By Belén Sánchez
In his book Net Smart, Howard Rheingold points out that the world is shifting from a group centric societies to network – centric societies, where social networks like Facebook and Twitter are providing us with opportunities to easily increase our social capital and enhance our personal learning by exploring, searching, following, tuning, feeding, engaging, inquiring and responding with other people. We are living in a networked environment that, according to Raine and Wellman, authors of the book Networked, is creating the rise of the personal Internet, the spread of powerful mobile information and communication devices, and the shift from groups to networks as the primary focus of sociality.
During this past decade, social networks have been used in the political arena. Rheingold mentions for instance the way that activists used social networks to mobilize the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa, or the accusations that were echoed by The UK Guardian when Anonymous denounced that the U.S. military was developing a piece of software that could infiltrate Facebook and other social networks using an army of fake profiles to cross reference information and track and identify individuals.
Ecuador is not an exception. Politicians and citizens are very active on social networks and use them on a regular basis in order to be engaged and share their views. According to the Living Conditions Survey 2013-2014, approximately 98% of Ecuadorians over 12 years old who have an account on social networks are registered on Facebook and 20.4% have a Twitter account. This includes the President of the country, Rafael Correa, who has more than 1.3 Million followers on Facebook and is active on Twitter since October 2010 where he currently has 2.88 Million followers. The members of his Cabinet and public servants are also active on both social networks, through which they provide relevant information related to their work and engage with citizens in order to answer questions or demands.
However, during the last two years, the government´s use of these tools seems to have gone beyond the purposes of sharing information and remaining accountable to its constituents. On February 2015, John Oliver brought the attention of the international community by mocking President Correa over his alleged persecution of journalists and social media critics. As Oliver reported, President Correa has called citizens to engage in Wars on Twitter and Facebook in order to show the country that those who support him are more powerful and larger in numbers than those who oppose him. Now, to what extent can social networks provide the President with an objective view of the political spectrum and the supporters and opponents he has in Ecuador?
In order to answer this question, we need to understand the Filter Bubble. A term coined by Eli Pariser on his Ted Talk refers to the personalized search each user gets, which is developed by a website algorithm that selectively suggests what information a user would like to see based on information such as location, past click behavior and search history. As a result, users become separated from information that disagrees with their viewpoints, effectively isolating them in their own cultural and ideological bubbles. This concept allows us to understand that our news feed on Facebook and what we search in Google or YouTube is influenced by our previous virtual behavioral patterns through which the algorithms identify and select what we would like to see and discards those contents that we would probably dislike. So the Filter Bubble hinders the possibility of having an objective view of the political spectrum of views in the country, since each of us is only exposed to content that reinforces the political content that we agree with instead of content that challenges or differs from it.
However, the filter bubble might not be the only threat to be isolated from meaningful content. Whether we agree with it or not, another threat for free and open Internet could happened if the principle of Net Neutrality is violated. Net Neutrality is defined by Wikipedia as the principle that Internet Service Providers and Governments regulating the Internet should treat data on the Internet the same, not discriminating or charging differently by user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication. A violation to this principle could block or degrade access to certain websites or services. Why should Ecuadorians care about this concept? As Andrés Delgado explains, the Law of Telecommunications approved in 2015 goes against this principle. Net Neutrality has been included in the law as part of the objectives and principles. Unfortunately, the law failed to clearly define the concept (it adopts the definition of the International Telecommunication Union) and additionally it contradicted the principle by including Article 64 in which the law allows Internet service providers to establish tariff plans based on the services or products they offer. So this law has opened the possibility to Internet service providers to limit our capacity to enjoy a free and open Internet.
Social Networks have become such an important part of our daily lives and our political engagement with our Governments, yet the algorithms that run them could be isolating us and hindering the capacity to learn from all the information available including information that present views that differ from our own. In order to guarantee a free and open Internet, companies like Facebook and Google need to develop mechanisms to facilitate the search of relevant content without blocking the user´s freedom to choose, and Governments need to guarantee the very same right by embracing and respecting the principle of Net Neutrality.