Pew Research Center: The internet supports a global ecosystem of social interaction. Modern life revolves around the network, with its status updates, news feeds, comment chains, political advocacy, omnipresent reviews, rankings and ratings. For its first few decades, this connected world was idealized as an unfettered civic forum: a space where disparate views, ideas and conversations could constructively converge. Its creators were inspired by the optimism underlying Stuart Brand’s WELL in 1985, Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web and Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow’s 1996 “Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace.” They expected the internet to create a level playing field for information sharing and communal activity among individuals, businesses, other organizations and government actors.
Since the early 2000s, the wider diffusion of the network, the dawn of Web 2.0 and social media’s increasingly influential impacts, and the maturation of strategic uses of online platforms to influence the public for economic and political gain have altered discourse. In recent years, prominent internet analysts and the public at large have expressed increasing concerns that the content, tone and intent of online interactions have undergone an evolution that threatens its future and theirs. Events and discussions unfolding over the past year highlight the struggles ahead. Among them:
- Respected internet pundit John Naughton asked in The Guardian, “Has the internet become a failed state?” and mostly answered in the affirmative.
- The S. Senate heard testimony on the increasingly effective use of social media for the advancement of extremist causes, and there was growing attention to how social media are becoming weaponized by terrorists, creating newly effective kinds of propaganda.
- Scholars provided evidence showing that social bots were implemented in acts aimed at disrupting the 2016 U.S. presidential election. And news organizations documented how foreign trolls bombarded U.S. social media with fake news. A December 2016 Pew Research Center study found that about two-in-three U.S. adults (64%) say fabricated news stories cause a great deal of confusion about the basic facts of current issues and events.
- A May 2016 Pew Research Center report showed that 62% of Americans get their news from social media. Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times argued that the “internet is loosening our grip on the truth.” And his colleague Thomas B. Edsall curated a lengthy list of scholarly articles after the election that painted a picture of how the internet was jeopardizing democracy.
- 2016 was the first year that an internet meme made its way into the Anti-Defamation League’s database of hate symbols.
- Time magazine devoted a 2016 cover story to explaining “why we’re losing the internet to the culture of hate.”
- Celebrity social media mobbing intensified. One example: “Ghostbusters” actor and Saturday Night Live cast member Leslie Jones was publicly harassed on Twitter and had her personal website hacked.
- An industry report revealed how former Facebook workers suppressed conservative news content.
- Multiple news stories indicated that state actors and governments increased their efforts to monitor users of instant messaging and social media
- The Center on the Future of War started the Weaponized Narrative Initiative.
- Many experts documented the ways in which “fake news” and online harassment might be more than social media “byproducts” because they help to drive revenue.
- #Pizzagate, a case study, revealed how disparate sets of rumors can combine to shape public discourse and, at times, potentially lead to dangerous behavior.
- Scientific American carried a nine-author analysis of the influencing of discourse by artificial intelligence (AI) tools, noting, “We are being remotely controlled ever more successfully in this manner. … The trend goes from programming computers to programming people … a sort of digital scepter that allows one to govern the masses efficiently without having to involve citizens in democratic processes.”
- Google (with its Perspective API), Twitter and Facebook are experimenting with new ways to filter out or label negative or misleading discourse.
- Researchers are exploring why people troll.
- And a drumbeat of stories out of Europe covered how governments are attempting to curb fake news and hate speech but struggling to reconcile their concerns with sweeping free speech rules that apply in America.
To illuminate current attitudes about the potential impacts of online social interaction over the next decade, Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center conducted a large-scale canvassing of technology experts, scholars, corporate practitioners and government leaders. Some 1,537 responded to this effort between July 1 and Aug. 12, 2016 (prior to the late-2016 revelations about potential manipulation of public opinion via hacking of social media). [Continue reading…]