The Online World: Democracy or Hierarchy?

  • Essays

The Online World: Democracy or Hierarchy?

The internet has undoubtedly granted speech and space to people from all different walks of life, taking freedom of expression and speech to a whole other level, but is it as democratic of a space as it initially appears to be? The internet creating this type of environment is monumental, but this paper will argue that this is not necessarily democratic, as many of what people come across on the internet is a product of what those in authoritative positions want users to see, and in some ways is even comparable to a hierarchical system. While people may feel fortunate to have this space to freely chat, view whatever they want, and post whatever they wish, what needs to be considered is that this is then used to further the platform which is being used, and often information is unknowingly taken from users, leading to the censorship – but also the highlighting – of certain information. 

While the internet provides a lot of new options, it also violates some important aspects, such as user privacy. This breach of privacy is a product of a power structure, as many times people’s information is taken for the benefit of those who own or run the platform that is being used. Simply, web pages can take information from people such the type of content one looks for, one’s location, general setup choices, account details, and more, all which are used to track people and learn what sorts of content and advertisements people would be attracted to (“What Kind of Information Is Being Collected about Me Online?”). However, it can be more personal than that, which Tolentino explains in “A Story of Seven Scams”: “It’s our attention being sold to advertisers. It’s our personal data being sold to market research firms, our loose political animus being purchased by special interest groups…Facebook has allowed other companies, like Netflix and Spotify, to view its users’ private messages” (Tolentino 172, 173). Although it seems as though the people are the ones using a platform such as Facebook, many times the platform and its leaders are also using the people. These companies can then control what users come across, and suggest other sites or advertisements to them. 

Information and behaviours are being observed and used, but the control does not stop there, as this inevitably leads to the censorship of information. While this can happen simply with custom advertisements or suggestions, this can also affect wider groups particularly in the area of politics. About “three-quarters of Americans (73%) think it is very or somewhat likely that social media sites intentionally censor political viewpoints they find objectionable” (Vogels, et al). This takes away people’s ability to fully view and learn what they want about politics, as they are being presented only some of the information. This is becoming increasingly relevant, as people are becoming dependent on social media to teach them information, but they do not often consider that what they view is tailored.

On the other hand, not only is information censored, but certain viewpoints are highlighted too. Often this tendentious practice happens to benefit the leaders running the platform in which the content is being highlighted. An example of this can again be found in Facebook, who “bent the media’s economic model to match its own practices: Publications needed to capture attention quickly and constantly trigger high emotional responses to be seen at all. The result, in 2016, was an unending stream of Trump stories” (Tolentino 173). In order to further their own personal gain, Facebook monitored and changed the content that its users would see, which shows an overall lack of regard for their users to decide for themselves what political content they wished to read about, and likely had a lot of influence on how the voting went for that election. 

This is a growing concern, especially considering how many people now turn to the internet for their news. News can be found on almost any platform now, even ones such as Instagram or Facebook, and is not limited to only credible news sites. According to Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project,  “Within the digital realm, mobile news consumption is rising rapidly. The portion of Americans who ever get news on a mobile device has gone up from 54% in 2013 to 72% today” (Mitchell et al). These platforms in which people go to for news can choose not to mention certain stories, such as those which they believe may not trigger intense responses from viewers. 

President Donald Trump is a clear example of a person in power trying to manipulate what people can access on the internet. After being fact-checked by Twitter (Romm and Dwoskin), Trump released a new executive order regarding censorship on online platforms in which he said the following: “As President, I have made clear my commitment to free and open debate on the internet. Such debate is just as important online as it is in our universities, our town halls, and our homes. It is essential to sustaining our democracy” (Trump). While Trump may be making it appear as though he is in favour of promoting democracy in the online world, this in fact adds to the power structure, as it gives the power to another authoritative figure – the U.S government. Again, this does not promote democracy, but rather hierarchy, as it is just another person exercising their power to control what can and cannot be on the internet.  

While it is undeniable that the internet does provide people with a space to speak their mind, it is also clearly evident that there is a movement towards people in power controlling how the internet is used. This is transforming this space, whether people are aware or not at this point, into one that is quietly removing the democratic possibilities that the internet holds, and placing ordinary internet users at the bottom of a hierarchy.

Works Cited

Mitchell, Amy, et al. “How Americans Get Their News.” Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project, Pew Research Center, 7 Jul. 2016, www.journalism.org/2016/07/07/pathways-to-news/.

Romm, Tony, and Elizabeth Dwoskin. “Trump Signs Order That Could Punish Social Media Companies for How They Police Content, Drawing Criticism and Doubts of Legality.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 28 May 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/05/28/trump-social-media-executive-order/.

Tolentino, Jia. “The History of a Generation in Seven Scams.” Trick Mirror. New York, Random House, 2019. Trump, Donald. “Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship.” The White House, The United States Government, 28 May 2020, www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/executive-order-preventing-online-censorship/.

Trump, Donald. “Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship.” The White House, The United States Government, 28 May 2020,www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/executive-order-preventing-online-censorship/.

Vogels, Emily A., et al. “Most Americans Think Social Media Sites Censor Political Viewpoints.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, Pew Research Center, 19 Aug. 2020, www.pewresearch.org/internet/2020/08/19/most-americans-think-social-media-sites-censor-political-viewpoints/ 

“What Kind of Information Is Being Collected about Me Online?” Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, 23 Jan. 2020, www.priv.gc.ca/en/about-the-opc/what-we-do/awareness-campaigns-and-events/privacy-education-for-kids/fs-fi/choice-choix/.

Leave a Reply