The Politics of Online Discussion
By Siân Brooke
In 1997 Eric Schmidt, the then CEO of Google, told programmers at a conference in San Francisco:
“The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand,
The largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had”
I have to say I agree with him. Digital resources and voices are not scarce like traditional resources. Anyone can do what I am doing right now, type up a political blog in a university library and post it online for the whole world to see – if they feel inclined. The accessibility of politics is ultimately redefined through technology. Politics online asks questions of how we communicate online to form our political opinions and interpretations. In a Utopian view, the Internet provides even the most reluctant political philosopher with a wealth of information. The fact that no singular person can own the Internet is part of its anarchic appeal.
The Internet is arguably having an impact on the politics in the way we think, forming our communities and even our very identities. Sherry Turkle argued in 1995 that Internet is splitting our identities creating an online self and offline self. Turkle sees online media as a window, which may offer possibilities and a voice denied in our offline existence. In her book Life on the Screen, she discusses how an offline political reality may be shaped by the online world (or cyberspace). Firstly, she illustrates how descriptions of political and economic life occur in a language that mirrors computer systems, such as decentralisation. Decentralisation in computer systems began with ‘ARPAnet’, which was a network that would become the basis for the Internet. ARPAnet was ultimately born out of the Cold War. The Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 spurred the US Defence Department to consider ways information could still be disseminated even after a nuclear attack, consequently the US decentralised and connected their computer systems through ARPAnet. Secondly, for Turkle technology and social institutions no longer work as they did before – a main street, a union hall or a town meeting – no longer operate in the same context. A computer is playing a central role, delivering information in its most basic and complex forms from a source to a recipient. The computer is a mediator of communication.
This post aims to act as an introduction to the social role of technology and computers in political discussions.
Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants
In 2001 Marc Prensky developed the concepts of digital natives and digital immigrants. His ideas should not be over
’s thinking and processing information fundamentally differently from their predecessors. The average college graduate in America, he states, spends 5,000 hours of their lives reading, but over 10,000 hours playing video games and 20,000 hours watching TV, indicating that by 2001 technology had quickly become a fundamental part of modern life. However, in such a rapid change in our environment a chasm is formed between those considered a digital native and those who have “immigrated”. Simply put, a digital native is one who has grown up in the age of technology; they are native speakers of the digital language of computers and the Internet; whereas digital immigrants were not born into the digital world but have adopted aspects of the technology. The fundamental distinction is that as digital immigrants learn (some better than others) to adapt to their environment they retain what Prensky calls an “accent”. The digital immigrant accent can be seen spotted in a few notable ways, for example turning to the Internet second rather than first, or reading the manual to some newly acquired technology (such as a new smart phone), rather than assuming the technology itself will teach you.
The Internet and the World Wide Web are often used as interchangeable terms, but this is not the case. As mentioned in the introduction, the Internet started life as ARPAnet in the 1960’s as a system of combining and connecting computers to each other. As computers fell into the mainstream in the 1980s and 1990s, the Internet grew exponentially as more users connected. The Internet is a simply series of roads linking multiple computer’s together, and was first seen in a format we would recognise today in 1991. On the other hand, the World Wide Web was invented in 1989-1990 by British scientist Tim Berners-Lee, and is a massive collection of digital pages. The World Wide Web is a way of accessing information over the medium of the Internet. The World Wide Web is part of the Internet whole. Although the World Wide Web has only been in existence 25 years, the National Office of Statistics recorded that in 2013 36 million adults (73%) in Great Britain accessed the Internet every day, 20 million more than in 2006 which was when comparable records began. The availability of Internet access has largely exacerbated the divided between digital natives and digital immigrants, which is arguably observable in the world of online politics. The average age of a member of the British parliament in 2010 was 50. This means that when the Internet first existed in its current form the average current MP was 31. Image 01 shows us computer from 1991; as a 20 year old digital native I find such an eyesore almost unrecognisable as an ancestor to the sleek portable machines most of us have today. Nevertheless such a comparison brings about an important point; the average MP is a digital immigrant. Therefore, could the lack of political participation of ‘youths’ be attributed to a divide between the digital natives and the immigrants?
Because of the Internet and IT, ‘information’ is available to us like never before. Information that previously may have only been found on the dusty shelf of a library is now accessed anywhere and everywhere. What does this mean? Well, it results in ‘informed’ political opinions, public accountability and pub quizzes won by a fool with a smartphone.
In his 2011 book The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser studied how the use of search engines and social networks may result in the polarising of ‘informed’ political opinions. Search engines and social networks operate by suggesting future search results or topics of interest based on your user history, which is brilliant, until you look at how this affects our online politics. Pariser stated in 2010 that search engines and social networks filter out dissenting opinions, offering users what they want to see. Sites such as Yahoo and Google use your past search preferences meaning that, over time, a liberal and a conservative might receive ideologically opposed results from identical search information. Pariser’s study concludes that the Internet is polarising online political opinions, leaving users to surround themselves with likeminded individuals, dipping into political debate only to rail against the ideological opposed. Nonetheless, in world of the Internet the methods by which our online searches operate is constantly evolving, and so the relevance of Pariser’s study today can be questioned. It is worth noting however, that the Pew Research Centre in 2014 discovered that political opinions on twitter are often (but not always) polarised towards a liberal perspective, when compared with overall public opinion.
In 2012 Facebook Data Science published an article by Eytan Bakshy titled; “Rethinking Information Diversity in Networks” to try and understand how information spread through social networks. One of Bakshy’s findings on social networks is that of homophily, which he defines as “the tendency of individuals with similar characteristics to associate with one another”. Individuals online are more likely to share information with others who hold similar opinions to their own. You may argue that this is no different to the offline world: we generally share information with friends and they share it with others, simple. However, communication through technology (social media, texting, emailing etc.) is characterised by two features: it is instant and you can share information with one or more people. Sharing information can be carried out directly in the form of a personal message to one or more individuals, or indirectly as a status, which is a virtual shout or announcement to anyone you are connected with through social media. For instance, hashtags on Facebook group information together and give users a way to get involved in real time discussions using the same hashtag. This feature also allows topics to be trending, including political ones. Trending – or popular – topics are now shown on the main Facebook page: today (09/04/14) I was delighted to see a political topic trending in Britain: “Maria Miller resigns as culture secretary over expenses row,” suggesting that people do use social media for political discussions. Therefore, information online is replicated at a rate that cannot be matched in the offline world, potentially informing and shaping hundreds of political opinions in a singular click.
An idea that concerns me in the online ‘informed’ opinion is the risk of misinformation. Information available on the web can be posted by anyone and say anything, which is great for freedom of speech but can lead to political opinions based on entirely fictitious foundations. For example, have you ever been told that the average person swallows eight spiders a year in their sleep? Well, the supposed origins of this online ‘fact’ may surprise you. The spider swallowing rumour (for lack of a better name) was stated in 1993 by Lisa Holt for a magazine titled PC Professional. The article surmises that if a ‘fact’ is reproduced enough times, it will become an accepted reality. To sustain her arguments, Holst constructed a list of supposed ‘facts,’ one of which was how many spiders on average are swallowed in your sleep in a year. Holst’s false ‘fact’ has since become one of the most widely spread myths on the Internet.
I will here acknowledge my own contradictions; I am writing an online blog on how online information may be misinforming the political opinions of digital natives or youths. However, sociologists and political thinkers, such as Foucault, have argued that information can never be presented without bias, as language is a shaper of ideas rather than merely a reproducing instrument. Sceptical or not, I merely am pleading for acknowledgement of the sources of political information online.
Online accountability is a rather simple concept. The Internet allows a record to be kept of political promises. To illustrate this, I am going to focus on a hilarious blunder by the British Conservative Party. In November 2013 the trade publication Computer Weekly noticed that the Conservative Party had deleted speeches and press releases that were published on it’s website between 2000 and the 2010 general election. Computer Weekly said the effect of the changes was “as alarming as sending Men in Black to strip history books from a public library and burn them in the car park”. Although, the Conservative Party has pointed out that many of the web pages can be found on the British Library’s UK web archive. Nonetheless, my point is that the Internet and technology makes information available easily, whilst also allowing us to see recent political news quickly. Technology does aid accountability and transparency in politics, often presenting ideas in a fashion that are easy to engage with.
Even when politician’s engage with their constituents and citizens online, how do we know it is really them? A small sentence on Michelle Obama’s twitter pages reads: “This account is run by Organizing for Action staff. Tweets from the First Lady are signed –mo”, and I think this is where politicians and public figures are falling short in their online activity. If I wanted information on a politician’s views or information that does not come from them I would look at a press release. At the start of this blog entry I refer to Sherry Turkle, and I think her book Life on the Screen becomes relevant again here. Turkle argues that deception is easier online, it is easy for a voice on Twitter, Facebook or any other social media to be construed as the voice of a politician, but the problem is that in the offline reality is often that it is their staff posting. Whilst Michelle Obama’s Twitter claims to make the distinction between the real First Lady posting and her staff, after a causal look it appears there is gaps of around a month between each tweet signed off as “-mo”. This is where I think GovFaces comes in as it promotes meaningful interaction between citizen’s and their representatives. The simplicity of the platform meaning it can be used effectively by both digital immigrants and natives. The most exciting feature, I believe, is that fact that you can ask a question by video and receive an answer by video, which is already happening on the platform. Whilst the format of the platform is well designed for politicians to be able to prioritise and give individualised responses; this does not resolve the problem but is part of the possible solution.
As Eric Schmidt said “The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand”. Maybe this “understanding” is not being able to comprehend the freedom the Internet and technology gives us. Maybe we don’t understand were the information with which we form our political identities comes from. Maybe we don’t understand if the online world reflects an offline reality. There are infinite philosophical puzzles, conundrums and enigmas that we struggle with to prove how little even the average digital native really knows (without access to a search engine!) about the online world they thrive in.
Perhaps our offline ignorance can be shown by asking a short question: What is the Internet?
Siân Brooke is the Social Outreach Officer for GovFaces United Kingdom. She is a second year Politics and Sociology student studying at the University of Portsmouth.
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