Please No, Touch Me Gently
The health of democracies worldwide has been deteriorating over the past decade (Csaky, 2021). A reason for this democratic backsliding can be identified in the pernicious architecture of technologies – above all of social media (Haggard and Kaufman, 2021; Shahbaz et al., 2022). The advent of virtual opinion forming has quickened the possibility of encountering desires but transformed the inclusive meaning of encounters of the public space, impairing our ability to construct shared agendas to help solving problems as collectives.
Personalisation and interconnectivity
The new media employ an engagement-based algorithmic design, ‹Hypernudging›, which frames the virtual information space of each user in a personalised (through microtargeting), constantly updated, and networked way (through Big Data),
The recursive and pervasive
data-driven feedback loop,
redirects people’s attention
and discourse exchange – fragmenting
narratives and leading to
determining and guiding the online informational choice context (Yeung, 2017). The recursive and pervasive datadriven feedback loop, which dynamically tailors information to engage users, redirects people’s attention and discourse exchange – fragmenting narratives and leading to hyper-individualised societies (Reviglio and Agosti, 2020).
To grasp the significance of the current structural change of the public sphere, the philosopher Jürgen Habermas argues that the inclusive sense of that sphere is fading. The personalised character of the virtual interconnectivity creates a new communication sphere, where an exclusive private (digitised) exchange sphere is expanding into public domains, hindering the inclusion of diverse argumentations and perspectives (Habermas, 2022). The loss of this exchange results in a deterioration of deliberative processes, which are vital to sustaining democracy and just climate and digital transitions.
Loose gatekeepers and manipulative strategies
In the past, a key role in establishing transparency and a common ground of shared meaning has been that of informational gatekeepers. Yet, traditional gatekeepers such as press agencies – which were accountable for performing ‘truth tests’ through fact checking - have been abruptly outpaced, replaced, and modified by social media (EBU, 2022; Reviglio and Agosti, 2020). Nowadays, the libertarian doctrine prevalent in Western tech’s Weltanschauung has often overstretched the right to free opinion to include the right to false facts (Politico, 2018). All this is aggravated by hypernudging’s inflammatory power when used to manipulate people’s opinions,
The libertarian doctrine
prevalent in Western tech’s
has often overstretched the right
to free opinion to include
the right to false facts.
as in the blatantly illegal case of Cambridge Analytica facilitating Trump’s elections and Brexit (Cadwalladr, 2017) or in the normalised political social media marketing.
Focussing on the latter, political parties have taken advantage of social media’s architecture and its loose regulative environment by engaging in three political marketing strategies, turbocharged by microtargeting and Big Data: (i) mobilising around identity threats, (ii) seeding divisions in opponents’ coalitions, and (iii) leveraging influence techniques to exploit psychological vulnerability and manipulability (Nadler et al., 2018). The first two approaches are based on political psychological profiles of voters’ self-identification in partisan groups (around a sense of group loyalty and social identity), with the intent to mobilise or divide them by instilling targeted threats and fears. The third strategy indeed engages in behavioural modification, by rolling out social pressure mechanisms such as shame through hypernudging: «With mass consumer surveillance, political advertisers can maximize the potential influence of their nudges by sifting through data to identify who is most likely to be influenced, what kind of nudges or triggers they may be most affected by, or even factors like at what moment or in what moods a target may be most receptive» (Nadler et al., 2018, p. 38). The authors denounced these actions as a weaponisation of advertisement strategies, while Karen Yeung (2017) condemned hypernudging as an intrinsically, structural undemocratic mode of regulation by design. Similar fragmenting and polarising undertakings turn parties away from democratically competing over the best arguments to unscrupulously competing over the best manipulation of emotions.
Responses to the challenges posed by hypernudging
To counter the instability provoked by hypernudging, democratic efforts require innovative and comprehensive solutions, ones empowering citizens, media outlets, and politicians to uphold democratic values amidst the current digital fogginess. The following top-down and bottom-up suggestions should hence be thought of as a converging strategy towards a more cohesive and resilient democratic society.
Top-down governance strategies
- A first reform could seek to tune hypernudging according to democratic principles (Yeung, 2017; Reviglio and Agosti, 2020). Instead of its current exploitative form, an emancipatory, reflective design of digital socialising spheres should be human-centred: rooted on a basic ground of collective understanding, in a historical-critical approach towards democratic constitutions, sustainable development goals, and human rights conventions. Receptive to criticisms, an evolutional dignity compass (WBGU, 2019) for virtual opinion sharing could help sustain collective democratic norms.
- A second intervention could strengthen the filtering and monitoring of digital platforms discussions and contents, while leaving possibilities open for falsification and transformation. The EU’s recent Digital Service Act heads in this direction, yet substantially leaves the responsibility for moderating content on the platforms’ shoulders, albeit that, to protect fundamental human rights and democratic practices, this task could benefit from additional involvement by political institutions and civil society organisations (Turilazzi et al., 2020; Keller, 2022).
- As suggested within the B&B movement, the third and fourth top-down actions could, respectively, develop independent platforms by state actors (e.g., EU or Member States) or civil society, and break monopoly power through cartel law.
Bottom-up activism suggestions
- Public awareness of virtual persuasive techniques could be revitalised by fostering digital literacy, thus enabling citizens to counter dis- and misinformation, to navigate the impending challenges aligned with collectively useful and meaningful visions, and to trust political leaders and each other (Floridi, 2020; Reddy et al., 2020).
- Parallel to reforming online forums, citizen-wide meetings could be beneficial to the debate on how to encounter each other in the public sphere, expanding or re-organising horizontal structures to overcome fragmentation and platforms’ multiplicity. By holding common reflections, regional communities could be invited to reflect about what is desirable for an inclusive public space, which Simone Weil (1943) defined as a basic need for the soul, enhancing social cohesion, including the margins.
- These initiatives could take multiple forms, such as Boal’s (2000) theatre activism or fishbowl panel discussions
Ultimately, to counter the threats hypernudging currently poses to democracy, it is paramount to rejuvenate social participation, creatively empowering citizens to motivate collective action and cooperation with mutually trustworthy politicians.Next page