Technology, tribalism, and truth

Supporters of Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) look at their mobile phones before she speaks at her Iowa Caucus rally in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., February 3, 2020. Picture taken February 3, 2020. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

The technology debacle at the Iowa Caucus reinforces a national cynicism that nothing seems to work. The Trump campaign was quick to jump on the mishap, appealing to such cynicism by asking how the Democrats can be trusted to run the country if they can’t count noses in a school gymnasium. Iowa was a digital age mishap, but the effects of the collision of digital technology and democracy extend beyond the Hawkeye state.

Problems in reporting the vote sow seeds of doubt about the functioning of democracy itself. Those seeds fall in fields already plowed by technological tumult. The digital era was supposed to open a new Golden Age—for Americans and for democracy. Instead, it has delivered job losses, privacy invasions, and a longing for the good old days.

Beyond a bad app in Iowa, digital technology is gnawing at the core of democracy by dividing us into tribes and devaluing truth.

Social media undermines what the Founding Fathers were focusing on when they wrote “We the People” and established the motto “E Pluribus Unum” (out of many, one). The concept of “We” and the formation of a “Unum” is essential for democracy to work. Humans are inherently tribal. Democracy requires us to overcome that tribalism—to find our Unum—in the pursuit of a greater good. In contrast, the business plans of the dominant digital companies are built on dividing us into tribes in order to sell targeted access to each tribe.

What’s more, the digital companies operate in secret. It is in secret, inside the black box algorithms, that Americans are sorted into tribes. After the sorting, the software algorithms then secretly determine what message is to be delivered to each group.

The internet was supposed to be the great gift to democracy because everyone would be free to express themselves without the interference of editors or other filters. Instead, the business model of the internet—collecting and manipulating personal information to sell targeting services—has created the tool for attacking the democratic imperative to seek Unum. Our foreign adversaries have proven especially talented in exploiting this capability. FBI Director Christopher Wray testified to Congress that, after exploiting social media in the 2016 campaign, foreign disinformation campaigns have “never stopped.”

Not only does the business plan of the internet enable such attacks, but also the lack of curation allows lies to run rampant. In 1996 Congress exempted digital services from liability for what they distribute. It was a time when the internet was defined by screeching modems, services such as AOL and CompuServe, and a technology full of promise. A quarter of a century later that exemption—known as Section 230—has become the pathway for liars, both foreign and domestic. Instead of protecting the open flow of a rich debate, this law has protected the secret sorting and delivery of untruths and half-truths without accountability.

Every new communications technology has produced new challenges; we should not expect to be exempt from the need to deal with those challenges. Back in the 1920s and 30s the new technology of broadcasting brought concerns that it could be captured by anti-democratic forces. Congress acted to assure that conflicting ideas had access to the airwaves. After seeing how Hitler manipulated the German public using the media, and with the rising fear of Communism, in 1949 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) imposed a Fairness Doctrine on broadcasters to require the airing of all sides of a controversial issue.

The Fairness Doctrine was repealed by the Reagan FCC in 1987. The result was conservative talk radio. That Rush Limbaugh could stand and receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom during the State of the Union is testimony to the effect of eliminating the requirement for radio stations to present all sides of an issue.

But you can turn the dial if you don’t want to listen to Rush. There is less choice with social media. What economists call “network effects” mean everyone wants to be on the social media platform everyone else is on. The result is a captive audience to be secretly sorted and served by software.

What should replace Section 230? Our democracy, after all is built on strong First Amendment protections. However, laws require advertisers to be truthful in their claims, and for broadcasters to follow behavioral standards. Newspapers can be held liable for what they publish—but what about the newspaper’s digital equivalent? Because a digital company distributes information on the internet, Section 230 sets it free of basic responsibilities.

Truth cannot be allowed to become a casualty of technology. The search for democratic Unum cannot be allowed to become a casualty of technology. It is no wonder cynicism abounds when untruth and tribalism are the result of our principal communications tool. Historically, society has stepped up to the challenges of new technology. Now is our historic moment.