by Rachel Farah
The term “digital democracy” has a nice ring to it. It sums up everything that we want the internet to be, and perhaps, what it once was before the emergence of Web 2.0. It denotes a utopian ideal of the possibilities that the internet affords such as open dialogue, free speech, inclusiveness, participation, and knowledge-sharing. But, in many ways, this term could be considered a misnomer, a half-truth, or even a myth in the context of the contemporary digital climate. With earlier versions of the internet, people believed that everyone’s voice equal because everyone had the ability to contribute. However, the contemporary state of the internet more closely resembles real life, where those with the most social capital and money rise to the top.
Matthew Hindman says that, “when considering political speech online, we must be mindful of the difference between speaking and being heard.” That is to say, we are not all equal just because we have the ability to speak, we are equal when all opinions are heard and given equal consideration. It is easy for those who are already successful to say “anyone can do it,” or “we all have equal opportunities,” but the reality is that those with the most influence in the digital sphere are either similarly influential offline, or they are lucky.
Take for example one of the biggest phenomena of the Millennial generation: YouTube celebrities. Due to YouTube’s open format and access, anyone with internet access can share and comment on YouTube videos. This has lead to seemingly average people reaching celebrity status on a platform that encourages sharing personal experiences, opinions, and creativity. But from a critical perspective, not everyone can reach success or celebrity status as easily as some.
The main reason for this is that most people have to be willing to invest a lot of money into developing your YouTube channel in order to get noticed by viewers. Professional-looking videos which get the most views on YouTube require camera and lighting equipment that can cost in the range of thousands of dollars. And, on top of that, being good-looking gives new YouTubers and even greater chance at gaining a following. Quality and originality of content alone will not do the trick. This means that just like in the real world, those with money and attractiveness already have certain advantages online.
But not everyone cares about becoming a social media celebrity. In fact, most people do not. Most people use the internet to fulfill specific information needs and to stay connected to the world. In this case, it may seem like the internet is democratic, because, supposedly, all the information we need is out there, we need only go looking for it. The problem with this statement is that the “looking for it” is not at straightforward as it seems. Even a simple one-word Google search does not produce the same results for everyone. Search outcomes are algorithmically determined by a number of factors such as geography, demographic and, most importantly, browser history.
Eli Pariser put it best by using the term “filter bubble” to describe the way in which search engines and news feeds filter out information we presumably do not want to see, on the basis of the links that we click or posts that we like. But, the result is the omission of results that could broaden our horizon by providing alternative perspectives, or hard truths that can easily go unacknowledged.
This is especially problematic for online political conversations, because without seeing both sides of an argument, we can begin to have an unrealistic view of how other people see the world. This point came up several times during the 2016 US federal elections and the wave of social media criticisms that followed. Eli Pariser describes how in his Facebook feed, he slowly began to notice that most of the posts about the election were liberal-leaning because those are the kinds of links that he showed interest in. I myself observed the same things start to happen the more articles I clicked or shared which had a partisan leaning. While this may seem like an effective way of sifting through information, it has the adverse effect of placing people in bubbles where we only see what we want to see and, in turn, only those who agree with us will hear what we have to say.
All in all, the question of whether or not we live in a digital democracy is not a simple yes or no answer. There are elements of the digital sphere which are democratic, but their democratic potential is not always optimized. The important thing to keep in mind, is that we should never take what we see or read online for granted. But, moreover, we should not fall for the myth that just because we can speak, people will listen.