Populism in the internet age

After decades of promise, the internet is finally starting to transform politics, just not in the way that we would have expected. In the ‘90s, digital prophets were riding a wave of optimism for our online future. The internet presented the chance to bring people together and to create e-citizens, who are more informed and open-minded. However, now, the internet is an overwhelming mess of contradictory facts and claims, misinformation, and propaganda. So, the main question becomes, who benefits from this, and in particular what role does populist politics have to play in the current chaos of the internet world.

In the internet world, Twitter is a news agency where populists can claim their hostile chants of “fake news”. In fact, there are no longer dominant information suppliers, with e-citizens not even paying attention to those that are propagating the message anymore. The consequence is that all sources now compete equally, regardless of their reputation or their factual basis. In her essay, “The weakness of truth”, the French philosopher Myriam Revault d’Allonnes touches on a structural change between truth and lies, saying that we are in a ‘post-truth era’. In this era, facts become a matter of opinion and the ground-truth narrative that allowed a discussion of the world common to all of us is threatened. Populist politicians who play with duelling narratives and public opinion are the primary beneficiaries of this new era where the truth becomes secondary.

TrumpIn the internet world, 40% of the population has a Facebook account, and this is a tool for populists’ opinions to appear as having a consensus. The societal impact of information is based on how many users are receptive to it. Research shows that by repeating ideas enough, listeners start to believe it. In 2016, Donald Trump’s digital campaigners understood this new structure of information was spreading. They bought domain names en masse, added pro-Trump articles on them, and used ‘bots’ – an automated account that is programmed to look like people – to leverage information. The goal of this operation was to make Trump and his ideas appear as having consensus on social media. Then, the internet became a strong instrument in a political campaign, as the one of Trump, to legitimise artificially populist opinions.

In the internet world, social media seem to be linked with populist’s aims, which are to destroy our collective institutions. In his book “The Revolt of the Public”, Martin Gurri proposes that the ultimate effect of social media is undermining collective credibility around public institutions, such as the government or the press. Populist politicians benefit and exacerbate this undermining. In France, for example, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French far-right party, continues to stir up the idea that France’s leaders govern against citizens’ interests, and against the country itself. When Emmanuel Macron signed the Aix-la-Chapelle treaty, Le Pen claimed that the president was looking to cede Alsace to Germany. In reality, the treaty’s aim was to reinforce transnational cooperation. This situation shows that successful politicians may be now those who stir up various forms of hysteria and populist rhetoric, rather than the one who promote a collective project to improve our society.

However, in the internet world, political power grows out of the screen of a smartphone and populists could not be the only ones who can benefit from it. We can still hope that this world would give us a new generation of political talent, a new way of political commitment, or even new forms of exercising politics.

by Arthur Dinhof

Is your internet service provider throttling you?

Net neutrality can be defined as the principle that an internet service provider (ISP) such as AT&T or Verizon treat all the legal data online equally regardless of its sender and receiver.  Thus, under net neutrality, ISPs are not able to slow down, block or charge an extra fee to consumers for certain content. It is the way Internet has always worked so far.

There has been a strong debate on net neutrality for a while, and the different parties involved both have strong arguments on whether it should or should not be abolished.

On the one hand, we have ISPs claiming that without net neutrality they would be able to manage congestion more efficiently. Moreover, abolishing net neutrality would provide them more incentives to invest in capacity, thus leading to faster overall service.

On the other hand, we have content providers (CPs) such as Google and Netflix arguing that the net neutrality regime has been one of the main drivers of growth and innovation on the internet. Without net neutrality, it would be very difficult for new companies to thrive, thus limiting innovation on the web.

In December 2017, the FCC voted against net neutrality, and the annulment took effect in June 2018.

David Choffness, an Assistant Professor in Computer Science at Northwestern University, developed the mobile application “Wehe”, which allows you to observe whether your data is being throttled by your ISP.  Throttling can be defined as web content working poorly, such as a streaming service having low quality instead of HD. The Wehe app has been downloaded by more than 100 000 consumers all over the globe.  Results published in the News@Northwestern, a platform with the latest news, updates, and announcements from Northwestern University, show that almost every ISP in the USA is throttling data.

The most concerning observation is that it seems that ISPs did not even wait for the bill to go into effect because throttling started as early as January 2018. Also, from January to May, the app detected differentiation on throttling. Differentiation can be defined as when a certain type of network is more throttled than another. Indeed, CPs such as Netflix, YouTube, and Amazon (video) have reported that their network has been performing poorly.

Early economic research on net neutrality, prior to the bill, did not reach a consensus on a correct way to implement policies regarding its end. However, a few studies such as Peitz et al (2015) and Choi et al (2014, 2015) suggest that there exist some gains from rationing data i.e. ending net neutrality. For example, throttling certain sites might lead to a better performance in other time-sensitive sites such as Skype. Delaying other less time-sensitive sites will have little impact in social-cost as the real cost is just an inconvenience because content will still be delivered.

Whether users are better off under this setup i.e. without net neutrality, will depend on whether the gains outweigh the distortions created by throttling. Indeed, an important point is determining who will end up paying for the “prioritise delivery”: users or CPs. Consequently, it is important to define how the ISPs will adjust their fees. It is particularly difficult to do so since we are dealing with a two-sided market.

 A major concern according to Choi (2010) is the fact that ISPs could manage congestion such as to extract rents. For example, in peak hours they could offer a slow delivery service for “free” and a paid premium fast delivery, therefore engaging in price discrimination. Moreover, according to Musso and Rossen (1978), the ISPs could degrade the free service on purpose to force users or CPs to subscribe to the premium service. If everyone subscribes to the premium service, then, unless ISPs invest in capacity, the premium service would not be any faster than the regular one.

However, Choffes’ results show that ISPs are currently throttling 24/7. For the moment, it does not seem that they will engage in on-peak/off-peak pricing. Nevertheless, there is clearly differentiation and streaming sites seem to be targeted more than others. Concerning fees, there have not been any modifications since early 2017, when ISPs increased their fees.

In conclusion, for the moment the end of net-neutrality does not seem to have a positive impact on consumers nor CPs. ISPs have started to distort their service; yet, we do not have enough evidence to determine their next steps. The only certain fact is that more changes are coming in the future.

by Saí Bravo