Are Our Fears Being Exploited Online?

What effect do algorithms have on democracy? If this year’s presidential campaign in the United States is any bellwether, substantive discussions of the everyday issues affecting Americans are usurped by the latest piece of clickbait on Donald Trump’s incendiary Twitter feed, firing up our emotional responses: especially fear.

In a new piece on the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Nonprofit Management professor Marcia Stepanek, explores the effect that algorithms have on mediating what we think and feel, and how we perceive the world. According to Micah Sifry, the co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, digital media is becoming its own monoculture, with everything that we read filtered through Facebook and Google. Many media companies this election season are making money by playing off our emotions, and “fear is the most powerful enemy of reason in a democratic society.”

Wael Ghonim, a former Google executive and a key activist in the 2011 Egyptian pro-democracy protests in Tahrir Square, notes that there is very little happening algorithmically to “drive people into the more consensus-based, productive discussions we need to have, to help us make civic progress.” He says we’re prioritizing flame wars instead of human innovation

Civic technologists are well aware of the dangers of inciting fear online and are beginning to build new tools to help people navigate their differences in ways that don’t lead to polarization. Sifry just launched a nonprofit called Civic Hall Labs which aims to build technology for the public good. Others are looking for possibilities that they can create algorithms that may create a civil and resilient Internet, something quite different from the Internet of 2016.

Read the full article at Stanford Social Innovation Review, and learn more about the Master of Science in Nonprofit Management.