More noise than signal

Technology
Politics
Democracy
Too much noise

© Vazja Koman / Getty Images

The internet has been hailed the greatest communications platform ever invented for the expansion of democracy.

To be sure, in countries where internet use is relatively unhindered, there is far greater freedom of expression than in the days when just a few gatekeepers decided what was news. And in more authoritarian countries peer-to-peer technologies like the internet provide a vital outlet for dissent.

But despite the flowering of internet-powered movements for social and economic change – ranging from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street – the truth is the internet and similar tools have a worrisome weakness. They are better at saying ‘stop’ than saying ‘go’.

In most of the best examples of online political organizing, an external stimulus prompts large numbers of individuals to join in opposition. But occasionally thwarting powerful overlords – like Egypt’s ex-dictator Hosni Mubarak – is not the same as transforming the system that confers so many advantages upon them.

It’s a paradox. The internet may make it easier to fi nd other like-minded people who share a cause, but it also makes it harder for people to bond with a common focus. Collectively, we are sending out far more noise than signal; we are listening less than we talk. Our digital tools are shaping us far more than we are using them to reshape the world.

The digital arms race to build a bigger list or get more likes and shares is not only unwinnable, it is also spoiling our common pool of collective attention

Take email – still the primary tool for political organizing. The wonder of email is that it costs (almost) nothing to make more of it. For one-on-one conversations, it works beautifully. But as soon as the list of recipients increases to more than one person, the opportunities for misunderstanding multiply.

All un-moderated email lists inevitably result in ‘fl ame wars’ where, lacking the normal visual cues that might temper emotional responses and dampen disagreement, some people end up viciously attacking each other. Even moderated lists often turn ugly. As a result, arguably the best use of email is to be the owner of a big list where you are writing directly to many atomized individuals who can’t respond or talk to each other, but some of them will click on a request you make – to sign a petition or make a donation.

The tools we have for actually getting things done together, as opposed to protesting and attacking others, are woefully thin. Email lists, listservs, wikis, blogs and social media are used by billions of people and are great at enabling self-expression; but they’re terrible at helping us collaborate in making decisions and reaching consensus.

And the primary strategies used by advocacy groups and campaigns to attract and focus attention on their causes – optimizing the power of big email lists and fi ne-tuning social media tactics to make their content ‘go viral’ – have the perverse effect of adding more noise to the entire media system.

The digital arms race to build a bigger list or get more likes and shares is not only unwinnable, it is also spoiling our common pool of collective attention. Paradoxically, the public’s embrace of social media may well be making it even harder for most advocacy organizations to get attention to their issue.

A recent academic study looked at 257 transnational human rights groups and their efforts (between 2010 and 2012) to generate media attention in both traditional outlets as well as on new social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.1

Its findings are sobering. The biggest and best-funded groups, like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam, got half of all the mainstream media coverage. Just 26 organizations – 10 per cent of the entire group studied – received 91 per cent of all the news coverage, as well as the lion’s share of Twitter followers, Facebook likes and YouTube views. The organizations with annual budgets of over $100 million a year were the biggest winners in both media categories.

According to the study’s authors, social media didn’t help level the playing field at all for the smaller groups. Even the poorest ones, with budgets of less than $1 million a year, used social media nearly as much as the richest groups. But the least visible 50 per cent of the NGOs in each medium were getting no more attention than the average individual user of Facebook or Twitter.1

So even though these smaller organizations are trying to develop a following online, they are competing for attention with a much bigger universe of content-creators: all of the individuals using Facebook and Twitter!

There is only a limited amount of attention that can be paid by an audience to what is happening in the world. Increasing the number of people speaking and sharing content doesn’t lead to more attention to that content – it leads to greater fragmentation.

What is to be done? We must remember that the purpose of democracy isn’t only for each of us to have our say, but to blend individual opinions into common agreements. Instead of letting our digital tools drive us in ways that exacerbate our differences, we must insist on tools that bring us together as equals to solve problems. Interestingly, the internet’s own early engineers understood this challenge very well. ‘We reject: kings, presidents and voting,’ said David Clark at the 1992 meeting of the Internet Engineering Task Force. ‘We believe in: rough consensus and running code.’ His words are as relevant today as they were then.

The good news is that it is possible to make the internet work for democracy. Online community hubs focused on solving real-life problems exist, and in some places they’re hitting critical mass and changing the culture of the places they serve.

Behaviour change

See, for example, SeeClickFix.com, a six-year-old civic tech platform now being used in more than 100 cities across the US. While new, easy-to-use group decision-making tools like Loomio.org can enable hundreds of people to deliberate together, even when separated by space and time. At last count Loomio (which originated in Aotearoa/New Zealand) has been translated into 24 languages and is powering new political movements in Greece, the Balkans, Spain and Taiwan. The future impact of the internet on politics may well be different from the one now being charted.

If we want, we can bend technology to serve the end of a more participatory democracy, to start building the institutions of the future. We can achieve a much greater level of collective self-awareness and self-governance. We can transform the partial, opaque and manipulated forms of democracy and participation that we experience today. But to get there we also have to change our own behaviour and the expectations we place on the technologies that shape our daily lives.

Micah L Sifry is the editorial director of Personal Democracy Media and the author, most recently, of The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn’t Transformed Politics (Yet), from which this piece is partially adapted. He can be found at personaldemocracy.com and his book can be ordered from orbooks.com/catalog/big-disconnect/

  • A Trevor Thrall et al, ‘May We Have your attention Please? Human rights NGOs and the Problem of Global Communication’, The International Journal of Press/Politics, 26 January 2014.