To sustain a happier democracy, we must find a better way of doing digital politics

Looking back over the last six years of work we’ve done here at CASM, you might think we have a masochistic tendency to end up investigating the darker parts of the web. In the grim darkness of the far future there is illegal, terrorist and extremist content, hateful and abusive speech, echo chambers, trolling, information wars and so on. Over those years, legislation of this frontier has moved from a niche interest to a matter for cross-party policy, front pages, headlines and news alerts.

The internet is an unruly place. Anyone who grew up online will remember the feeling, if not of lawlessness, than of anarchic freedom. Built into the early web was an understanding that you could say whatever you like, largely without repercussion. Over time, that sense of freedom has diminished. First at the hands of centralisation, as people flocked to new platforms with rules and terms of use. Next, at the hands of users, increasingly willing to call out and punish those who they deemed had overstepped the line. Finally, we are seeing an increasing capability and use of the law.

As Demos calls for optimism and an end to the ‘age of outrage’, a brief scroll through social media can leave you feeling, well, not particularly optimistic. Outrage and anger are as vocal as ever. The same controversial ideas go viral, then go viral again, and again and again. The latest evisceration of one politician by another, the latest furious headline, the next pillorying of a journalist or comedian or celebrity or whoever last tried being funny on the internet; it’s all the rage.

Fixing the ‘age of outrage’ demands all kinds of solutions. Some are political, some are social, and others are cultural. But if it’s also a technological problem, it has technological solutions.

The dream was, left unfettered, the web might become the biggest marketplace of ideas we’d ever seen. In this global marketplace – accessible by millions, then billions – we’d jam together all of our ideas and thoughts and posts and tweets and all the good ones would float to the top, and all the bad ones would shrivel in the sunlight. It’s a theory often trotted out in discussions of what should and shouldn’t be allowed online.

We’re not there yet, and I fear we’ve spent a decade on a different trajectory. The attention economy has utterly redrawn the information landscape. When ideas and information are subsidised and measured by the attention they receive and the ad revenue they can generate, it turns out that the good stuff doesn’t necessarily float to the top.

In this economy, ideas are valued in the stir they cause; speakers and authors and journalists and commentators the same. As long as the measure of value is clicks, we will continue to see the same distorted marketplaces, twisted into promoting the controversialists and the provocateurs. We’ll see the same zombie ideas, discredited time and again but lurching on the power of the outrage they cause. We’ll see the same speakers, proportionally rewarded for the volume of trouble they can stir with book deals and talking slots. Breaking this cycle depends on breaking the relationship between clicks and ideas.

There is hope. There are bits of the web that do it well. Moderators, elected under popular vote, keep a watchful eye on StackOverflow: the site describes them as “human exception handlers, there to deal with those exceptional conditions that could otherwise disrupt the community.” You’ll frequently see them enforcing the standards of the debate or the information. Parts of Reddit are bastions of accurate information and reasoned debate, again under the watchful of eye of a team of dedicated moderators. Gaming forums are littered with nostalgic memories of MMORPGs that succeeded in building a strong and cooperative communities, frequently piloting digital democratic experiments across tens of thousands of users (or starship pilots).  Obviously none of these sites are perfect – StackOverflow recently accepted they had not done enough to promote a healthy environment and called for a greater tolerance and kindness among its members – but we can learn from what they do well.

We need to do better, and we need to start at the very foundations. For all its well-documented problems, perhaps the Matt Hancock MP social networking app was a decent stab at moving the conversation on. There are plenty of others, more sophisticated, more revolutionary – in Spain, Santiago Siri’s Democracy Earth.

Decoupling politics from the internet giants doesn’t mean giving up on digital politics: it means we need a better place to do it. As our societies, our media and our politics moved online, they set up camp in the first place they found. We have to be a bit more ambitious, to scout out new spaces that might at first present a challenge, but with some work can sustain a better, happier democracy.