A Failed Gateway to Informed Political Opinion

-- By CeliaDiederichs - 11 Oct 2019


Ever since the mid-1990s, when the Internet became publicly accessible, it promised a revolutionary impact for society by empowering groups lacking means of representing their interests effectively. The unforeseen ability of self-education through obtaining and sharing information, instant communication and public fora for interaction of likeminded people hold the potential of empowering society and giving politically marginalized groups a stage to be seen and heard. An optimistic prediction of the consequences of almost constant Internet use could have been a higher ability of the citizen to scrutinize governmental action and an increased frequency of doing so.

However, today it seems that those who glare at their eye-phone screens the most, are those least informed on current events. Whilst observing fellow subway riders on trips of around an hour, I learnt to understand that smartphone addiction mostly means the constant refreshing off videos off cats, photos of potential online dating partners, or food porn... to name a few. The majority of Internet users I was surrounded by whilst living in Germany, the USA or China spend an outrageous amount of time indulging in graphic redundancies on the cyberspace. This trend renders a large part of society uninformed on political trends and increasingly ignorant of potentially contentious practices of their government favourable to those in power. Contrary to an idealist's use of the internet to increase political debate within society, technological lures to discontent and omnipresent advertising leave many politically immature. How could this happen?

End-user Responsibility and the Current Design of the Internet

Convinced of end-user responsibility, [[https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/06/technology/phone-screen-addiction-tech-nir-eyal.html[Nir Eyal argues that users owe themselves protection by changing their Internet habits]]. Nir Eyal is dedicated to designing addictive techniques to manipulate users into staying on the web. Yet he claims to be convinced that ultimately, it is the user who chooses to stay on specific web content or not. Whilst acknowledging that there is an unhealthy sense of carelessness in how we allow the network to rule over our daily habits, I believe that responsibility of the end-user can only go as far as the architecture of the web allows informed individual choice over online practices.

The internet is designed in such a way that its layers may not be unraveled by the ordinary user. Microsoft's power in designing the web rested entirely on its proprietary software, ensuring that the specific mechanisms of the web are hidden from the user. Nearly a monopoly, Microsoft was not interested in fortifying diversity by creating an open user experience but instead concentrated on designing a web that keeps users away from free and open software. From the very introduction of personal computers, users were not supposed to understand how software functions and how it could be altered to better serve society. Proprietary software does not only rob the individual end-user of the possibility to understand who is watching their online behavior and for what purpose, but also makes it impossible for the user to understand why they see certain recommendations, news or targeted advertising in the first place. Only Internet operated by open source allows end-user to understand the operative system of the infrastructure they have become addicted to.

Today's end-user online experience is a result of the emergence of the online web as designed by few but large companies. Dominant technological corporations used the network's underlying architecture to create a business model of capitalizing our data. To optimize data collection, their space on the network is designed in such a manner that users stay hooked. Persuasive web-design will leave the user navigating through proprietary algorithm leaving a trail of behavioral data on online searches, communication partners, sites read and content viewed. This data will then be sold and implemented to exercise influence and control over the Internet community. The extent of influence Big Tech exercises over society is alarming even to governments. For instance, Germany saw national sovereignty over monetary policy threatened by the release of Facebook's digital currency libra and Denmark welcomes Big Tech on the stage of global diplomacy with its appointment of a unique ambassador to the technology industry.

Most Internet users have given up autonomy in online behavior to the few players in the private sector, who now dictate the online life and keep their audience predominantly occupied with questions of consumer choice. Additionally, the typically code-illiterate user will struggle to employ the Internet as a means of liberation from suppressive regimes. Specifically authoritarian regimes instrumentalize the accessible cyberspace to establish an Orwellian system of mass surveillance and a covert propaganda machine. For instance, instead of using airborne leaflet propaganda, the Chinese 50c army uses social media bots to fabricate approximately 448 million propaganda posts every year cloaked as private posts. Without knowledge of the origin of any online content, the viewer may not obtain freedom, but instead find him or herself manipulated in accordance to the interests of the designer of each site.

Gaining Autonomy in the Web

A look at the design of the Internet reveals that end-users alone are neither fully responsible nor apt to protect themselves from undue influence, exploitation within the web and gaining autonomy over choices on their online behavior and the way in which the net is used to circulate information. The Internet itself has not lost its promises but still possesses the ability to become an open, transparent and free stage of global discourse and education. The Internet certainly has had a revolutionary effect for the purposes of those who designed it. Only where the Internet is operated by open source, transparent and possibly even understood by the user, the user may understand to use the Internet in his or her best interest only.
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