

Now these Tech companies are pursuing their main objective, creating profits and shareholder value, and no one can blame them for being so good at it. Still, one may bring up the issue of the sustainability of their business models in a democratic setting. How could this seemingly unstoppable information gathering undermine democracies? As long as we think of this information gathering as related to advertisement, who could care less? In Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional hearing senator Bill Nelson talked about a hypothetical situation in which he would mention his love for chocolate to friends on Facebook and would receive subsequent targeted chocolate advertisements. When facing this question, most citizens dismiss the issue, especially millennials who grew up within the digital era. Many would even welcome the use of their private information if only used to sell them what they want.


The big problem that we should all be focused on appears when political or ideologically motivated groups, rather than companies, start selling or propagating voters’ preferences. This is the point when the issue takes conspiracy-like traits. The General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) implemented by the European Union concern consumer privacy. They are assessing compliance with data protection rules and will allow users to more effectively control over their private data. Does this address the issue of targeted misinformation and political manipulation? We would argue that it doesn’t, but the initiative shows that EU regulators are willing to go up against the misuse/mismanagement of private data on some level. 

As it stands right now, we could see this going two different ways. One would entail an extensive set of new norms aiming at preventing the exploitation of user data on an excessive scale. This would be a positive direction to go in. Citizens’ data, and also citizens themselves, would be protected from excessively manipulative attacks. The other possible scenario is an environment in which trust can no longer exist: anything we see would be moulded in a way to either please us or reaffirm our already existing believes. This would affect our ability to question anything, ultimately taking down the very process of free discussion on which democracy is built.  


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