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by Jennifer McArdle

The belief that Internet and social media may be leading to greater democratization is a myth. In reality, the Internet may surprisingly be leading us down the primrose path.

At first this statement may seem counterintuitive: Platforms like Twitter have provided ‘netizens’ the ability to report news and ideas first hand. As Tracy Westin of the Center for Government Studies notes, the Internet’s ability to give individuals a personal vocal platform encourages broader democratic discussion: candidate to candidate, voter to candidate, and voter to voter. Jon Pareles calls this process disintermediation—the removal of the middleman (or the traditional news outlet) from the news. Emerging news sites, such as NewsPad, aim to benefit from this ‘disintermediation’ process, crowdsourcing the news by empowering local communities to write articles collaboratively. Andrés Monroy-Hernández, one of the creators of NewsPad, noted that the goal was to produce news that was “for the people, by the people”—a clear democratic reference to Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address. So why then, considering this ‘disintermediation' process, is the belief that Internet may be leading to greater democratization false?

While disintermediation has led to the removal of the traditional news middleman, a more problematic invisible middleman has emerged in the form of our social media and search engine giants.

The convergence of big data and behavioral science (i.e. cognitive security) has allowed search engines to ‘personalize’ news. Combining each persons' digital footprints—their clicks, downloads, purchases, ‘likes’, and posts—with psychology and neuroscience, allows search engines or social media platforms like Google and Facebook to predict interests. The result has been individualized tailor-made news updates.

In a New York Times article, Jeff Rosen of George Washington Law investigated what ‘personalized’ news meant for democracy. After clearing cookies from two of his Internet browsers, Safari and Firefox, Rosen created a ‘democratic Jeff’ and a ‘republican Jeff.’ Within two days, his two different browsers with his different ‘identities’ began returning search results that varied based on platform predictions of partisan interests. Similarly, Eli Pariser in The Filter Bubble ran an experiment with two left-leaning, female colleagues from the Northeast. Pariser asked both colleagues at the height of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill to run searches of ‘BP.’ The first page of search results markedly differed; one woman’s results returned news of the oil spill, while the other’s search only returned investment information in British Petroleum. For the latter of the two, a quick skimming of the front-page search results would not have confirmed the existence of the ongoing environmental crisis. Google’s predictive, personalized algorithms delivered fundamentally disparate news results.

While in the past, traditional news middlemen decided which news the populace would read, today our search engine and social media platform's enigmatic ‘personalization’ algorithms decide. As Tim Wu of Columbia Law School aptly stated, “The rise of networking did not eliminate intermediaries, but rather changed who they are.”

Robust civil democratic dialogue requires an informed populace that has access to information and opposing viewpoints. Personalization algorithms will make this exceedingly difficult. The abstruse and publically unavailable nature of search engine algorithms may actually be more democratically dubious then our former news middlemen. The road down the primrose path may seem lined with roses, however as Shakespeare rightly notes in Hamlet, they often end in calamity.