Tools or Weapons: What the Internet Hath Wrought


The breakthrough technology of the printing press nearly 700 years ago and the data revolution of the last few decades have, each in their own way, given the masses access to information as never before. Among other things, that flood of new information forever altered the established political order of their day.

Although seven centuries separated the invention of the Gutenberg Press and the beginning of the digital revolution, each begat substantial social and political upheaval. But the speed and breadth of the digital era’s impact will dwarf that of the printing press.

The spread of more easily reproducible printed information following the inception of the printing press in 1440 took 70 years to embolden populist challenges to the power of kings, elites, and the Catholic Church. Since computers became accessible to the public in the mid-70s, it took 30 years for social media to start transforming the cultural, political, and economic landscape. And just another 20 years to create a robust Artificial Intelligence (AI) ecosystem that will change our world even more.

Digital technology has already facilitated domestic rebellions against autocratic governments. On the downside, it also has given authoritarian governments a powerful weapon to manipulate democratic elections.

Two societal conditions make the digital era more threatening to all governments: how each era’s culture measures time and their level of literacy. Medieval Europe was an agrarian society, with 80 to 90 percent of the population tied to the seasons for growing crops or raising livestock. Time was measured in months, not days, hours, or minutes, as it is in the 21st century. In the early era of printing, there was more time to read and think about what was read. Social movements and politics moved at a slower pace.

The digital revolution, by contrast, is an essential commodity in the modern sense of time. For example, the importance of news about politics or economics, is often determined by how timely it is.

Social media platforms like X, YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook don’t typically deliver long tracts explaining the conditions and causes behind what made something newsworthy. That kind of information cannot be summarized in a tweet, which may or may not be accurate.

But readers expect to have information delivered quickly and to be easily understood, which means conclusions are easier to reach, even if the information behind them is scant.

Rumors provide misinformation when they innocently pass on incorrect information. And they distribute disinformation when they are used with the intent to push the instigator’s agenda through unverifiable facts.

Consider that rumors travel faster than thoughtful analysis. They point to victims and offenders with unreliable anecdotal information. They make for captivating narratives, which are then woven into conspiracies to explain a “version” of reality.

This trend negatively impacts democracies because citizens are responsible for appointing their leaders based on being informed voters. Receiving half the truth or a distorted truth leads to poorly informed choices about how a democratic government should function.

For example, manipulating digital information allows Russia and China to weaken American democracy to benefit their foreign policies. Their strategy is to spread disinformation to cause confusion and distrust of our institutions, as described in How Russia and China Pursue a Soft Regime Change in America.

Autocratic governments are not as vulnerable as democracies to disinformation campaigns because they feed their citizens a consistent line of censured domestic information and they filter foreign-generated internet news.

China, Russia, Iran, and other autocratic governments recognize that information on the internet can quickly foment powerful political movements that threaten their authority.

They do not want to experience what happened to Iran in 2019, when protests at peaceful gatherings spread to 21 cities within hours, as videos of the protest circulated online. The government forcibly shut them down, only to see 25,000 protestors gather months later, calling for the overthrow of the government and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Iran finally blocked the sharing of information showing the protests and the deaths of hundreds of protesters on social media platforms—their solution: foisting a near-total internet blackout of around six days.

The second condition that separates the printing and digital eras is the extent of a population’s literacy. Minimal literacy never rose above 30 percent before 1500, and it took 200 years for the printing press to raise Europe’s literacy rate to 48 percent. Since books were the primary source of information, the audience was mostly limited to the social elite of nobility or wealthy gentry who owned them.

But for the 10 percent of the European population who lived in cities and were literate, the printed word led to the development of pamphlets. Briefer than books, and typically focused on just one issue, they punctured papal infallibility and the divine rule of monarchs.

Martin Luther, a professor of moral theology, printed his “Ninety-five Theses” in 1517. It condemned the Roman Catholic Church and ignited the Protestant Reformation against the Pope. In France, so many insurrectionary pamphlets supported the Reformation that government edicts prohibited them.

The printing press overturned the Roman Catholic Church’s thousand-year political domination in Europe, but it took decades for the Church to ultimately lose control over written material and powerful ideas.

Long-established political hierarchies also crumbled due to the efforts of print media. The influence of pamphlets was especially potent in the 18th Century. Two of them contributed to the overthrow of the French monarchy and a successful revolt against Britain, the greatest power in Europe: Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s pamphlet, “The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right in 1762, and Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” in 1776.

The impact of pamphlets back then is comparable to the power of social media today to empower individuals and groups to proliferate news through the internet that exposes governments’ faults, weaknesses, and corruption. 

Although the Internet became functional in 1983, less than 2 percent of the world’s population used it before the World Wide Web (WWW) was opened to the public in 1991. Sixteen years later, 65% of the world’s population uses the Internet for instant information, entertainment, news, and social interactions.

Consequently, literacy is no longer confined to just reading printed material; it enables the sharing of ideas and learning new information (yes, even by watching videos on social media!). With billions of citizens of every country on the Internet, digital information has greater power to inform and influence people’s beliefs than the printed press ever did.

The digital age is seeing autocracies and democracies worldwide challenged from outside and inside their boundaries, within a fraction of the time the printed press did so on just one continent. 

A democratic government’s role in the digital age is to keep information accessible to everyone. The challenge for democracies is to avoid having the internet become a weapon to destroy democracies that make open access to information possible.

A path forward is to teach each generation that citizenship should protect individuals’ freedoms and the community’s welfare, as described in Citizenship—Bridging Individualism & Community to Sustain our Democracy. If we act as thoughtful, responsible citizens, the digital age can strengthen democratic governance, not threaten it.

Nick Licata
Nick Licata
Nick Licata, was a 5 term Seattle City Councilmember, named progressive municipal official of the year by The Nation, and is founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of 1,000 progressive municipal officials. Author of Becoming a Citizen Activist. Subscribe to Licata’s newsletter Urban Politics


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