In the United States, Russia sought to help one presidential candidate over another in the 2016 election—not only through hacking and the release of e-mails but also through an extensive information operation that included paid ads, fake social media accounts, and divisive content. In China, authorities are harnessing the power of artificial intelligence to perfect an Orwellian system of online and real-world surveillance to track citizens’ every move. In Myanmar, a UN rapporteur found that Facebook had helped spread hate speech, contributing to the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims. At a time when fully half of the world’s population is connected to the Internet, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the technology that promised to give power to the powerless has ended up also hurting the very people it was supposed to help.
Openness allowed the Internet to become a global network that has fostered extraordinary innovation and empowered entrepreneurs, consumers, and political organizers. But along the way, some of the openness was lost, and darker forces took root.
Today, large technology companies have come to dominate the online experience, constantly gathering users’ personal data, often without their knowledge, and feeding it through proprietary algorithms to curate search results, recommendations, and news. Propagandists and extremists wishing to conceal their identities fund targeted ads and create armies of social media bots to push misleading or outright false content, robbing citizens of a basic understanding of reality. And authoritarians take advantage of technology to censor information and suppress dissent.
The United States invented the Internet, and from the beginning, it promoted its vision of an open and free Internet on the global stage. But today, U.S. leadership is largely absent as the platform is increasingly being weaponized. It’s time for Washington to overcome its techno-utopian belief that the Internet can fix itself and instead take active steps to ensure that the Internet is a tool to strengthen, not undermine, democratic values.
FROM HOPE TO DISAPPOINTMENT
The most commonly told origin story of
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