Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center conducted a large-scale canvassing of technology experts, scholars, corporate practitioners and government leaders. Some 1,537 responded to this effort between July 1 and Aug. 12, 2016 (prior to the late-2016 revelations about potential manipulation of public opinion via hacking of social media). They were asked: In the next decade, will public discourse online become more or less shaped by bad actors, harassment, trolls, and an overall tone of griping, distrust, and disgust?
In response to this question, 42% of respondents indicated that they expect “no major change” in online social climate in the coming decade and 39% said they expect the online future will be “more shaped” by negative activities. Those who said they expect the internet to be “less shaped” by harassment, trolling and distrust were in the minority. Some 19% said this. Respondents were asked to elaborate on how they anticipate online interaction progressing over the next decade. (See “About this canvassing of experts” for further details about the limits of this sample.)
Participants were also asked to explain their answers in a written elaboration and asked to consider the following prompts: 1) How do you expect social media and digital commentary will evolve in the coming decade? 2) Do you think we will see a widespread demand for technological systems or solutions that encourage more inclusive online interactions? 3) What do you think will happen to free speech? And 4) What might be the consequences for anonymity and privacy?
While respondents expressed a range of opinions from deep concern to disappointment to resignation to optimism, most agreed that people – at their best and their worst – are empowered by networked communication technologies. Some said the flame wars and strategic manipulation of the zeitgeist might just be getting started if technological and human solutions are not put in place to bolster diverse civil discourse.
A number of respondents predicted online reputation systems and much better security and moderation solutions will become near ubiquitous in the future, making it increasingly difficult for “bad actors” to act out disruptively. Some expressed concerns that such systems – especially those that remove the ability to participate anonymously online – will result in an altered power dynamic between government/state-level actors, the elites and “regular” citizens.
Anonymity, a key affordance of the early internet, is an element that many in this canvassing attributed to enabling bad behavior and facilitating “uncivil discourse” in shared online spaces. The purging of user anonymity is seen as possibly leading to a more inclusive online environment and also setting the stage for governments and dominant institutions to even more freely employ surveillance tools to monitor citizens, suppress free speech and shape social debate.
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