2  Core terms and (ridiculously) brief history

“Don’t know where we’re going, but there’s no sense being late”. – Quote from the movie Quigley Down Under (1990).

One of the most important challenges societies face today is how to make sense of digital media. Mechanisms, conditions, and opportunities of and for their uses remain unclear. The only thing obvious is that a lot of people have different expectations:

Writing in 1996, the early cyber-activist and lyricist for the Grateful Dead John Perry Barlow declared the promise of digital media:

“We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.”

Barlow (1996)

In 2017 Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spoke about the promise of connection through digital media:

“For the past decade, we’ve focused on making the world more open and connected. We’re not done yet and we will continue working to give people a voice and help people connect. But even as we make progress, our society is still divided. So now I believe we have a responsibility to do even more. It’s not enough to simply connect the world; we must also work to bring the world closer together.”

Zuckerberg (2017)

But the mood has turned darker since those days. In 2021, speaking about the supposed role of digital media in spreading doubts about the vaccine against the novel Corona virus, the President of the United States of America Joe Biden declared:

“They’re killing people.”

Kanno-Young & Kang (2021)

And doing some performative thinking about artificial intelligence Tesla CEO Elon Musk mused:

“I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I were to guess like what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that. (…) With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon.”

McFarland (2014)

So what is it? Are digital media a blessing or a course? Let’s have a look at the ledger.

Clearly, digital media have brought some good. They have opened up discourses for new voices. They have allowed new parties to emerge and compete in elections. They also have allowed societies, organizations, and people to gain new insights and improve.

But clearly, digital media have also brought a lot of bad. They have allowed challengers to diverse and inclusive societies to compete and mount their attack on open societies. They have allowed people to publish and widely distribute false or misleading information about politics, society, and health. They have also opened up discourse to many discriminatory and downright hateful voices whose only goal seems to be to attack and denigrate those with different beliefs.

In short, digital media are neither uniformly good or bad for society or democracy. They are both. So, the question is, how to capitalize on the good digital media bring while mitigating the bad? This lecture series is here to assist you in this task. The goal of this lecture series is to help you to make sense of digital technology - the changes it brings, the opportunities it provides, and the challenges it presents.


The goal of this lecture series is to help you to make sense of of digital technology - the changes it brings, the opportunities it provides, and the challenges it presents.

In order to do so, we look at some of the biggest controversies about the uses of digital media in politics and society. We look beyond the headlines and see what scientific evidence is available, how this evidence is produced, and what it does tell us about the role of digital media in politics and society. This podcast will introduce you to the best available evidence on ongoing controversies, enable you to ask better questions on the role of digital media in politics and society, and show you the tools that allow you to answer them.

Here are the main topics, we will be talking about:

Digital media are hear to stay. No matter how much some people might wish, there is no way back to a time and politics before. So, we’d better start figuring out how this works.

Like the man says: “I don’t know where we’re going, but there’s no sense bein’ late.”1

Time to get a map!

2.1 Defining digital media

First, we need to be clear about how we are using the term digital media going forward. In talking about digital media we need to account both for the technology as well as the institutions and organizations that develop, provide, and maintain digital technology. In our book Retooling Politics Gonzalo Rivero, Daniel Gayo-Avello, and I defined the term digital media accordingly as:

“We refer to institutions and infrastructures that produce and distribute information encoded in binary code. On the one hand, this anchors us with uses of a specific technology: the production, encoding, storing, distributing, decoding, and consumption of information in binary code. On the other hand, it allows us to broadly discuss institutions, organizations, and practices associated with the use of this specific technology.”

Jungherr et al. (2020), p. 7-8.

This definition foregrounds that in order to examine the impact of digital media on society, we need to move beyond digital media narrowly understood as technology and account for their societal embedding. At the same time, technological aspects are also important and cannot be neglected. Accordingly, digital media in politics and society can be studied on different levels: We can study digital media by focusing on technology, the affordances they provide to users and providers, user psychology, or societal structures digital media are embedded in, shape, and mutually are shaped by. Focusing on either of these levels alone won’t tell the full story of how digital media work in politics and society. Instead, we need to combine findings from different analytical approaches in order to understand where different levels interact, opportunities emerge, or where there are limits on the impact of digital media on politics and society.

For example, it might be that people encounter misleading information in digital communication environments and on the basis of these information learn false facts or even be persuaded by a position misleadingly argued for.2 This would be a psychological effect. At the same time, people also encounter information on television, in newspapers, or in their social environment. As a consequence, they encounter many information directly contradicting the misleading information they encountered online. Accordingly, they can be expected to unlearn the information they picked up. Social structures - news media or social embeddedness - thus counteract the structure digital communication environments and limit the strength of effects only emerging there. To think about digital media in politics and society sensibly, we need to account for both these levels and their interaction. If we neglect this, we will misdiagnose their impact. Only focusing on the psychological effects of digital media, we would overestimate the effect of digital media on society. Only focusing on the structural embeddedness alternatively would mean underestimating their effect. Only the combination of both levels allows us to characterize the role of digital media in politics and society correctly. This will be a recurring motive going forward.

2.2 Characteristics of digital media

In the discussion of digital media’s impact on politics and society, four characteristics of digital technology keep reappearing. They are:

  • Digitization and digitalization,
  • Lowered information costs,
  • Interactivity, and
  • Networks.

2.2.1 Digitization and Digitalization

The success of digital technology lies in the power of encoding wide varieties of information in an uniform format. In his history of digital technology the information scientists Robin Boast describes this process:

“(…) what makes the digital, as we use it today, digital is that the combination of ons and offs, in very specific albeit complex ways, encodes information. Over the past 150 years these codes have encoded all types of information, including all of our media. Translating or encoding something, a mediation, into a code of ons and offs - this is digital, and this is the foundation of all digital technology.”

Boast (2017), p. 10.

Digitization is the process of transforming analogue information into digital bits and making them thereby subject to computational operations.3 By digitizing information or processes digital technology can lead to a shift within or between organizations. Early adopters can develop competitive advantages given their uses of digitized information. For example, by digitizing contact information of supporters, a political organization might develop a more efficient way to collect donations and thereby outperform competitors. Digital information might allow an actor or organization to pursue their goals more efficiently, but their goals and behavior remain the same as before.

In contrast, digitalization refers to shifts in the goals, behavior, or nature of actors and organizations in order to capitalize on opportunities provided by digital technology. For example, digitizing information and processes might allow a political organization to more efficiently collect donations from supporters. In turn, this might lead to existing organizations transforming in order to better capitalize on these opportunities or even new organizations emerging that are inherently optimized to the opportunities provided by digital media and distinct from previous organizations. Examples for transformations like these can be found in the Obama Presidential campaign 2008 and the activism organization MoveOn.org.4

Analytically, digitization allows us to focus on the process and the impact of information being digitized or measured in the first place. Digitalization on the other hand foregrounds the transformative processes within organizations, structures, or fields attempting to capitalize on these new opportunities. We will come back to both these processes throughout the course of this lecture series.

2.2.2 Lowered information costs

Another key feature of digital technology is the massively lowering in the cost of publishing, distributing, accessing, and archiving digital information.5 By lowering the costs of information, nearly everyone can publish information, political analysis, or commentary online at little cost. Once published, anyone with an internet connection can access this information. As a result, we find ourselves in a situation of information abundance, where we can find seemingly endless content corresponding with our interests or needs.

At first, information abundance might seem like a good thing. More information provides people with the basis to make better decisions and allows them better to control elites and the government. But looking closely, things are more complicated. Information abundance weakens gatekeepers by allowing voices and positions to route around their selection decisions. This can broaden discourse but also threaten it once opponents of open and democratic societies gain a foothold in the public arena. By providing information alternatives to commercial information providers and providing attractive alternatives for ad display, digital media weaken the economic foundations of news production and news as a business. Finally, information abundance allows people to avoid political news much more effectively than in the past and thereby to opt out from the provision of political information altogether. Taken together, these unexpected consequences of information abundance might harm democracies by weakening the foundations of its underlying information environment. We will come back to these developments in the sessions on the challenge to institutions and discursive power.

2.2.3 Interactivity

Past media technologies have been characterized as one-to-many broadcast communication systems.6 Examples include newspapers, radio, or television. A journalist can communicate through print or broadcast media with an audience. This makes it one-to-many communication. This set of media technologies allows a small set of people with access to mass media to communicate with an audience of many people. But these technologies do not allow the audience to speak back. As a consequence, one-to-many communication systems are seen to support existing political, economic, and social power structures.

Digital media provide an alternative to this one-directional form of communication. They provide interactivity by allowing the audience to speak back.7 Digital media allow people to publish information, for example on websites or on social media profiles. This broadens the set of people able to communicate with large audiences from the comparatively small set of professional editors or journalists. But various features of digital media also allow the audience to speak back, be it through comments on sites directly available to anyone reading the original article or by speaking back on their own websites or social media profiles. Digital media allow many to communicate with many.

While digital media featured opportunities for many-to-many communication from its beginning, interactivity has been discussed most prominently in the context of the so-called Web 2.0. The label Web 2.0 refers to a set of technological developments, user-centric practices, and business models that shifted internet use from information publishing, finding, and consuming toward engagement between users and authors. This enabled realtime exchanges on websites and platforms, thereby opening up the range of active participation for internet users. This technological shift was accompanied with a burst of think-pieces on the new interactive nature of digital technology allowing for true dialogue between internet users and political, economic, or social elites. By allowing for greater interactivity, Web 2.0 technology was seen as a leveler to power inequalities between elites and the public.8 Today interactivity is seen more critically, be it as a tool for elites to merely pretend to be accessible or as a channel for unruly and uncivil user comments threatening to derail political discourse. We will come back to this when we discuss digital media as challenge to institutions and the public arena.

2.2.4 Networks

The final characteristic of digital media, that we need to discuss is the network.9 Digital media connect people. This leads to the emergence of digitally connected social networks. Through these networks information travels quickly allowing for the quick and wide distribution of information. But these networks can also be used in order to coordinate people around causes or to spread the word about grievances or participatory opportunities.

The network characteristic of digital media provides alternatives to more established forms of political organization and has been seen by some as decisively supporting political activism. Accordingly, the role of digital media in international protests has been prominently discussed, examples include the events surrounding the Arab Spring of 2010, the Occupy protests of 2011, or the Black Lives Matter protests of 2013 and later. Others have pointed to the weaknesses of digital networks as an alternative to political organizations. While digital networks have been strong in channeling enthusiasm into demonstrations of support online or political action, they have proven weak in translating this energy into lasting political action or initiatives. Declaring the death of political organizations as we know them might thus be premature. We come back to these issues when we will be talking about the challenge to institutions.

2.3 A (ridiculously) brief history of digital media

When we talk about digital media today, we mainly talk about their negative effects on society. We lament the power of monopolistic platforms like Amazon, Facebook, or Google. We share scare stories about the supposed impact of Russian bots on US elections. We worry about the climate of political discourse in face of rough and uncivil exchanges online. Wherever we look, digital media appear as a threat. This was not always the case.10

In the heady days of the nineteen-nineties - when digital technology was in its fifties, the internet was 21, and the World Wide Web had just seen the light of day - people saw the internet predominantly as a medium of liberation and empowerment.11 The ability to publish websites independently or to communicate freely and pseudonymously on internet fora was seen as an opportunity for people whose voices were previously unrecognized to find each other and get their voices heard. These expectations gained broad traction in society in the early two-thousands. The dot-com crash in March 2000 devaluated the stock of many companies in digital tech. In the attempt of creating new excitement about digital technology, digital entrepreneurs started to talk about the Web 2.0 and associated technological innovations that enabled greater degrees of user interactivity than the previous version of the world wide web. Interaction, connection, and user empowerment became powerful narratives of the time.

But Web 2.0 did not only empower users. If anything it empowered technology companies even more. While the power of the world wide web lay in the ability of users to publish websites without support of companies or institutions, Web 2.0s backbone was provided by a few large companies: Alphabet (formerly Google), Amazon, Apple, and Meta (formerly Facebook) emerged as powerful players achieving all but monopoly status in their chosen field. The power of these companies led to many accounts lionizing the achievements of their founders and CEOs.12 At the same time, voices critiquing their power and increasing reach into ever more areas of society emerged.

Economists tend to emphasize the economic opportunities emerging from platform business models.13 By allowing market participants to find each other, platform companies create business opportunities and value, where there was none before. Prototypical examples include Airbnb - a company connecting people looking for a place to stay and those willing to sublet apartments - or Uber - a company connecting people looking for a ride and those willing to provide taxi services.

In contrast, sociologists and media scholars tend to point to the dangers of emerging power imbalances between platform companies and market participants.14 They warn against the associated powers of platform companies to shape the production conditions and structures of markets they come to dominate. Platform business have also been critiqued for bypassing regulation - such as Airbnb circumventing tourism restrictions and bed-limits set by city governments, or Uber by circumventing labor laws by treating drivers not as employees but instead as independent contractors. Outside Silicon Valley this critical view of platforms and the underlying business models has come to dominate public and regulatory discourse.

The critical view of digital media has become so widespread that some have diagnosed a “techlash” of late – a backlash against digital technology.15 Beside the business practices of platform companies and their dominant market power, actual and perceived transgressions of technology companies or their founders have contributed to this. Apparent negligence by tech companies in reigning in malicious actors like the English consultancy Cambridge Analytica, or curbing hate speech, or stopping the spread of misinformation have all contributed to their image in public and among regulators to suffer severely. In fact, the dominant view at the moment seems to be that technology companies are a threat to democracy and healthy societies. Nevermind that the empirical evidence is indicating that the effects of malicious actors like Cambridge Analytica is all but neglectable and that the spread of misinformation online appears to be exaggerated. While digital media are clearly an arena where political conflicts of the day are staged, their causal role in the widely diagnosed deterioration of political competition and discourse is far from certain.

The bad news is that digital media probably never were as beneficial for society as the early proponents believed. The good news is, that the flip side to this argument is also likely to be true: Digital media are probably far from so detrimental as feared by their detractors today. While the good was never as good as hoped for, at least the bad is not as bad we sometimes fear.

The more discerning readers are probably just about to point out that this (very) brief history of digital media was actually a (very) brief history of US digital media. As always, the more discerning readers are correct. The discussion of digital media and its role in the world is still predominantly told based on cases from the USA. But this is limiting. While ten years ago one could reasonably make the case that the largest digital technology companies were based in the US, this is no longer the case. For example, in the meantime Chinese companies have grown into powerful providers of digital platforms used all over the world, think TikTok or WeChat. They even have developed into important providers of digital hardware providing the technological backbone for digital communication all over the world, think Huawei.16 This means two things going forward. For one, the provision and regulation of digital media will become much more subject to geopolitical considerations and competition than it has in the past. But more broadly, it also means that academics need to widen their gaze from a predominant fixation on observations based on Western countries or the USA and account for the uses and effects of digital media in other international contexts.

2.4 Cultures

Already this (very) brief history of digital media shows that many different groups of people have worked on the development, roll-out, application, and regulation of digital media over time. This includes the military and the security apparatus of states, scientists, coders, counter-culture figures, business people, and enthusiasts. The influence of these groups waxes and wanes over time depending on external events, new innovations, or shifts in societal, economic, or political power balances. Each of these groups shares specific interests, sensibilities, and concerns making it distinct from the others. As a consequence, they see digital media, its promises, and associated dangers differently from each other.

It is only natural for military or security specialists to emphasize security threats and demand better tools allowing for greater control of digital communication. It is just as natural for libertarians to shy away from control and instead emphasize opportunities emerging from free and open communication. Business entrepreneurs and economists see the good new business opportunities on digital media bring, while those critical of capitalism in general will chafe at what they perceive as exploitation. There is truth in many of these positions, while each one on its own is limiting and risks misrepresenting digital media and its role in politics and society.

One could tell the (very) brief history of digital media and the shift from enthusiasm to fear in public perception as a story of shifting influence between different societal groups and the respective prominence of their view of digital media. According to this reading, the diagnoses of the role and impact of digital media in society and politics did not change, only the influence of groups and accordingly the prominence of their view of digital media.

The theoretician of the early internet Manuel Castells identifies in a dated but illustrative section of his 2001 book The Internet Galaxy four cultures shaping the history of digital media:

“(…) the techno-meritocratic culture, the hacker culture, the virtual communitarian culture, and the entrepreneurial culture. Together they contribute to an ideology of freedom that is widespread in the Internet world.”

Castells (2001), p. 37.

For Castells, internet culture takes it techno-meritocratic element from the engineering and academic roots of the developers and users of the early internet. This element brings the valuation of reputation, openness of arguments to challenge through public exchange, and credit given for originators of ideas or arguments. This culture is currently probably most visible in developer communities around the internet encyclopedia Wikipedia and open source software development.17

To the techno-meritocratic element, he adds the culture of hacking. This refers to a culture of continuous tinkering and improving of software within a decentralized community of practice contributing to the development of technological standards and software.18 It also refers to a culture of challenging authorities by finding, exploiting, or making public weaknesses within software, systems, or processes.

The communitarian influence adds another layer to these highly meritocratic but also competitive and sometimes harsh elements driven by academic, engineering, and hacking influences. The communitarian element is driven by the normative counter cultural influences that were so important among the early adopters of the internet outside of academia.19 For Castells, this layer of internet culture is formed by the valuation of hierarchy-free, horizontal communication among users, free speech independent of potential censorship by governments or mass media, and the chance for free participation of users contributing to the shared community space.

In addition to these layers that sometimes overlap and sometimes are in conflict, there comes the entrepreneurial and commercial layer of internet culture. For Castells, this represents the expectation of participants in the development of digital technology to be financially rewarded. Here, technological development is not just about the free sharing of technology and insights, as for scientists or hackers, and not about enabling free speech, exchange, and participation for users, as for communitarians, it is about monetizing the development of tools and services.

At different points in time, the tensions between these different layers become evident. In the early naughts, enthusiasm around the social web, or the Web 2.0, seemed to offer a surprising harmony between these elements. Engineers and hackers were working hand in hand to develop new technology, services, and features for digital media. Those, increasing ease of use, and dropping costs of connectivity added new attractions to an ever increasing base of internet users which were drawn online. Entrepreneurs funded by venture capital and driven by the hopes of future riches, were happy to offer their tools and services apparently free of charge. At the same time, they rhetorically aligning themselves with the values of communitarians, emphasizing the importance of dialogue among equal users, conversations, and the participatory power of using digital tools and services in shaking up commercial, social, and political hierarchies. These declarations have been subsequently criticized as hollow gestures with the term Californian Ideology.20 Yet, this critique largely remained academic until a series of shocks made the inherent contradictions among the layers of internet culture apparent to all.

The NSA spying scandal and the involvement of important players in the digital industry made painfully visible the ongoing interconnection between the military /espionage / industrial complex and the internet economy that was inherent from the start of the development of digital technology financed by the US military.21 The widespread coverage of the scandal led to a sudden increase in public awareness of digital technology allowing for widespread mass surveillance. This raised a painful contradiction to the claims of personal empowerment and free speech routinely associated with the use of digital media.

In early 2018, there emerged another controversy that illustrated the tension between the commercial interests of digital entrepreneurs and the users of their services. The scandal surrounding the massive collection of information on users on Facebook by the consultancy company Cambridge Analytica made the public suddenly aware of the amounts of access online platforms routinely allowed third parties to the data of their users. While Facebook’s business model had been no secret, the details surrounding Cambridge Analytica illustrated for many for the first time the breadth and scale of data third parties were able to access. The emerging controversy made painfully clear that the commercial interests of entrepreneurs did not necessarily align with the communitarian values of early user communities allowing for free expression and exchange. Although continuously present in public statements and press releases these values were apparently mattered little in the business decisions guiding the monetization of digital platforms and tools.

This goes to show that even in the early days, there was not only one way of looking at digital media. Instead there were multiple approaches, multiple groups of people, multiple goals, and multiple norms. Sometimes, these approaches aligned, sometimes they contradicted each other. At times some approaches dominated but then were replaced by others. The way of seeing digital media depends on conditions of the time and which group with their view of digital media currently dominates. More than likely, this also holds for the currently dominante negative view on digital media and its impact on society and politics.

2.5 Review questions

  1. Please define “digital media” according to Jungherr et al. (2020).
  2. Please list four characteristics of “digital media” discussed in the lecture.
  3. Please list the four cultures of the internet as identified by Castells.
  4. Please list and discuss the analytical levels by which we can assess the impact of digital media on society. Please present an example on how the interaction of these levels can change our assessment of this impact.
  5. Castells lists four cultures of the internet. Please discuss whether you find these concepts still hold, if some are missing, whether and why time has rendered some obsolete.

  1. Quote from the movie Quigley Down Under (1990). Director: Simon Wincer. Script by John Hill↩︎

  2. For more on disinformation in digital communication environments, see our session on Targeting, manipulation, and disinformation later this semester.↩︎

  3. On the contrast between digitization and digitalization see also Brennen & Kreiss (2016).↩︎

  4. For examples for digitalization in action within political organizations see Kreiss (2012) for the Obama campaign 2008 and Karpf (2012) for MoveOn.org.↩︎

  5. For a core text on the economic consequences of lowering information costs by digital technology see Shapiro & Varian (1999). For two key texts on the political effects of lowered information costs see Neuman (1991), Bimber (2003).↩︎

  6. For classic theories of mass communication see Laswell (1948), Katz & Lazarsfeld (1955).↩︎

  7. On the concept of interactivity see Quiring (2016). For an optimistic account of what happens to the news once the audience speak back see Rosen (2006).↩︎

  8. For examples of the somewhat exuberant hopes regarding interactivity and Web 2.0 see Levine et al. (2000), O’Reilly (2005). For an early critical view of digitally enabled interactivity on websites by politicians see Stromer-Galley (2000).↩︎

  9. For a broad discussion of the role of networks in society see Easley & Kleinberg (2010). For a powerful account of digitally networked activism see Tufekci (2017). For more on the forms of digitally networked activism see Bennett & Segerberg (2013). For the limits of digitally networked activism see Gurri (2018).↩︎

  10. For a actor-focused attempt at a history of the digital age and key inventions see Isaacson (2014). For a broad history of Silicon Valley and the economic, political, and social contexts see O’Mara (2019). For an early history of the development of the internet see Hafner & Lyon (1996).↩︎

  11. For typical accounts of the expected empowering features of digital media see Rheingold (1993), Levine et al. (2000). For an ideational history see Turner (2006). On a sympathetic participant’s view of the so-called Web 2.0’s history see O’Reilly (2017).↩︎

  12. For an account of the major companies see Galloway (2017). On Google see Auletta (2009), Levy (2011). On Amazon see Stone (2013), Stone (2021). On Paypal and its aftershocks see Soni (2022). On Facebook see Levy (2020). On Instagram see Frier (2020). On YouTube see Bergen (2022).↩︎

  13. For optimistic accounts of the opportunities provided by platforms see Rochet & Tirole (2006), Evans & Schmalensee (2016), Parker et al. (2016). On some of the prototypical platform companies like Airbnb or Uber see Stone (2017).↩︎

  14. For critical accounts of platforms see van Dijck et al. (2018). For some of the challenges of regulation platform companies like Uber see Thelen (2018).↩︎

  15. On the techlash see Hoffmann (2020). On the limited evidence for the negative direct impact of technology companies on the political ills of the day see Acerbi (2020), Mercier (2020), Jungherr et al. (2020), Jungherr & Schroeder (2021). On Theranos and the proverbial fall of grace of a founder see Carreyou (2018). On Facebook see Frenkel & Kang (2021). On Uber see Isaac (2019). On WeWork see Brown & Farrell (2021). On Peter Thiel see Chafkin (2021).↩︎

  16. On China’s tech company ecosystem see Fannin (2019) Tse (2015). On Alibaba see Clark (2016). On AI in China see Lee (2018). On the international reach of digital companies from China see Hillman (2021), Segal (2021).↩︎

  17. For Wikipedia and open source culture see Raymond (1999), Benkler (2011).↩︎

  18. For hacker culture see Levy (2010), Thompson (2019).↩︎

  19. For virtual communitarianism see Rheingold (1993), Turner (2006).↩︎

  20. For a critique of Californian Ideology see Barbrook & Cameron (1995).↩︎

  21. For background on the NSA spying scandal see Epstein (2017).↩︎