Is Digitalisation a threat to Democracy?

January 9, 2018 • Comment, Ethics and Quality, Short stories • by


Could digitalisation threaten democracy?

In this era of fake news and conspiracy theories, the attention economy is becoming a disinformation economy, argues Stephan Russ-Mohl.

The reported use of internet trolls and social bots in the German election was a recent example of how fake news is being used in an attempt to impact democracy. Stories alleging voting fraud, aimed at mobilising right-wing voters, spread quickly across social networks in the 24 hours before the September 2017 vote.

As journalism’s gatekeeper role is increasingly challenged, it has become easier for purveyors of fake news, conspiracy theories and disinformation to gain public attention. As a result, the attention economy is rapidly evolving towards an economy of disinformation.

The disinformation economy

The theoretical framework for analysis of the disinformation economy was originally provided by at least three social scientists. On the verge of the new millennium, before the internet and digitalisation disrupted the traditional news business, Georg Franck published his concept of the Attention Economy, followed soon after by Thomas Davenport and John C. Beck.

Franck described how institutions, as well as politicians, business leaders, artists, athletes and celebrities, are increasingly greedy for public attention. “Celebrities are income millionaires in terms of attention. Fame is the most beautiful of the earthly rewards, because it secures even beyond death the status of the high earner of attention,” wrote Franck. He added: “The richer and more open a society, the more open and costly the fight for attention becomes.”

The increasing competition for attention has changed the public discourse, Franck argued. He contrasted the previous material capitalism against a new mental capitalism. He described a second business cycle which increasingly overrides, even exceeds, the traditional exchange of goods and services for money. According to Franck, in an attention economy, information is increasingly being exchanged for public attention.

The attention economy has been shaped by the rapid growth and professionalisation of the public relations industry. PR offers its clients public visibility. Journalism, however, lost credibility because it was no longer able to define its supremacy over its “supply industry” – namely the PR experts who not only delivered the news for free to journalists but also sugar-coated the world in the interests of their clients.

Digital disruption and social networks have also threatened journalism’s credibility.

News consumers overwhelmed with choice

However, what is available in abundance loses value. Just as we torture ourselves in the supermarket to make a choice among dozens of breakfast cereals, the flood of news is overwhelming us as news consumers. Economists speak of the Paradox of Choice.

More and more users expect that the news that is important for them will find them: they behave passively, and they leave the news selection to their circle of friends and to the algorithms of Facebook and Twitter.

The IT giants hijacked the revenues of the old media companies

Digitalisation has put pressure on legacy news providers. Advertising revenue margins have diminished. The IT giants have hijacked the key income streams of the old media companies: Thanks to search engines and social networks, advertisers can directly reach their target groups. Most of the online advertising revenue traditional media companies hoped for, is now being generated by Google, Facebook, and Co.

Anyone who has grown up with free information on the Internet can hardly imagine paying for journalism. Since most people cannot look behind the scenes of media operations, journalism quality is not always obvious to users. On the buyer’s side, therefore, there is a lack of quality awareness which often translates into an unwillingness to pay.

Along with that, most newsrooms are also cutting costs. Editors have dropped their subscriptions to news agencies because everything on the internet is “free”. And many media managers think that editorial staff can be cut because the newsrooms are flooded daily with press releases which can be transformed into “journalism” with just a few copy-paste commands. Even freelancers are increasingly paid with attention rather than money: isn’t it an honour to write for the Tagesspiegel, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, The Times or the Huffington Post?

This weakening of journalism is being exploited, to manipulate audiences with propaganda, or to earn money from fake news. To turn the attention economy into an economy of disinformation, it must be economically or politically profitable for an increasingly large number of actors to attract attention through fakes, half-truths and propaganda.

Fake news is also much cheaper to produce than “real” news, and it frequently goes viral.

Due to the rapid spread of such false news, respectable attempts to enlighten, to fact-check, and to find the truth may easily fail. Thus, more and more actors at the front end of journalism are likely to wonder whether, under the changed conditions, it is still worth keeping up with the old system of journalistic rules, based on reporting facts and serious truth finding?

If we do not pay attention and mobilise counter-forces, it is only a small step from the disinformation economy to a disinformed society.


Stephan Russ-Mohl recently published The Informed Society and its enemies. Why digitalisation threatens our democracy, Cologne: Herbert von Halem Verlag. A slightly modified version of this article, summarising his book, was published in Der Tagesspiegel.

The article has also been published on German EJO

Image: Internet, by Lourdes Muñoz Santamaria, Flickr, CC Licence

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