The online tumult of the 2016 election fed into a growing suspicion of Silicon Valley’s dominance over the public sphere. Across the political spectrum, people have become less trusting of the Big Tech companies that govern most online political expression, The New Yorker reports:
Calls for civic responsibility on the part of Silicon Valley companies have replaced the hope that technological innovation alone might bring about a democratic revolution. Despite the focus on algorithms, A.I., filter bubbles, and Big Data, these questions are political as much as technical. Regulation has become an increasingly popular notion….. In the nineteen-thirties, such threats encouraged commercial broadcasters to adopt the civic paradigm. In that prewar era, advocates of democratic radio were united by a progressive vision of pluralism and rationality; today, the question of how to fashion a democratic social media is one more front in our highly divisive culture wars.
Thirty years ago, almost no one used the Internet for anything. Today, just about everybody uses it for everything. Even as the Web has grown, however, it has narrowed, adds Elizabeth Kolbert:
Google now controls nearly ninety per cent of search advertising, Facebook almost eighty per cent of mobile social traffic, and Amazon about seventy-five per cent of e-book sales. Such dominance, Jonathan Taplin argues, in “Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy” (Little, Brown), is essentially monopolistic. In his account, the new monopolies are even more powerful than the old ones, which tended to be limited to a single product or service. Carnegie, Taplin suggests, would have been envious of the reach of Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos.
The Danger to Democracy?
If Big Tech policies adopted by an ice-cream chain, or a machine-tool maker, they might be annoying. But in the tech giants, with their vast and growing power to shape opinion, represent an existential threat, claims one analyst:
Mark Zuckerberg whose Facebook is now the largest source of media for younger people, has emerged, in the words of one European journalist (PDF), as “‘the world’s most powerful editor.” In the past they were the primary carriers of “fake news,” and have done as much as any institution to erode the old values (and economics) of journalism.