The Dark Side of Democratization

No one can dispute the power that democratized publishing affords us. After all, anyone today can start a website and reach a mass audience. And of course, WordPress has played a central role in all this. At the same time, the power granted by democratization has led to unforeseen consequences. From the persistence of misinformation to the proliferation of content designed to manipulate our emotions, from the polarization of politics to the spread of radicalism, all of these can be attributed in some way to the ease with which anyone can find a voice on the internet today.

This is the accompaniment page to my 2016 WordCamp US talk, which describes the problems democratization can create and discusses potential solutions. To paraphrase a well-known saying, “The price of democratization is eternal vigilance.”

  1.  Problems
    • Fueled by Emotions
    • Shallow Browsing
    • Mountains of Misinformation
    • Connecting Extremists
  2. Solutions
    • Playing the Game
    • Combating Misinformation
    • To Silence or Not to Silence

The official video page on can be found here.

Wondering if that site you’re reading is legitimate? Check out these fact-checking apps and resources:

B.S. Detector Chrome Extension

Media Bias/Fact Check Chrome Extension

Melissa Zimdars’s list of fake news sites

Real or satire? Check here

CNN Tips for Spotting Fake News

Here are the citations from the presentation and related references you may find interesting:

Fueled by Emotions

Berger, Jonah; Milkman, Katherine L. (2011), “What Makes Online Content Go Viral?,” Journal of Marketing Research.

BuzzSumo (2014), “Why Content Goes Viral: What Analyzing 100 Million Articles Taught Us.”

Grey, C.G.P. (2015), “This Video Will Make You Angry,” YouTube.

Jones, Kerry; Libert, Kelsey; Tynski, Kristin (2016), “The Emotional Combinations That Make Stories Go Viral,” Harvard Business Review.

Shallow Browsing

Carr, Nicholas (2008), The Shallows.

Gabielkov, Maksym; Ramachandran, Arthi; Chaintreau, Augustin; Legout, Arnaud (2016), “Social Clicks: What and Who Gets Read on Twitter?,” ACM Sigmetrics.

Greenfield, Patricia (2009), “Technology and Informal Education: What Is Taught, What Is Learned,” Science.

Loh, Kep-Keel; Kanai, Ryota (2015), “How Has the Internet Reshaped Human Cognition?,” Neuroscientist

Manjoo, Farhad (2013), “You Won’t Finish This Article,” Slate.

National Public Radio (2014), “Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?

Rosenwald, Michael S. (2014), “Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming, researchers say,” The Washington Post.

Uhls, Yalda T., Michikyan, Minas; Morris, Jordan; Garcia, Debra; Small, Gary W.; Zgourou, Eleni; Greenfield, Patricia M. (2014), “Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues,” Computers in Human Behavior.

Mountains of Misinformation

Del Vicarioa, Michela; Bessib, Alessandro; Zolloa, Fabiana; Petronic, Fabio; Scala, Antonio; Caldarellia, Guido; Stanleye, H. Eugene; Quattrociocchia, Walter (2016), “The spreading of misinformation online,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Jaffe, Eric (2014), “Misleading Headlines Can Leave Lasting Impressions, Even If You Read The Article,” Fast Company.

Quattrociocchi, Walter (2016), World Economic Forum.

Connecting Extremists

Anti-Defamation League (2013), “The Consequences of Right-Wing Extremism on the Internet.”

Awan, Akil N. (2006), “Virtual jihadist media: Function, legitimacy and radicalizing efficacy,” European Journal of Cultural Studies.

Cultural Cognition Project, Yale Law School.

Phys Org (2013), “Expert says 10,000 extremist websites on the web.”

Shermer, Michael (2012), “Evolution Explains Why Politics Is So Tribal,” Scientific American.

Stevens, David; O’Hara, Kieron (2015), The Devil’s Long Tail.

Von Behr, Ines; Reding, Anaïs; Edwards, Charlie; Gribbon, Luke (2013), “Radicalisation in the digital era: The use of the internet in 15 cases of terrorism and extremism,” RAND Europe.

Wilson, E.O. (2012), “Biologist E.O. Wilson on Why Humans, Like Ants, Need a Tribe,” Newsweek.

Playing the Game

Bromstein, Elizabeth (2016), “Scientists say giant asteroid could hit earth next week, causing mass devastation,” Yackler Magazine.

SP Team (2016), “Study: 70% of Facebook users only read the headline of science stories before commenting,” The Science Post.

Combating Misinformation

Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research (2016), “Hoaxy: A Platform for Tracking Online Misinformation,” Indiana University Bloomington.

Friesen, Justin; Campbell, Troy; Kay, Aaron (2015), “The psychological advantage of unfalsifiability: The appeal of untestable religious and political ideologies,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Horne, Zachary; Powell, Derek; Hummela, John E.; Holyoakb, Keith J. (2015), “Countering antivaccination attitudes,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Lewandowsky, Stephan; Ecker, Ullrich; Seifert, Colleen; Schwarz, Norbert; Cook, John (2012), “Misinformation and its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

Nyhan, Brendan; Reifler, Jason (2010), “When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions,” Political Behavior.

Nyhan, Brendan; Reifler, Jason; Ubel, Peter A. (2013), “The hazards of correcting myths about health care reform,” Medical Care.

Nyhan, Brendan; Reifler, Jason; Richey, Sean; Freed, Gary L. (2014), “Effective Messages in Vaccine Promotion: A Randomized Trial,” Pediatrics.

Tan, Chenhao; Niculae, Vlad; Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, Cristian; Lee, Lillian (2016), “Winning Arguments: Interaction Dynamics and Persuasion Strategies in Good-faith Online Discussions,” The International World Wide Web Conference Committee.

To Silence or Not to Silence

Amnesty International, Freedom of Expression and the Internet.

Counter Extremism Project (2016), “Counter Extremism Project Unveils Technology to Combat Online Extremism.”

Denyer, Simon (2016), “China’s scary lesson to the world: Censoring the Internet works,” The Washington Post.

Department of Homeland Security (2016), “Countering Violent Extremism.”

Franklin-Wallace, Oliver (2016), “Extremely Together is playing ISIS at its own game to tackle extremism,” Wired.

Hussain, Ghaffar; Saltman, Erin Marie (2016), “Jihad Trending: A Comprehensive Analysis of Online Extremism and How to Counter it,” Quilliam.

Hutt, Rosamond (2016), “Tech giants have found a way to fight extremism online. Is it working?,” World Economic Forum.

Kenney, Michael; Coulthart, Stephen; Wright, Dominick (2016), “Structure and Performance in a Violent Extremist Network — The Small-world Solution,” The Journal of Conflict Resolution.

Menn, Joseph; Volz, Dustin (2016), “Google, Facebook quietly move toward automatic blocking of extremist videos,” Reuters.

Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (2016), “Human rights must be guaranteed when fighting violent extremism online, participants at OSCE workshop in Sarajevo say.”

Quinn, Ben (2016), “Google to point extremist searches towards anti-radicalisation websites,” The Guardian.

Radsch, Courtney (2015), “Privatizing censorship in fight against extremism is risk to press freedom,” Committee to Protect Journalists.

Silverman, Tanya; Stewart, Christopher J.; Birdwell, Jonathan; Amanullah, Zahed (2016), “The Impact of Counter-Narratives: Insights from a year-long cross-platform pilot study of counter-narrative curation, targeting, evaluation and impact,” Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

Here are some other issues we may encounter on a democratized internet. These have been addressed more fully elsewhere, so I chose to skip them for my presentation:

The Vocal Minority

The Internet 1% Rule: the voices we hear on the internet represent only 1% of the total users of the internet.

The 1% rule as noted in the WordPress philosophy.

A peer-reviewed study on the 1% rule — it’s totes legit, people (2014).

538’s poll on why internet commenters do what they do (2016).

Internet Bullying

The online disinhibition effect and how the internet turns us into assholes (2014). Abstract of original paper here (2004).

The Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory — yep, this pretty much sums it up (2004).

Some data on anonymity and internet trolls (2014).

Jon Ronson’s TED talk on how social media can be used to destroy lives, and an accompanying interview (2015).

How the internet has made bullying both harder to escape and harder to identify (2015).

How we can combat internet shaming and cyberbullying (2015).

The latest stats on online harassment and how it affects people’s willingness to be active online (2016).

Echo Chambers and Polarization

Eli Pariser’s TED talk on online filter bubbles (2011).

5 Scientific Ways the Internet is Dividing Us — the original article I co-authored that became the inspiration for this talk (2012).

The Pew Research Center’s report on political polarization and media habits (2014).

Facebook responds to allegations of creating echo chambers by releasing a study of their own. “It’s your own fault,” they say (2015).

A side-by-side comparison of what liberals and conservatives see on Facebook (2016).

Are echo chambers destroying democracy? Just one of a slew of post-election analyses (2016)

Post-Election Politics and Misinformation

Buzzfeed News’ detailed analysis on the spread of fake news during this election cycle (2016).

How fake news sites profit by spreading outrage (2016).

The onus isn’t all on Facebook, says this professor of communications (2016).

Facebook and Google are dropping fake news sites from their ad networks (2016).

A proposed alternative for Facebook’s attempt to curtail fake news (2016).

An Automattician’s analysis on why censoring fake news is a bad idea (2016).


Every time I get on the internet, I seem to find more stuff to add to this topic. As such, I’ve decided to turn this into an ongoing project. If the dark side of democratization fascinates (or terrifies) you, please check back every now and then for updates to this page!

And if you have any information or resources you’d like to contribute, feel free to leave a comment below. Thanks for reading!


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