Our Gutenberg Moment: It’s Time To Grapple With The Internet’s Effect On Democracy

Alberto Ibargüen at HuffPost: “When clashes wracked Charlottesville, many Americans saw neo-nazi demonstrators as the obvious instigators. But others focused on counter-demonstrators, a view amplified by the president blaming “many sides.” The rift in perception underscored an uncomfortable but unavoidable truth about the flow of information today: Americans no longer have a shared foundation of facts upon which we can agree.

Politics has long been a messy, divisive business. I lived through the 1960s, a period of similar dissatisfaction, disillusionment, and disunity, brilliantly chronicled by Ken Burns’ new film “The Vietnam War” on PBS. But common, local knowledge —of history and current events — has always been the great equalizer in American society. Today, however, a decrease in shared knowledge has led to a collapse in trust. Over the past few years, we have watched our capacity to compromise wane as not only our politics, but also our most basic value systems, have become polarized.

The key difference between then and now is how news is delivered and consumed. At the beginning of our Republic, the reach of media was local and largely verifiable. That direct relationship between media outlets and their communities — local newspapers and, later, radio and TV stations — held until the second half of the 20th century. Network TV began to create a sense of national community but it fractioned with the sudden ability to offer targeted, membership-based models via cable.

But cable was nothing compared to Internet. Internet’s unique ability to personalize and to create virtual communities of interest accelerated the decline of newspapers and television business models and altered the flow of information in ways that we are still uncovering. “Media” now means digital and cable, cool mediums that require hot performance. Trust in all media, including traditional media, is at an all-time low, and we’re just now beginning to grapple with the threat to democracy posed by this erosion of trust.

Internet is potentially the greatest democratizing tool in history. It is also democracy’s greatest challenge. In offering access to information that can support any position and confirm any bias, social media has propelled the erosion of our common set of everyday facts….(More)”.