Roots of Beliefs

Whatever one’s own views of this may be, beyond noting the culturally specific roots of these beliefs and assumptions, the larger point here is that such versions of cyber-libertarianism are also strongly consonant with plebiscite democracy – that is, the emphasis on individual responses without further ado. Recall here as well Elshtain’s early warning that “plebiscitism is compatible with authoritarian politics carried out under the guise of, or with the connivance of, majority views. That opinion can be registered by easily manipulated, ritualistic plebiscites, so there is no need for debate on substantive questions”. To state this more harshly: US cyber-libertarianism, as encoded in both the technologies and the corporations that produce and package them, is thus deeply resonant with the emergence of “fake news” and other forms of voter manipulation in Brexit and the US presidential campaign enabled by these technologies and their producers. Not to mention with the rise of “digital authoritarianism.”

These concerns are further amplified through a second line of critiques of early “techno-utopianism,” as it is also sometimes called. To begin

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with, our contemporary concerns with “filter bubbles” – the prevailing design of SNSs and other sources to feed us news and information that we already agree with, so that we will continue to stay online and thereby increase advertising revenues – were articulated early on by Cass Sunstein in 2001. Sunstein identified these capacities and effects as the problem of “The Daily Me.” The internet and the Web allow me to filter and choose only those contents I prefer to consume: more predominantly in recent years, the Big Data profiles constantly compiled on my browsing and other online behaviors in turn drive the algorithms and AI systems that increasingly determine what appears on my screens. Directly contrary to the ideals of democratic dialogue that force us to confront differing views with our best evidence and argument – and at the risk that we may sometimes be proven wrong – we are far more comfortable with retreating into these cozy nests with those who agree with us and whose views we already endorse. The result is both fragmentation (a retreat from dialogue) and polarization (the end of dialogue) (Sunstein 2001, 65).

By 2011, it was already clear that “the powers that be” – both well- entrenched political parties and their (oftentimes wealthy) supporters – are quick to learn how to use new media in ways that reinforce their own place and power, contra democratizing efforts that might challenge these (Howard et al. 2011; Stromer-Galley and Wichowski 2011; cf. Ess 1996: 198–212). In these lights, the Cambridge Analytica scandals are but the most recent and egregious examples of the willingness of political parties – even in otherwise historically democratic societies such as the US – to exploit these affordances of internet-facilitated communication for the sake of sustaining and expanding their own power, whatever the costs to democratic norms and processes. Can “digital authoritarianism” be far behind?

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