The media today: The narrowing of the Internet

With Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple dominating their respective online markets, we plebeians visit fewer sites than we used to and spend more time within the confines of these familiar walled gardens. The Tow Center for Digital Journalism has written extensively on the effect of that on publishers. But there are a couple of interesting pieces out this week on how the narrowing and centralizing of the internet has contributed to a negative political environment.

In The New York Times, technology writer John Herrman explains how fringe political groups were able to take advantage of social platforms to spread their message. Social platforms have two goals, which are sometimes in conflict: to be a space for public discourse, and to make money. “How Hate Groups Forced Online Platforms to Reveal Their True Nature” argues that this tension between “strained public dedication to discourse stewardship” and “their actual existence as profit-driven entities” created a space for fringe groups to thrive.

The other strand at work is the platforms’ on-again-off-again relationship with the First Amendment. Sometimes, platforms draw a hard line in favor of free speech. Other times, they draw arbitrary or inconsistent ones. This fuzzy math is a vulnerability that, Herrman writes, the far right has turned into a “persecution narrative”: “In the last year, hard-right communities on social platforms have cultivated a pre-emptive identity as platform refugees and victims of censorship.… Their persecution narrative, which is the most useful narrative they have, and one that will help spread their cause beyond the fringes, was written for them years ago by the same companies that helped give them a voice.”

A paper out of MIT’s Media Lab looks at the consequences of the consolidation of the internet into a few large companies, and at possible efforts to decentralize the Web. Very few people have power over what information is spread online, Chelsea Barabas, Neha Narula, and Ethan Zuckerman write. This creates a risk for censorship online, either via intentional bias or content curation (which may hide information, even if it is technically available). The authors acknowledge it will be difficult to turn the tide, but profile a number of attempts to distribute content without a third-party intermediary such as Facebook.

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