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Area of Impact: Media and Society

The Internet has always held promise as a tool for advancing social and cultural understanding.  It also provides unprecedented opportunities for individuals to connect, speak, be heard, and organize socially. Yet a number of respondents are concerned that the Internet could be fundamentally undermined if current technical and social trends around online media and communication are amplified into the future.

The use of algorithms will likely increase as a tool for curating and delivering news and information believed to be of relevant to particular users or communities. Participants note that these quickly evolving technologies may entrench selective exposure to information. In particular, search engines, social media platforms, and other online media providers may become so capable of returning tailored results that the “echo chamber” effect (where users receive information that increasingly reflects their current views and social behaviours) could become a dominant characteristic of future Internet.

Ultimately, the concerns raised are social ones – that the future Internet may widen social divides, reinforce prejudices, and deepen ethnic or societal rivalries, rather than eliminate them. Even where users have the ability to communicate outside of mediated channels and social media platforms, there are concerns that the “loudest voices” will nonetheless crowd out alternative views. Similarly, a number of participants from emerging economies expressed concern that traditional cultures, languages, and values may lost in a sea of foreign content.

As one commenter described the concern: the Internet of the future may “contribute the fragmentation of the public sphere.” Reflecting on the uncertainty of the future, however, one participant remarked that “we may head back to 1930s-like societies with dangerous ideologies and tribalization taking root -- or not.” Another noted that the simple “loss of human touch” as more communications is conducted online could have significant social and cultural consequences.

Furthermore, some have also raised concern that as more media and information sharing moves online, it may be easier to control, manipulate, and censor by third parties, including governments. Additionally, some consider that the future of professional journalism may be undermined, adding to the difficulty of determining what information is factual rather than fiction.

Key Challenges and Uncertainties Raised by our Community 

  • Internet creating more cultural divides rather than eliminating them, use of the Internet for creating social rivalry.
  • Internet’s growing role as a form of media and information, potential to undermine principles of journalism and the delivery of unbiased information. 
  • Potential for greater government control of the media as more information moves online.
  • Development of Internet media and social  “echo chambers” where beliefs are amplified or reinforced.
  • Internet media and social networks increasingly impacted by the “loudest voices” drown out the rest, impacting how the Internet is used in political and social discussions.
  • Loss of culture and challenges to existing cultural norms.
  • Basic patterns of human interaction being changed as a result of the Internet and social media.

Questions from our Community

  • Will the future Internet create more bridges between societies and cultures or lead to greater divides?
  • Will the Internet make neutral media institutions and unbiased journalism a thing of the past?  What impact would it have on society?
  • To what extent will diverse cultures be able to embrace the Internet without fear of losing their own values?