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Threats to Democracy – Old and New

A round-up of the hottest takes from the best UK Indy Media

Disinformation is threatening democracy, report says.

The Parliamentary Digital, Culture, Media and Sports committee (DCMS) looks set to add to warnings about the threat to democracy in the wake of The Cambridge Analytica scandal and ongoing revelations/ speculations about Russian misdeeds (it’s important to note that this is about far more than CA and Russia, they are just touchstone examples of a ubiquitous global issue.)

Some people, not least on the left, have thrown the focus back on establishment media and politicians who spread lies and disinformation all the time (weapons of Mass Destruction are frequently mentioned in this argument): surely, internet fakery is no worse; aren’t the establishment just threatened by new media exposing them? while some of these retorts could be true, we don’t have to defend the establishment when acknowledging major issues with web-based disinfo. The old ways are more of a known quantity though. Besides, it’s often governments, corporations and other elites who are using the kinds of techniques under discussion.

So, is all this monitoring and manipulation a threat to democracy?

From a standing start, it seems to be a distinct possibility. There’s not just the Orwellian weirdness of the Chinese social credit system or attempts by Russia (and who-knows-who-else) to hack elections. It’s healthy to see democracy as requiring as informed an electorate as possible, this being one of the more honourable goals of traditional journalism.

But “news” garnered from social media is far less likely to be mediated by journalists trained in fact-checking and investigation. Even “proper” journalistic operations face harsh resourcing challenges since the likes of Facebook and Google started hoovering up the bulk of corporate advertising budgets. So potentially any-old-thing can find its way into news consumer’s feeds without the old checks and balances.

Add to this the effect of the infamous social media algorithms, which tend to lead us to more material of the same biases as we’ve already seen, thus reinforcing view rather than counterbalancing or challenging them.

The nature of internet discourse also seems to increase confrontation rather than consensus, characterised by polarised shrieking matches between people who would be unlikely to ever communicate in such a way in or to, a person.

So quality is being eaten away from without and within, and as the price of “news” has fallen it’s inevitable that quality has been severely threatened (investigative journalism is especially resource-intensive).

This is exactly why The Media Fund exists – to help fund quality independent journalism in the UK and to highlight the need for that funding.

Democratic elections are often decided by a small number of voters, it is the targeting of such other that Russia has been accused of (and yes, it’s true that the US has been polluting democratic processes worldwide long before the internet was a ‘thing’, but that doesn’t make Putin’s capers less of a problem, or that the US can’t do the same things now themselves).

And what can government and corporations do about all this? Are they really the people to trust? Germany is now considering huge fines if clearly illegal materials aren’t taken down pronto and Facebook is spending vast amounts telling us how it is cleaning up its act. But it’s early days and how effective such efforts will be is yet to be seen. Like every previous historical advance in communications, the internet is proving highly disruptive and seems even harder to regulate than previous forms. It’s still very new in the course of human history, so we might hope that consumers will be more savvy within 20 years or so.

Trustworthy independent media can be an important part of that process – more reliable than the propaganda of states, corporations, whack-jobs and fanatics. But, it will need a lot more support and promotion as a sector, and the next few years are key not just for independent media and it’s supporters, but maybe for healthy democracy itself.

Picks of the Week

Our hand-picked selections from some of the best independent journalism around

Judge Slaps Down Erroneous Reporting in Cliff Case – Byline Media

As the press rounded on aspects of the recent Cliff Richard judgement, Byline looks at some recent thoughts of the judge that place things in a different light and reflect the media’s own responsibility for some of the mess.

Find Byline on Twitter @Byline_Media

Persecution of a Former President – Alborada

Brazil’s former left-wing president Lula is already in jail on spurious charges, now Ecuador’s former president also faces persecution from the right-wing government. Alborada report on the story and the international solidarity of the fightback.

Find Alborada on Twitter @alboradanet

David Harvey: Why Everyone is in Debt – Novara Media

Professor David Harvey brings his accessible brand of Marxism to Novara Media with a discussion of the ongoing debt bubble.


Media Alert is a weekly bulletin discussing issues impacting the UK independent media and highlighting some of the best recent work from the sector.
It’s brought to you by The Media Fund, a co-operative of over 30 partners seeking to raise funds and advocate for quality independent journalism.

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