OPINION - Does the digital shift lead to control societies?
Filter bubbles that reinforce existing beliefs through personalized messages and echo chambers that block the exchange of ideas are severe threats to a healthy social structure
By Murat Selvi
- The author is a researcher at TRT World Research Center.
ISTANBUL (AA) – The information age initiated radical transformations in social and daily life. The information-intensive process pervading all social relations brought the production and transmission of information to levels never witnessed before, causing big societal transitions.
Digital platforms and search engines occupy a central place in our lives. Our world, surrounded by fiber-optic cables that enable high-level data transmission, has realized McLuhan's global village prophecy.
- Control in the digital age
The notion of the gatekeeper was introduced in the literature when mass media became widespread, and its social effects were examined. It was first introduced with a study that focused on the role of housewives in deciding which food is presented at the family's table. The housewife embodied the decision-making authority in a notable study by Kurt Lewin.
In the news broadcasting world, the news editor plays a similar role, as demonstrated by a research conducted by David Manning White. Since then, the gatekeeper concept has become one of the essential mass communication theories.
Given the impossibility of producing countless events occurring daily worldwide, selecting newsworthy stories, and presenting them to the audience makes more sense. However, this process involves ideological, political, economic, and organizational filters, often accompanied by underlying issues like bias.
Traditional media has been affected by several factors, such as power politics, ownership, and legal and regulatory factors, making objectivity and impartiality a bridge too far. The situation worsened in the digital age, as a few multinational companies monopolized the entire data flow, going beyond just setting the agenda and directing public opinion.
Moreover, contrary to popular belief, in the digital age, people are more vulnerable than ever to information bombardment instead of being more selective and cautious in the face of media content. Information bubbles and echo chambers have reached the level of not only suggesting what is essential and unimportant but also how it should be thought of. Trends, hashtags, interaction rates, and the number of likes have become virtual determinants that shape social reality.
- Gatekeepers of the digital age
While acting as a bridge between content creators and consumers, gatekeepers of the digital era have effective control over the flow of information. They can censor the subjects and people they want. With direct access to billions of users, they can highlight stories and bury others in the background.
In the digital era, where access to information has become extremely easy, the information we access is the information presented to us by search engines at a very high rate. Moreover, while the data collected from users increases daily, our knowledge of how algorithms and systems work is increasingly limited.
The few significant actors who have become the custodians of the digital world can shape public opinion. They have already become the powerhouses that hold the key to access to information. Although their power is not absolute, their potential to influence political elections is obvious. It is undeniable that digital platforms are now one of the most vital factors in how a political candidate can deliver their message to the voters and how the political stance of the voters will be shaped.
This capacity of influence is not limited to accessing news or socio-political issues but also reveals itself in online shopping. The success or failure of commercial enterprises is closely related to the priority that search engines will give to search results or the product rankings to be made by online marketplaces. In short, digital gatekeepers impact almost everything we see, listen to and interact with in digital environments.
- Ownership, community rules and legal regulations
Much has been said about the motivations that prompted one of the wealthiest people in the world to buy a digital platform by making a significant investment of money. But, the issues at the core that need to be discussed are overshadowed by the media hype and controversies surrounding the acquisition. One could say that it is common for billionaires to purchase media platforms. However, these acquisitions indicate a trend that has accelerated in the past few decades, namely the nexus of wealth and power, which boosts the ability of media moguls to influence the masses on a scale never reached before.
Placing different platforms under one business label and integrating new features into existing platforms to maintain market share and dominant position reveal the extremely competitive environment in technology and media, which has the hallmark of unfair cutthroat competition.
While the main drive of Elon Musk and other mega tech owners is profit, these tycoons claim that their products aspire to offer people a freer, more secure and more egalitarian virtual public space. Meanwhile, most attention is allocated to the evolution from Twitter to X or even the launch of minor features. Such superfluous activities deflect the public's gaze to shallow agendas that push the real issues into the background. Many critical questions remain unanswered, such as what they do with the data they collect from people or the negative social impact of the tech platforms.
Contrary to the statements of the platform owners, who state that they are trying to prevent problems that may arise in virtual environments with the community rules they have set, countless issues, such as privacy, censorship, disinformation, and violence, have affected the public sphere in the digital era.
The community rules of the platforms need to be adjusted to prevent such problems. At this point, the legal regulations are still far from fully protecting the public. Moreover, filter bubbles that reinforce existing beliefs through personalized messages and echo chambers that block the exchange of ideas are severe threats to a healthy social structure.
While the gatekeepers of the digital era have the potential to shape the flow of information and manipulate the public, it is essential to provide an order in which the digital gatekeepers cannot use their power to undermine the democratic process. Thus, economic, political, and democratic processes can function in a way that will serve the social benefit.
*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu.
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