DRC Monthly Reads
The following is a selection of books and articles on the free flow of information and democracy for the International Day of Democracy on September 15, 2020. Check out the full list here. Learn more about NED’s library here.
Antisocial media : how Facebook disconnects us and undermines democracy
by Siva Vaidhyanathan
Facebook grew out of an ideological commitment to data-driven decision making and logical thinking. Its culture is explicitly tolerant of difference and dissent. Both its market orientation and its labor force are global. It preaches the power of connectivity to change lives for the better. Indeed, no company better represents the dream of a fully connected planet “sharing” words, ideas, and images, and no company has better leveraged those ideas into wealth and influence. Yet no company has contributed more to the global collapse of basic tenets of deliberation and democracy. Both authoritative and trenchant, Antisocial Media shows how Facebook’s mission went so wrong
Consent of the networked : the worldwide struggle for Internet freedom
by Rebecca MacKinnon
For all the overheated rhetoric of liberty and cyber-utopia, it is clear that the corporations that rule cyberspace are making decisions that show little or no concern for their impact on political freedom. In Consent of the Networked, internet policy specialist Rebecca MacKinnon argues that it’s time for us to demand that our rights and freedoms are respected and protected before they’re sold, legislated, programmed, and engineered away.
Digital media and democratic futures
Edited by Michael X Delli Carpini
The essays in Digital Media and Democratic Futures focus on a variety of information and communication technologies, politically relevant actors, substantive issues, and digital political practices, doing so from distinct theoretical perspectives and methodological approaches. Individually, each of these case studies provides deep insights into the complex and context-dependent relationship between media and democracy. Collectively, they show that there is no single outcome for democracy in the digital age, only a range of possible futures.
Free speech: Ten principles for a connected world
by Timothy Garton Ash
Drawing on a lifetime of writing about dictatorships and dissidents, Timothy Garton Ash argues that in this connected world that he calls cosmopolis, the way to combine freedom and diversity is to have more but also better free speech. Across all cultural divides we must strive to agree on how we disagree. He draws on a thirteen-language global online project free speech debate.com conducted out of Oxford University and devoted to doing just that. With vivid examples, from his personal experience of China’s Orwellian censorship apparatus to the controversy around Charlie Hebdo to a very English court case involving food writer Nigella Lawson, he proposes a framework for “civilized” conflict in a world where we are all becoming neighbors.
Liberation technology: Social media and the struggle for democracy
by Jay Diamond and Marc F Plattner
The revolutions sweeping the Middle East provide dramatic evidence of the role that technology plays in mobilizing citizen protest and upending seemingly invulnerable authoritarian regimes. A grainy cell phone video of a Tunisian street vendor’s self-immolation helped spark the massive protests that toppled longtime ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Alt, and Egypt’s “Facebook revolution” forced the ruling regime out of power and into exile. While such liberation technology” has been instrumental in freeing Egypt and Tunisia, other cases-such as China and Iran-demonstrate that it can be deployed just as effectively by authoritarian regimes seeking to control the Internet, stifle protest, and target dissenters. This two-sided dynamic has set off an intense technological race between “netizens” demanding freedom and authoritarians determined to retain their grip on power.
Artificially intelligent “bot” accounts attack politicians and public figures on social media. Conspiracy theorists publish junk news sites to promote their outlandish beliefs. Campaigners create fake dating profiles to attract young voters. We live in a world of technologies that misdirect our attention, poison our political conversations, and jeopardize our democracies. With massive amounts of social media and public polling data, and in depth interviews with political consultants, bot writers, and journalists, political consultants, Philip N. Howard offers ways to take these “lie machines” apart. Lie Machines is full of riveting behind the scenes stories from the world’s biggest and most damagingly successful misinformation initiatives-including those used in Brexit and U.S. elections. Howard not only shows how these campaigns evolved from older propaganda operations but also exposes their new powers, gives us insight into their effectiveness, and shows us how to shut them down.
LikeWar: The weaponization of social media
by P. W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking
Social media has been weaponized, as state hackers and rogue terrorists have seized upon Twitter and Facebook to create chaos and destruction. This urgent report is required reading, from defense expert P.W. Singer and Council on Foreign Relations fellow Emerson Brooking.
Ananny’s notion of press freedom ensures not only an individual right to speak, but also a public right to hear. Seeing press freedom as essential for democratic self-governance, Ananny explores what publics need, what kind of free press they should demand, and how today’s press freedom emerges from intertwined collections of humans and machines. If someone says, ‘The public needs a free press,’ Ananny urges us to ask in response, ‘What kind of public, what kind of freedom, and what kind of press?’ Answering these questions shows what robust, self-governing publics need to demand of technologists and journalists alike.
The People Vs Tech is an enthralling account of how our fragile political system is being threatened by the digital revolution. Bartlett explains that by upholding six key pillars of democracy, we can save it before it is too late. We need to become active citizens; uphold a shared democratic culture; protect free elections; promote equality; safeguard competitive and civic freedoms; and trust in a sovereign authority. This essential book shows that the stakes couldn’t be higher and that, unless we radically alter our course, democracy will join feudalism, supreme monarchies and communism as just another political experiment that quietly disappeared.
Twitter and tear gas: the power and fragility of networked protest
by Zeynep Tufekci
To understand a thwarted Turkish coup, an anti-Wall Street encampment, and a packed Tahrir Square, we must first comprehend the power and the weaknesses of using new technologies to mobilize large numbers of people. Tufekci explains the nuanced trajectories of modern protests-how they form, how they operate differently from past protests, and why they have difficulty persisting in their long-term quests for change. Tufekci speaks from direct experience, combining on-the-ground interviews with analysis. She describes how the internet helped the Zapatista uprisings in Mexico, the necessity of remote Twitter users to organize medical supplies during Arab Spring, the refusal to use bullhorns in the Occupy Movement that started in New York, and the empowering effect of tear gas in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. These details from life inside social movements complete a moving investigation of authority, technology, and culture-and offer essential insights into the future of governance.
Articles on information and democracy in the Democracy Resource Center’s collection.
Since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, China has significantly increased controls over its already censored cyberspace—with a ruling that will allow jail terms for spreading “rumors” online, a cybersecurity law that will facilitate state control and data access, crackdowns on unauthorized VPN connections, and emphasis on the concept of “internet sovereignty.” At the same time, technological innovations in such areas as big-data analytics, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things are increasingly being harnessed to monitor the lives and activities of China’s 1.4 billion people. The new arsenal of the Chinese surveillance state includes mass video-surveillance projects incorporating facial-recognition technology; voice-recognition software that can identify speakers on phone calls; and a sweeping and intrusive program of DNA collection. In addition, officials are at work on a nationwide Social Credit System (SCS) intended to assess the conduct of every Chinese citizen.
The road to digital unfreedom: Three painful truths about social media
by Ronald Deibert
Social media have been battered in recent years by growing concerns about disinformation, privacy breaches, and the spread of harmful speech. This article itemizes the problems surrounding social media and political authority in the form of “three uncomfortable truths”—so termed because, although there is an emerging consensus around these points, many people are reluctant to squarely acknowledge the depth of the problems and the fundamental changes that would be required to mitigate them. The first uncomfortable truth is that the social-media business is built around personal-data surveillance, with products ultimately designed to spy on us in order to push advertising in our direction. The second uncomfortable truth is that we have consented to this, but not entirely wittingly: Social media are designed as addiction machines, expressly programmed to draw upon our emotions. The third uncomfortable truth is that the attention-grabbing algorithms underlying social media also propel authoritarian practices that aim to sow confusion, ignorance, prejudice, and chaos, thereby facilitating manipulation and undermining accountability. Moreover, the fine-grained surveillance that companies perform for economic reasons is a valuable proxy for authoritarian control.
Among theorists of new information and communication technologies, there is a persistent tension between those who see them as technologies of liberation, and those who see them as technologies of control. We argue that the dichotomy itself is misleading, suggesting a basic opposition between forces of light and forces of darkness. In fact, the situation is much more complex and needs to be qualified. Rather than seeing technologies in oppositional terms, as either “empty” vessels to be filled by human intent, or powerful forces imbued with some kind of agency that no one can withstand, technologies are complex and continuously evolving manifestations of social forces of a particular time and place. Once created, technologies in turn shape and limit the prospects for human communication and interaction in a constantly iterative manner. This dynamic is especially evident in the case of cyberspace, a domain of intense competition, one which creates an ever-changing matrix of opportunities and constraints for social forces and ideas. Social forces and ideas, in turn, are imbued with alternative rationalities which collide with each other and affect the structure of the communications environment. Unless the characteristics of cyberspace change radically in the near future, and global human culture grows monolithic, linking technological properties to a single social outcome, like liberation or control, is highly dubious.