Innovation, Intellectual Capital, and Trolls: Is the Internet a Force of Liberation or Repression?
Questions empower people. More specifically, the power of the human brain offers mankind the ability to recognize when problems exist, identify the true nature of those problems, and devise viable solutions to those problems. In other words, the ability to question is what allows people to help build and sustain their communities. Where innovation, i.e. problem solving, is the engine of the global economy, the same kind of intellectual capital is needed to govern our increasingly complicated society.
The internet is a platform for the free expression and exchange of ideas. Like all things free, however, free is never truly free. From an economic perspective, the internet has increased productivity. This, of course, means it has created wealth. The availability of “free” knowledge on the internet has also helped redistribute wealth, which is both beneficial and detrimental. The internet has enriched many people, but it has also fed income inequality by eliminating the need for large workforces.
Unfortunately, the internet also undermines the viability of necessary civil institutions that produce few financial returns. The value of political research and journalism, for example, is rooted in its impact on governments, communities, and individuals instead of what it actually produces. Simply put, researchers and journalists provide indirectly funded services that help society function better. The open nature of the internet offers greater opportunity to utilize mankind’s intellectual capital, yet it also undermines the viability of these pursuits by failing to reward their true value in financial terms.
The problem is that the internet has helped increase the need to subsidize intellectual pursuits while cutting sources of funding. Where subscriptions and ad revenue had traditionally subsidized the work of journalists, ad revenue is being redistributed from local resources to popular global venues. Google Adsense is the gold standard when it comes to ad revenue, yet Adsense is continually lowering the value of ad space on low ranking sites to boost revenue to far more popular sites.
Clearly, this disadvantages startups and community news sources in favor of established behemoths like Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC. For sites focused on critical issues that few people follow, ad revenue offers little opportunity. This is particularly problematic when other funding is not available.
Furthermore, the internet is terribly dependent on technology that is vulnerable to intrusion and manipulation. Since the Ukraine Crisis arose, so-called pro-Russian trolls have been paid by Russian officials to promote Russian propaganda and suppress dissent. Although propaganda has long been an issue, the nature of the internet has empowered governments, corporations, special interest groups, and criminals to drown truth and sensibility in an ocean of misinformation.
That said, the trolls are only the ground troops. It would be foolish to think the propaganda machine stops at what are essentially "mass mailings." Google Analytics, which many metrics depend on, uses methods that are notorious for understating traffic and likely susceptible to ad blockers as well as other software. This vulnerability could be used to manipulate search results and page rankings in order to boost favorable propaganda and suppress opposing messages.
This potential vulnerability and others creates a situation where overdependence on ad revenue and other factors starve invaluable civil institutions to death, so they can be replaced with entities favorable to special interest groups. It also starves the world of the intellectual capital we need to properly govern our society and expand our economy. Unless, tech firms, traditional businesses, governments, activists, and the civil institutions under threat address these concerns, they will lack the problem-solvers needed address the ever growing number of crises we face.
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