This article was originally published in The Atlantic on May 11, 2017.
The internet mirrors society, reflecting our strengths and weaknesses. A healthy society and a healthy internet share the same vital forces: individuals taking action, making things, solving problems, and ultimately building our own environment. We need both technology and social commitment to create spaces where healthy democracies will flourish.
As citizens, we have a right and a responsibility to participate in democracy for it to work. Today we see technology—specifically the internet—enabling rich new ways to participate in democracy. The internet lets citizens swiftly tune in to world events, discuss the implications, organize campaigns, project their voices, and force change. Through the internet, democratically elected leaders can more easily hear diverse voices. By making political activities more transparent, the internet helps citizens hold politicians more accountable. It has created a sea change for democratic political discourse, offering a global soapbox like none other.
We also see the internet magnifying the polarization of our societies and the rise of vitriol, hate speech and misinformation. This amplification is made possible by the Internet and centralized social media platforms, which combine to create mass echo chambers. However the core issues live within the nature of our societies themselves. So today the Internet reflects richness, divisiveness and areas where hope and opportunities to improve one's own life are not as widely available as we would like.
The ease with which “fake news” can be disseminated online presented an opportunity to capitalize on existing social discontent by distributing misinformation for financial gain. We saw this transpire in the latest U.S. election cycle when egregiously fabricated stories published solely for profit circulated widely in social media. Pizzagate. The Pope endorses a presidential candidate. Florida imposes Sharia law. Though these stories were clearly false, each was published online, consumed, shared and viewed by millions of people. And yet we need to ask: How different are these articles from standard “clickbait” that sensationalizes the truth in order to drive traffic?
The stakes are high when bad actors misappropriate the internet and position fake news to drown out facts for personal gain. Misinformation spread online has the power to influence people’s understanding of real world events. Millions of internet users have no way to quickly assess whether claims are true or false. All of this adds up to loss of trust in core institutions as a source of good information and trustworthy community. But the loss is further compounded. Democracy relies on the free flow of good information and human connection, and when people believe they can’t trust anyone, democracy is weakened.
Technology alone will not solve the problem, but technology combined with human intent, economic investment, and development policies can make immense positive changes.
The world today is in a disruptive state, and it’s clear that the connection of technology to social impact is deeply needed so that communities of goodwill can grow, trust in the internet and information will rebound and democracy will thrive. We have to apply ourselves to this challenge. Otherwise we will have squandered a rare and precious opportunity.
Mitchell Baker is the executive chairwoman of Mozilla.
This article is part of The Democracy Project, a collaboration with The Atlantic.