Digital Platforms are shaping societies in different ways. I firmly believe that the greatest challenge is how we deal with the issue of Who decides what we get to see, to read or to discuss? How much power are we willing to give them, under what conditions of accountability? And is that the platforms have consequences in the public sphere.
In a scenario of loss of trust between citizens and their governments, digital platforms have emerged as an intermediary with the political class. Platforms are not neutral and have produced much good and bad at the same time. Undoubtedly, on the one hand, the capacity of citizens to participate in politics through formal and informal institutions has improved. Digital platforms have the power to alter the behavior of people through specific messages, giving shape not only to the flow of information but also to public opinion, replacing old communication channels such as newspapers or television.
Digital technologies have also radically changed the world and our sense of privacy. Currently, our data is collected in real time every minute by different devices in all places. In addition, the changing nature of technology and the problem of conceptualization have many challenges for society and policymakers. Mainly, about the consequences of trade-offs between privacy and security, or privacy and free services provided by technology companies.
Why is this important? because that has a direct impact on our daily life’s. These companies are taking our privacy away in a new form of corporate surveillance capitalism. They are also shaping public opinion with their non-neutral algorithms in unimaginable ways.
I do not think that companies should have that sort of power. They are not entitled to it!
The current scenario looks more like the wild west than modern liberal democratic societies. With the arguments of neutral algorithms, freemium convincing services and free speech people can say and do everything. Thus, it is our democratic systems that are affected in the long term – and it is not that there are no other problems – but who consented that it would be the companies that would rule our lives and not ourselves through our democratic governments.
I support the idea of heavy regulation. Companies cannot self-regulate, and they have also demonstrated with facts that they cannot. Mainly because self-regulation probably means making decisions where the trade-off is less profit, a situation that the shareholders would not accept.
But let’s analyze its special characteristics. From a positive point of view, they have made possible the increase of micro-donations to the policy (Margetts et al., 2015) of citizens that can be observed in terms of time, debating ideas, defending causes and sharing content. However, the other side of the coin is what Micah White has described as clickactivism. This has undermined the real activism leaving the political and social action in mere clicks promoted with nice marketing campaigns.
In addition, social networks have permeated society by allowing people to participate in their own way, changing the form of the interrelation between citizens and government. Social networks like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp have been especially useful in mobilizing people around a cause or idea.
The Internet, its platforms and social networks have given wonderful things to the world. It is difficult to recognize their contribution to democracy and their help the political mobilization in many examples. To mention just a few, the Egyptian revolution in 2011, Brazil Summer 2013, Occupy Wall Street 2011.
And while technology does not automatically generate greater citizen participation or economic progress. Digital technologies offer the opportunity to create new spaces for social development and political participation for citizens, generating new relationships in the network that allow them to participate. Unfortunately, one of the main problems that occur in networks – and also due to the way algorithms operate – is that you end up just watching, listening and talking with people who think in a similar way. Cass Sunstein calls them echo chambers in her #REPUBLIC book where their own ideas and messages are reinforced. The problem according to him is that he leads people to believe in falsehoods and it is very difficult to correct them later. Thus – I believe – the post truths are born.
However, digital platforms are created by people who replicate their biases in the algorithms that command the functions. In that sense, we can help conversations happen or die with the mere fact of designing a type of architecture that allows or does not allow deliberation in those spaces.
Additionally, the Digital Platforms have the ability to make certain topics go viral and gain notoriety can achieve putting issues on the political agenda. In a certain way, they affect political and social discussions. They can also have a positive or negative impact on the electoral system by giving it greater legitimacy or rightfully corroding it. Finally, networks also affect the way people relate to each other giving a sense of closeness and distance at the same time. And it is that no one lives the here and now, most are not in the presence present but are mentally in other places.
Digital platforms may have different incentives and purposes; however, they are very similar in scale and scope, reaching hundreds of millions of people in almost every corner of the world. Due to the network effect necessary to achieve traction and be successful, it seems that there is no space for many large platforms. And is that the greater the network is the greater attractiveness to consumers, then the possibility of competition arising is very low. In a certain way, in the world of platforms, the winner takes everything. Lovers of innovation would call this the first mover advantage. That is to say, the advantage of being the first one is usually accompanied by a dominant position in the market that produces problems in the long term since it is very difficult to compete against them.
This new form of capitalism is fueled by the advertising industry. The numbers of advertising in digital spending in the United States market are enormous. According to e-Marketer, the figures are close to 110 billion dollars and the two largest advertising platforms are Google and Facebook, which last year received 41 billion and 23 billion, respectively. These figures can explain their business models and why any reform in this sector would be difficult to carry out.
In these new times, citizens are threatened by the state of surveillance and also by the surreptitious vigilance of the company, which some scholars have called the era of surveillance capitalism. This new business model is based on large amounts of data, which turns citizens and their data into the product to sell to the advertising industry. The essential problem about this new scenario is the weakening of civil rights and liberties, which is undermining democracy itself.
Many countries are quite backward in terms of regulations regarding personal data for the protection of the privacy of individuals. The United States has opted for a sectoral protection design at the federal level with several laws for specific situations or industries. In addition, each state can have its own data protection law, which makes it bureaucratically complex for companies to comply with. In addition, regulation has been conceptually designed to protect markets and their economic transactions and not citizens or consumers. For these reasons, there is a need for solid and comprehensive regulation on the protection of personal data as in Europe, as opposed to the current sector mode. That is, create a general law that covers all possible areas in which personal data are processed and not by specific sectors.
Democracy is also vulnerable to attacks to undermine confidence in the democratic electoral system by creating false news and disinformation campaigns. The lack of adequate regulation of the data protection law applicable to platform companies has put at risk the privacy of citizens and consumers in the United States and cascade effect around the world. In addition, today we are faced with groups that deliberately want to reach their political objectives through the manipulation or distortion of reality in social networks.
Finally, it would be naïve not to recognize that digital platforms are here to stay, and they have become a necessity for many people. And we must learn to live with them but under our rules. That is, the rules imposed by democratic governments and not what they believe the world should be. We decide what we get to see, to read and discuss! We shape the society and political agenda, not these corporations.
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