Activists and large technology companies have a problem — they face fundamentally conflicting incentives. Activists want and need to be able to reach as many people as they can who can be potentially influenced to build and mobilize support for causes. Technology companies need to protect people from being bombarded by so much irrelevant or uninteresting content that those people switch off and stop using the platforms. And, as sellers of advertising, technology companies are competing for the same thing as activists — citizens’ attention.11 Since the rise of the first email spam filters, activists have found that technology companies regularly place barriers between themselves and potential supporters. Facebook, for example, has on numerous occasions changed how easy it is for an owner of a group or a page to alert their followers to new ideas or new campaigns.
In recent times, campaigners have taken to piggybacking on waves of emerging technologies to do an end-run around blocks that are more problematic on more established channels. For example,12the recent surge of interest in internet chatbots was used by at least one group in Brazil as a way of being able to message far more potential supporters than would have been possible through Facebook’s more traditional methods.
As other emerging technologies like drones, internet of things13devices, and virtual reality are rolled out in an experimental fashion, it is only likely that campaigners will seize on these as mechanisms to get messages to people who would not otherwise receive them. With a form of new cyclical inevitability, once communication through these new channels becomes burdensome for users, platform rules will be changed, and once again, activists will find it harder to communicate.
Governments will have to actively choose to what extent they want to promote and protect civil society’s ability to bypass platform content restrictions, so that citizens hear from causes that might matter to them. The world will likely see a bifurcation between governments that believe a strong civil society is an asset and those delighted to find that activist voices naturally tend to drown beneath the waves of memes and celebrity gossip.
11: For a broader discussion on the “attention economy” and its effects on politics, see Williams (2018). ↩
12: “Beta” is a Facebook chatbot developed by Nossas, a Brazilian nongovernmental organization, that mobilizes citizens to exert pressure on government regarding women’s rights issues. ↩
13: The “internet of things” is the extension of internet connectivity into physical devices and everyday objects that can communicate and interact with others over the internet and be remotely monitored and controlled. ↩