Digital challenges in a time of extremes


Ayia Napa Marina, Cyprus

Conference Centre

Democratic backsliding, declining trust in social institutions, populism, political and social polarisation, a rise in autocracies, dictatorships, and hyper-nationalist movements. To compound the issue, or maybe to reflect it, it seems many significant elections are won marginally, with votes split down the middle.

We our indeed living in a world of extremes and depending on who one speaks with, reasons why, vary.

For example, sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s ethnographic study ‘strangers in their own land’ took her deep into the US south to investigate the anger of America’s right. She came across a cohort of millions who wanted to tell their side of the story – according to them, they were let down by their own government, no longer able to own a home or even purchase a small car on account of immigrants and people of colour ‘cutting in the line’ as they would explain to her.

Or Michael Sandel’s the tyranny of merit. In it, the Harvard philosopher describes the growing resentment of people who despite all their efforts to fit into the structures of contemporary life, failed to do so. He depicts the widening of monetary and cultural inequalities after four decades of globalisation and those on top feeling they are there on merit while those below, have only themselves to blame.

It is within this context that populist leaders tap into people’s frustrations and in doing so, elicit democratic deficits around the world.

So, unsurprisingly, different social sciences emphasise different reasons why the world is in such a state. Yet one palpable reason that makes this moment in time different from others is that all this is set against a digital backdrop – a technological genie that’s been let loose. Yet even at this stage, it must be examined and fixed before we move on to the next web.

the research I conduct recognizes causes identified by other disciplines but emphasises the impact of digital platforms combined with the disempowerment of news media as core components of why we are living through such extreme societal change. There’s a lot than can be said here of course, and Demetris before me did a fantastic job underlining this impact on a local level, here in Cyprus. I would like to widen the lens a little and highlight just two points, albeit overlapping, to conceptualise the challenges arising from the digital age within a neoliberal framework.

Firstly, the hitherto failures in platform regulation.

On the face of it, with the advent of digital technologies, a sense of techno-optimism seemed justified. A conviction transpired very quickly that these technologies would develop into a deliberative digital democratic landscape emancipating and enabling participants to partake in public spheres the world over. Now, at the cusp of a third web environment, after years of sanctioning platforms into becoming new gatekeepers of information, quite the opposite has happened. They have become internet intermediaries protected by laws offering them far too much immunity for so much editorial control.

The EU, as a bastion of digital policy, seems to be doing the most in reigning in big tech by means of new, sector-specific antitrust policies. Just recently the EU’s court of Justice sided with the Commission on the Google Android case. Yet the consolidated power and multi-sided network effects of big tech have made the job of regulators tremendously hard. Meta apparently has more lobbyists in the EU than all European broadcasters together.

The second point regards disinformation in a post pandemic era.  

Intentionally misleading information, what we call disinformation, is not a new deviant phenomenon. According to many historians, the practice became prevalent during the cold war by means of legacy media and other more interpersonal approaches.  Ominously, today’s version of disinformation has intensified on account of a plethora of unfettered digital channels. Digital disinformation agents (many coming from authoritarian regimes), detonate misleading information online and rely on unsuspicious recipients to disseminate that content to their own networks – an approach we know as misinformation.

So here we have it. Millions of dis-gruntled online users and an unregulated information landscape for all to cleanse themselves. To add to this, populist discourses scapegoat mainstream news media for being misleading, turning millions more to self-regulated alternative sources – spaces that facilitate misinformation and hyper-partisan narratives. Users find what they want to hear in these spaces, confirm their own biases, consume more of the same, and spread it as they see fit – a process we call in my field as selective exposure. It has become a vicious cycle that has turned spirals of silence into spirals of distrust and lies.

In the pandemic era, political and health disinformation have meshed, exacerbating an already precarious situation by adding more obfuscation and distrust. Now, two years after the start of the pandemic, early studies show that disinformation has metastasized. There are more disinformation agents – even from legitimate sources – and more gullible recipients.

In closing, when it comes to digitalisation and its challenges, it is important that in a world of moral panics and heightened social events, to be cautious of new digital communication technologies. Not to double down on what is so clearly a failure that has affected legitimate news media for far too long. To celebrate digital innovators less, to focus on the public interest more, and to place citizen welfare above consumer welfare.

Thank you.   

Nicholas Nicoli