The Internet and Engaged Citizenship


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David Karpf
Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship

The intent of this paper has been threefold: (1) to give readers a historical reference point for current controversies in digital politics, (2) to illuminate the unique challenges that make the accumulation of knowledge in this field more difficult than in more stable fields, and (3) to highlight current themes and debates that are particularly worthy of our attention. Let me conclude by summarizing briefly key takeaways for researchers, policy-makers, and practitioners.

The Upside of Internet Time

The trouble with Internet Time is that it destabilizes the steady accumulation of knowledge. The role that today’s social media plays in civic life is different from the role that Web 2.0 played in civic life a decade ago, or the infobahn or early virtual communities played in the decades before that. It can feel at times like the Red Queen’s Race in Through the Looking-Glass, running faster and faster in pursuit of knowledge, only to find ourselves in the same place.53

But the upside of Internet Time is that we don’t have to look very far back to find historical precursors to our current social problems. Fields of inquiry like online political polarization, disinformation, online political participation, and civic technology have existed in a state of semi-permanent inception for decades now. Today’s Internet may be different from yesterday’s Internet, but it bears enough similarities to invite rigorous comparison. We can mine this digital history for patterns, tracing the ebb and flow of social panics and identifying the most worrisome trends. We can also improve our understanding of social phenomena by comparing today’s digital media to yesterday’s digital media instead of perpetually harkening back to fading memories of a social order that was built around the older media technologies of the telephone, newspaper, radio, and television.

The first step to understanding digital politics in Internet time is to stop treating digital media as though they are entirely new.


  • 53Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871).

Bridging the Proprietary Data Gap

The proprietary data gap will get worse unless we intentionally narrow it. The era of “big data” is shaping up to be one in which public knowledge is limited by the types of data that digital platform companies make available to the research community. If we are not careful, the only social scientists who will be equipped to assess the impact of social media on civic life will be the ones employed by the social media companies themselves. The only research that will be published will be research that increases short-term shareholder value for the companies that own the data.

Bridging the proprietary data gap will require active participation from researchers, tech firms, policy-makers, and concerned citizens. There are, at present, two existing models worth exploring further. First is Social Science One, a new partnership between Facebook and academic researchers, led by Gary King of Harvard and Nathaniel Persily of Stanford.54  Social Science One includes a panel of academic experts that scrutinizes research proposals for their scientific and ethical merit, funding commitments from multiple nonprofit foundations, and data access from Facebook for research on “the effects of social media on democracy and elections.” Though it is too early to evaluate the success of this initiative, it is clearly a positive development that should be monitored and potentially adopted elsewhere (the first set of awards in this competition were announced in spring 2019).

The second model builds from the long tradition of technology firms setting up independent research laboratories that are given free rein to conduct basic research of all sorts (Xerox PARC and Bell Labs, most famously). Some of the best critical data studies have been published by researchers employed by Microsoft Research and researchers at Data & Society, an independent research institute established through a major gift from Microsoft. Not only are these research institutes better positioned within technology circles than traditional social science departments, they are also able to convene researchers and publish publicly relevant research in a more timely manner than existing peer-reviewed journals can. Where the Social Science One model creates a structure for public researchers to access proprietary data from the platforms, the Microsoft Research/Data & Society model creates a structure for public researchers to study the platforms themselves.

What might a Bell Labs/Xerox PARC, devoted to studying the intersection of technology and civil society, look like if it had support from Google, Apple, Facebook, or Amazon?


New Policy Challenges for the Platform Era

On March 30, 2019, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post titled “The Internet needs new rules. Let’s start in these four areas.”55  Perhaps the most noteworthy part of the column is the fact that Zuckerberg felt the need to write it at all. Certainly, it is a far cry from John Perry Barlow’s famed 1996 “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.”56  Rather than rebelling against the very concept that governments should regulate the Internet, Facebook’s CEO is now openly inviting regulation in the areas of harmful content, protecting elections, data privacy, and data portability.

Suffice to say, Zuckerberg did not arrive at his conclusion spontaneously. Alongside those four problems, many policy analysts would add a fifth—antitrust regulation of online monopolies, Facebook among them.57  Specific policy recommendations fall outside the purview of this paper, but it is appropriate to note here that these are different policy problems than we faced with the Internet of the 1990s or the Internet of the 2000s. Governance and regulation in the platform era must start from a clear understanding of how the platforms operate, how people use them for good and for ill, and how the Internet continues to change.

The Internet of 2019 is not a finished product. The choices made by technologists, investors, policy-makers, lawyers, and engaged citizens will all shape what the medium becomes next.