Digital interconnectedness was prophesized to usher in greater understanding between people. It was supposed to be good for democracy, political participation, and representation of disenfranchised segments of the population. Digital communication did some of these things, but failed to fulfill a range of other expectations. The golden age of information and communication technologies (ICTs) has witnessed greater political polarization, fiercer far-right, anti-immigration and authoritarian movements, and greater confusion within online interactions through mass oversupply of information. (1) Social media has brought like-minded people closer together, but widened the gap between opposing views. (2) Digital tribes have begun to cluster around their online tribal structures and developed hostile views toward opinion, news, and expression from other tribes. (3) Information-seeking behavior, long heralded as one of the strongest political tools of citizens, has been significantly manipulated by fake news. With the help of algorithmically generated search results and automated accounts known as bots that flood online debates with incorrect or old information, the very nature of information flow is disrupted. (4) Information overload did not make people more "rational" and strengthen their verification heuristics; it made them more emotional and automatic in their responses toward content validating their pre-existing biases. (5) By playing into the "feel good" aspect of human psychology, factually distorted news, produced in exponential quantities, have found a life of their own and influenced significant political processes, the most important of which being elections, the foundation of democracy.
Furthermore, perhaps more problematic is the role of technology companies in democratic participation. The social media revolution and its impact on social movements, political engagement, and information-seeking has rendered top social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube political actors, at least on par with media corporations. News feeds and featured posts are run by dedicated algorithms that are either tailored according to a user's past digital behavior, such as likes, comments, and engagement with posts, as well as advertisers who pay large sums of money to be featured. This puts technology companies at the center of political information-seeking and agenda-setting, two fundamental processes of democracy. Furthermore, hate speech, group-targeting, and fake news disseminated by bots significantly increase the volume of negative messaging online, incurring greater weight over how policies are communicated and how voter preferences are formed.
At the heart of the problem is the "intentions versus business model" debate: namely, the discussion over whether technology companies are deliberately, or at least passively, facilitating negative political messaging, or if the issue is more structural, belonging to the for-profit business model of technology as a vocation. Maximizing user engagement to increase revenue, for better or for worse, inevitably leads to more extreme or emotional messaging on social media platforms and balloons into disproportionate effect by platform algorithms. As far as algorithms are concerned, users' engagement volume, favorable or unfavorable, with cat videos and political violence belong to a similar demand pattern. The kind of political messaging users "like" and engage with, including political figures they support and share, lead to the appearance of similar figures and messages online, leading to self-generated and algorithmically supported filter bubbles. Without equal exposure to different views, users end up thinking their view is supported by the rest of the population and develop more extreme and entrenched opinions on politics. This has led to unprecedented levels of polarization over emotionally charged policy issues, fed by bot-generated news that fit into our version of events. Bombarded with information overload, we rely on heuristics; we end up sharing what our like-minded friends share and submerging into the opinion tribe we create for ourselves, with the help of a business model that monetizes our attention.
Digital Challenges to Democracy: Networked Feudalism
The mainstream understanding of digital feudalism builds upon the Habermassian interpretation of enclosure and distributionary monopoly to examine how political participation is negatively influenced by private technology actors. (6) According to this interpretation, technology companies' monopoly over "closed technologies," software and platforms that don't allow users to alter or modify interface, incurs significant biases over how users interact with digital communication, which in turn alters how political participation through these technologies reinforce centralized control structures, rather than participatory politics. If we accept the Marx-Engels influenced interpretation of feudalism as a system where the power rests with those that control modes of production, this logic is partly true. (7)
However, the definition needs some expansion, especially since the original understanding of feudalism refers to a rather different state of affairs than just centralized control structures. Feudalism in its origins and rationale orbits a military logic of creating a fighting caste that is organized into three layers of power separation: lords, their vassals, and fiefdoms. (8) Even when feudalism as a concept is stretched, it includes the clerical establishment--religion--and its binary oscillation between the wielders of armed authority in the control of the means of production. (9) The fundamental logic of feudalism is the supply of protection in exchange for service. Those with either material resources of protection, like the ability, authority, and legitimacy to raise an army, or religious capital, including the ability to bless, shame, or excommunicate with authority, oversee vassals and fiefs that supply the system either with military or non-military services. To that end, it is not those who control modes of production, but those who can coerce modes of production that accumulate the real power in feudalism. (10)
Therefore, the understanding of digital feudalism that is more in tune with technology would be rather different. First, it would have to entail a fundamental understanding of security and survival, since these two pillars form the basis of why feudalism emerged in the first place. Yes, cybersecurity is an important aspect of digital space. But it is one that is still not fully independent from physical variables of security. Second, it has to link security provision with rent generation; namely, the rent generated in digital space should overwhelmingly feed the primary providers of digital security. The for-profit business model of digital technology is indeed in danger of developing feudalistic tendencies, but advertising and digital content by themselves cannot be interpreted as feudalistic structures. Digital security is not a monolithic term and means different things to different players in the digital domain. For most users, digital security implies identity, asset, and basic rights protection in an interconnected domain. It can imply anonymity, VPN-masking, and privacy measures. For online sales and advertising companies, security means trusted exchange, meaning no fraudulent transactions and better authentication, along with cybersecurity of their network: defense against malware, viruses, and worms, etc. For governments, the challenge is more complex, since they must navigate both their own security considerations, such as access control, monitoring, and surveillance, as well as constitutional and legal responsibilities to address the security concerns of citizens and businesses.
Furthermore, the control of enclosed digital territories by a small group of powerful corporations, or closed groups of programmer oligarchies in control of algorithms that have power over the digital experiences of millions of people, still does not fit into the feudalism concept. Resources generated from these interactions don't necessarily determine security relations in this network, and power is still very much determined in profit metrics, rather than security metrics. Deriving from securitization literature, the debate on digital feudalism does not have a referent object." We don't have a commonly agreed understanding of what needs to be protected, nor a primary "warrior class" that provides security, so that a singular feudal organization around it can be formed. We can certainly talk about feudalisms embedded within micro understandings of securitization in a digital order, but this is never discussed as such in the existing debate. More importantly, neither states nor technology companies are at the top of the digital food chain. States challenge other states, as well as nonstate actors; in turn, states, too, are challenged by nonstate actors themselves. This prevents the emergence of a commonly agreed-upon concept of feudalism, as different actors securitize the Internet and digital interconnectedness in often mutually exclusive ways with no single actor dominating the security modes of production of the digital space.
From Each According to His Attention: Cyber-Communism
What about, then, two other possibilities to "digital democracy" that are theorized in mainstream debate: Cyber-Communism or Authoritarianism 2.0/3.0? There are several interpretations of both authoritarianism and communism in digital space, mainly structured around the redistribution mechanisms of both, along with the role of the state in production modes and with respect to their citizens. Digital communism is hard to distinguish between digital Marxism and socialism as they are discussed in mainstream debate, but it is often interpreted as free distribution of digital commodities, such as...