Looking towards the 2024 presidential election, we must face the real possibility that we may be headed into an electoral autocracy. For those of us who have experienced repression and violence at the hands of the state, we recognize that the punishments will be swift and sustained, will be central to the regime’s maintenance of its political and economic order, and will further entrench white supremacist ideologies.
For those committed to building a real, multi-racial democracy––not to mention stemming the authoritarian tide––we must grapple with how deeply profit-driven technological innovation, and the internet in particular, has played a fundamental role in pushing us to this precipice. And to win on our vision for justice sustained by a resilient democracy, we need to take seriously that governance of the internet must be at the core of any sustained global democracy movement.
We must face the fact that authoritarianism and the move towards minority rule has advanced in no small part because decisions that affect our lives happen in two realms simultaneously: both within nation states and on the internet. As pro-democracy movements, we work hard to govern in nation states, but we have yet to reckon with or truly acknowledge the need to govern the digital realm. We cannot win the fight against authoritarianism if we, as a movement, don’t also have a theory of governance of the internet.
Rules for a realm that stretches across borders
In the (IRL) world we have a legal regime––albeit a broken one––that governs the physical world and we have land borders that delineate the boundaries of a country, inclusive of jurisdictional boundaries. But the terrain on which our movements are often fighting is not in the physical world. The terrain on which we are fighting for justice, liberation, and the governance that can help us get there is largely online.
We apply the rules established for the offline world to the online, and often fail at applying them with any teeth because the internet is a space dominated by the rules of capitalism, with free markets and privatization at the center of the values of this space. The rules that apply to nation states cannot adequately govern here because the digital realm extends across borders; the internet as we know it is primarily self-governed by multinational corporations. Few of us even consider the implications of governance of the internet, inclusive of corporations, financial systems, privatized public squares, media, and political terrain that have built profit off of the internet.
In many ways the internet represents the final coup de grace of neoliberalism. It’s a story of modern-day corporate power, of wealth accumulation enabled by minority rule, of unbridled surveillance of Black and brown people. The internet has been built, designed, and run primarily by libertarians who are not interested in protecting people who use their platforms but instead have created a profit structure that relies upon stealing and, selling our identities and then repackaging our identities back to us in the form of ads for shirts, jeans, cute dog memes, guns.
A democratic internet was never going to manifest itself because, contrary to what techno-optimists claim, the internet does not create a neutral playing field. No, tech is not neutral, and this has real implications for how we understand who has the power to shape governments, who has the power to control global economies, and who is shaping our worldviews. And when the profit incentives that propel the economy of the internet skew towards clickbait content—content that spreads lies, that claims outlandish truths, and that serves as a hook to further entrench people in their world views—authoritarianism flourishes.
Disinformation is the wound, profit is the infection
Many people who seek to regulate the internet focus on disinformation as the problem. But disinformation is the canary in the coalmine of a much bigger problem with tech and the internet. Seasoned organizers know that focusing on “truth vs. lies” doesn’t actually work as a part of an organizing strategy. What works is to focus on building relationships that help us unlock the fears that underlie belief systems. When combating disinformation that spreads online, we need to understand why fear travels faster on the internet than the principles of collective care and liberation. When our concern about how the internet distorts democracy focuses on disinformation as the loci of the problem, it’s like we have decided to address the wound instead of the infection. In this case the infection is the for-profit motive and privatized structure of the internet.
We confront the material impact of these structures daily: From the rising wealth gap fueled by tech investment to the ecological catastrophes associated with rare earth mining, growing arrays of server farms, crypto mining, and more. This picture is bleak but it is possible to fight back and to advance a different approach to fighting for global democracies, especially if we consider the internet as fertile terrain for that fight.
As we head into next year, we should consider what happens if the right and tech oligarchs consolidate and coordinate their control. Tech companies amass huge profits from the world views espoused by the right wing, as algorithms (and the advertising dollars that drive profit) draw more people into online spaces and polarizing content drives those same individuals into right-wing hotbeds. Authoritarianism benefits from an unregulated internet, which allows (and profits from) the strategy of “flooding the zone with sh*t,” as Steve Bannon put it, however inaccurate, toxic, and manipulative it is.
While White Christian nationalists and tech libertarians may not seem to have a lot in common ideologically, they may find common electoral goals as they attempt to increase their wealth and power. Peter Thiel is a great example of this. Since 2016, he has used his tech billions to fund candidates like JD Vance in 2022 and Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020. In addition to supporting far right candidates, he also supports the tactics often used by authoritarians: unfettered surveillance, primarily of immigrants through the use of his data mining firm Palantir.
Take the fight online
We have the ability to take what we know about who makes up the burgeoning autocracy in this country in order to not just fight back but to advance a different vision and agenda for our democracy. Here are three insights that can shape near-term strategy:
- We can begin by acknowledging that the internet is not just a tool that we wield but a world and place that we occupy and that we, so far, have largely ceded that terrain to tech companies and the right wing.
- We can draw connections between advancements in tech, AI, and the profit-driven nature of the internet with issues like policing and surveillance, climate change, attacks on workers, and the gutting of our voting rights. By doing this, we can set tech companies in our sight as targets as we take on a battle for our democracy. For example, since the Dobbs decision last year, Google and Microsoft have been tracking the digital breadcrumbs of people seeking abortion care and sharing that information with law enforcement as a way to surveil and potentially prosecute people seeking reproductive health care. Targeting tech companies for this type of surveillance would create another path forward in the battle for reproductive justice and could have implications for other ways that data tracking is used to police our communities.
- We can take the terrain of the fight online, not just by sharing memes or getting better at social media, but by investing in bringing approaches of deep relational and place-based organizing to the digital realm. During the 2020 election some power building organizations experimented with member leaders of their organizations to develop followings on platforms like TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram. The purpose of this type of organizing was to broaden their base and scale the reach of member leaders to share messages and push back against disinformation. Organizations in Minnesota, Michigan, and Arizona did this as a way to protect against efforts to steal elections, mobilize young voters, and scale membership bases. Another great example of deep relational organizing online is mapping where our offline membership congregates in online spaces in order to develop an integrated offline/online strategy where organizers can “door knock their way through digital turf.”
As we imagine not just stemming the authoritarian tide, but seeding a more beautiful future, we should see the fight for collective control over the internet and technological innovation as core to building that world. Thanks to the organizers of the 22nd Century Conference, we have the opportunity as organizers building a pro-democracy movement to coalesce around defensive and offensive strategies. Together, we can imagine what full-scale governance of the internet would look like and feel like, and set the roadmap to get there. It won’t happen overnight, but it can happen over the coming decades. It is key to truly realizing a democratic society.
Convergence is pleased to co-publish this article with The Forge.