Will Democracy Survive the Internet?

June 1, 2017  • The Alma and Joseph Gildenhorn Book Series

In February, the Alma and Joseph Gildenhorn Book Series invited Joichi Ito for a conversation about his new book, Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future. Institute CEO Walter Isaacson spoke with Ito—the director of the MIT Media Lab as well as an online activist, entrepreneur, and venture capitalist—about democracy and internet freedom in the wake of the contentious 2016 presidential election.

ISAACSON: Whiplash is timely because there has been both a whiplash and a backlash in our political system.

ITO: The way Donald Trump has played his strategy is not over-planning everything, being highly responsive, and iterating based on what you know. It is more about surfing a wave than planning a structured campaign. A lot of these trends are coming to a point now, and the world is extremely unpredictable—and if you’re agile and small, you’re more likely to survive.

Social media is a playground, and attention is the currency.

The Media Lab has done a lot of analytics on how social media and the mainstream media are connected. You can see the Trump supporters—who’s influencing who, who’s talking to who. And it’s clear the mainstream media wasn’t listening to or wasn’t connected to the people who had an influence on the election. There were many coordinated efforts online that were very sophisticated, very agile. I don’t know the extent to which the [Trump] campaign was even managing that. I think they were being very opportunistic about the energy coming in.

Social media is a playground, and the currency of what gets today’s kids excited is attention. They’ll do anything to get under people’s skin, and you can’t get back at them—if you write about them, they enjoy it. This is one of the tricky parts about being a journalist in this game. You used to have a battlefield that you would write about, and if you wrote about it in harsh-enough terms, that would affect the battlefield. Well, once the media itself becomes a battlefield, every time you use your hammer, you are feeding the problem. That power gets a bunch of kids saying: “Hey, we can manipulate the system! We’re in charge here.”

Trump took that energy and directed it into a very strong powerbase. And I don’t want to belittle the importance of the Trump voters, but there is definitely a decent chunk of energy on the internet that is something we’ve never seen: people who look at the media as a game. These kids are the guerrillas.

ISAACSON: Did the Russians use them?

ITO: I don’t know. And if I knew, I might not say. These networks understand that warfare is about deception. This is an online war, and it’s very important to try to make sure you don’t underestimate your opponent’s capabilities and you don’t play all of your cards at once.

Each media form has challenged and changed democracy.

ISAACSON: What should outlets like The New York Times be doing technologically?

ITO: Realizing what the battlefield looks like. You look at metrics to see which pages are getting a lot of traffic. Well, if you’re getting a lot of traffic because some ultra-right site is making fun of you, that’s very different than getting traffic because everybody is sharing a link because it’s a good idea. That’s something we have tools for, but journalists don’t use them yet.

ISAACSON: Will democracy survive the internet?

ITO: We’ll get a different kind of democracy. Each media form has challenged and changed democracy. The internet is going to be the biggest shift in democracy so far. But artificial intelligence will bring an even bigger challenge. Machines are going to be much harder to track.

Watch the full conversation here: