The internet turned 30 last week. What impacts has it had on our democracies?
Last week, the internet turned 30, though at times it still feels like a teenager. In all the raucous noise the internet has produced, it’s sometimes hard to discern whether it has been a net benefit to society or a net cost. This week, rather than our usual question and answer format, our chief correspondent and writer discuss how the internet has affected international relations and the whether it supports democracy or undermines it.
Adnan R. Khan: I remember trying to understand the world in the early days of my career as a journalist, before the internet. Everything seemed to be slower and more organized. The world made more sense. Since the invention of the internet, everything seems to have gotten more complicated. From the journalistic perspective, we work at such high speeds that journalism has become a sort of hit and miss. We rush to publish stories and we get something wrong. Then that mistake has to be corrected but by then it is already out there and spreads quickly on the internet.
Ilter Turan: This is not a problem specific to journalists. Political leaders end up in a similar situation where something happens and they are compelled to produce an immediate response without having had sufficient time to learn about the case. In fact, as you may recall there was a recent incident where the news reported that a Uighur folksinger had died in prison in China and the Turkish foreign ministry issued a very strong statement in protest. Then it turned out the man had not actually died.
Adnan R. Khan: This is very dangerous for international relations.
Ilter Turan: Indeed, it could cause unintended accidents that lead to grave consequences. But in addition to that, this sort of communication is often being employed to disseminate false information and to manage perceptions in ways that a particular state desires. So, we basically have to learn how to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism about news that is produced very quickly and avoid jumping to immediate conclusions that could then lead to highly undesirable outcomes.
Adnan R. Khan: I wonder though: Are we being the old fogies now saying all this new technology is so dangerous? Or was it always like this?
Ilter Turan: Obviously one has to be careful that in trying to be cautious about new technologies we are, in fact, not resisting them. But it is also important to recognize that new technologies do not simply come as improvements but also with problems. One has to be aware that this has also happened in the past, that innovations, in addition to improving our own lives, have produced a number of unintended consequences. We have to be concerned not only in terms of the technology but also in terms of its effects on human societies, and particularly on ethics.
Adnan R. Khan: I think what you’re getting at here is the way the internet is used to manipulate people.
Ilter Turan: Yes. This is being employed widely, first in commercial applications but now also to affect political behavior to the point that it leads us to a question regarding the fundamental assumptions of democracy: that is, how the exercise of free will is affected. One may begin to wonder with this sort of manipulative instrument whether the freedom of the will whose presence we assume for the successful operation of a democratic society can continue to be effective in the future.
Adnan R. Khan: Different governments have taken different approaches to this problem. In Western countries like the U.S. and those in Europe, they just let things be free and open and try to let the internet govern itself, but that does not seem to be working. On the other end we have a country like China which wants to take total control of the Internet. Which side do you think is coming out on the right side of history?
Ilter Turan: I would side with open societies, though I think balanced regulation is the answer. If you try to start regulating before the phenomenon has had time to develop, then you may easily stand in the way of progress. But if you ignore the problems, then you risk other fundamental problems that challenge our societies. Take the privacy issue: It is important that people be able to enjoy a certain amount of privacy and not share with others certain aspects of their lives and thinking which they think belongs to them. But with the introduction of the Internet, formidable challenges are also emerging in this domain and there is clearly a need for regulation. We have to establish a balance between freedoms and place restrictions on some freedoms to protect others.
Adnan R. Khan: What’s interesting is that the internet comes packaged together with both good and evil. There are individual freedoms, how the internet gives us the opportunity to live with more agency. In U.S. politics, we also see how the Internet is increasingly being used by young politicians to open up the business of government to the public. We see somebody like or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on her Instagram feed publicly broadcasting the everyday life of a politician in Washington. So the private life of government has become public as well.
Ilter Turan: I think we generally agree that transparency is a good thing. But I would interpret transparency as having access to information rather than information being made available unfiltered, uncontrolled, all the time, particularly with regards to decision making by public authority. I’m not persuaded that it’s always wise that all discussions be open. This tends to lead to something we are already experiencing: People begin to think that life is a television stage and they’re out there to perform. They become interested in immediate gratification as opposed to doing things that produce desirable outcomes in the long run. But we have to recognize that like all good things, the internet comes with a cost.
Adnan R. Khan: I’ll mention one of those costs: With this overload of inputs and information, I find my attention span being shorter and I’m more stressed having deliver more quickly. Sometimes I wish: enough with the Internet! Let’s go back in time and just shut it off.
Ilter Turan: Sometimes, I also clearly get that urge. One has to discipline oneself as to how much and to what purpose he or she will use the internet and not become enslaved by it.