But as news stories reveal, crises in cybersecurity, misinformation and collapsing social media use have endangered democracy, threatened diversity, and lost the United States its place as a leader of the free world. Our nation’s intellectual and economic might is in decline.
The online world has changed our lives and displaced us on crowded public transportation. But disruption can bring new freedom—long-awaited by marginalized and forgotten voters and the children of immigrants—as well as community activism and economic prosperity.
President Trump, who had been claiming, “You cannot keep a good man down,” may have taken from that aphorism a more nuanced meaning.
New technology and social media offer tools to accomplish the ultimate dream: democracy. Instead of turning to politicians to address national challenges, communities, voters and civil society groups must marshal their resources to ensure the Internet remains accessible for all.
The prospect of democracy depends not only on citizens’ active participation, but also on a functioning online community.
Consumers should limit their internet usage to utility websites for routine activities like banking, dating and real estate.
Businesses should register their sites, remove objectionable content and invest in social responsibility initiatives that contribute to civic improvement.
Nonprofits and companies should engage with community members and build trust online to build a constituency that will help protect democracy.
In the early days of the internet, people jokingly attributed social media’s rise to Americans’ needs to share their experiences, listen to ideas and exercise influence. America isn’t so different anymore.
Ten years ago, the tech industry made some promising overtures to our democratic process.
Google endorsed Senator Harry Reid’s campaign for president in 2008. In 2009, Google entered the driverless car field with prototype vehicles, according to an account in Wired magazine. In 2011, the company donated $1 million to a bipartisan project to help hack a congressional floor. That same year, Google co-hosted the “Rock the Vote” concert to support political campaigns. In 2013, Google co-hosted the Democracy Day celebration in Las Vegas, which included an event on digital citizenship and Google’s Made with Code program, which helps kids access STEM education and get involved in politics.
But on the innovation front, Google seems to have fallen behind the curve.
Online companies grapple with accountability issues. Google has not yet even disclosed its last five years of charitable donations, according to a 2018 report by “60 Minutes.”
Only recently has Google publicly released a Digital Citizens Report that addresses regulation and legal provisions for social media platforms, civic engagement and regulation. Inadequate data sharing or retention costs limit Google’s ability to provide some critical data for public policy discussions.
For those concerned about censorship and free speech rights, these shortcomings appear more serious.
But Google’s dilemma could offer a glimpse of the future if our founders made the same mistake they once made with print media, which has been in decline for two decades.
In 2008, when the Wall Street Journal reported, “Advertisers are spending less on print advertising,” the Journal’s publication slogan, “Don’t believe the hype,” still reflected future confidence in print media. Today’s print book industry is struggling to survive.
The experts at Upworthy are catching up to the reality of a news culture in search of a medium. The social media-inspired “read it later” paradigm replaced the brevity of newspaper “entries” that required real concentration and effort.
There are challenges to tap into new technologies and to develop technology partnerships, but this is what I believe will help make our democracy stronger.
My “80,000-tree-a-minute” motto is fiction, because I’m so far from perfection on my commitments to preserve an accurate, equal voice and to protect freedom of information. My plans are only a possible future.