Jaak Aaviksoo: From the fourth estate to the first?

Jaak Aaviksoo.
Jaak Aaviksoo. Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

Jaak Aaviksoo asks how to meet challenges posed to democracy by globalization and the possibilities of information technology.

The attack on the Capitol was undoubtedly an incident of deep significance not just for the Untied States but the entire world. Whereas the shameful uprising at the heart of the matter is not difficult to treat with – mass condemnation of insanity turned violent has even forced President Donald Trump to begrudgingly admit its inadmissibility.

The situation is much more complicated and controversial when it comes to understanding and interpreting the processes that led to it and that cover very different aspects of social development and not just in the U.S. capital that became the epicenter of these events.

How to rise to challenges posed to democracy by globalization and the possibilities offered by information technology? Recent (democratic) mechanisms and rules worked in an environment shaped first and foremost based on people's direct experience and communal interests.

This world is on its way out and being replaced by a globally mediated environment – a kind of virtual reality – the nature and effect on the collective behavior of humans of which we are still learning about.

However, one thing seems to be certain from the get-go – the role and influence of information brokers has become decisive. The incident at the Capital only confirmed this conclusion – before public authorities, both legislative, executive and judicial, could even react, the U.S. president had been handed an air ban and the servers of an ideologically distinct social platform had been disconnected by their competitors.

Constitutional order was restored on Capitol Hill but without the Constitution's first amendment on freedom of speech. The fourth estate took it upon itself to decide.

Even if my conclusion is overwrought, there is plenty to think about. In a world of proxy reality, control over information and how it moves is a central lever of political power and it is difficult if not impossible to imagine a democratic society where it could reside outside of constitutional control.

However, we also know societies that seek to control the internet and refer to them as totalitarian – justifiably so.

Freedom of speech needs to be ensured without overlooking other constitutional principles. Who should be in charge of it and how? I am probably not wrong in believing that trust in governments is not enough even in democratic countries for state regulations governing the internet.

It would be equally insensible to trust this control (censorship?) to a few global monopolies, which is the de facto situation today. This kind of regulation lacks democratic legitimacy and transparency required by the rule of law. Not to mention the possibility of these control mechanisms ending up in the hands of hostile powers.

It is clear by today that efforts by individual countries for open and democratic state regulations are ineffectual due to the global nature of information. We need extensive international cooperation, while there is very likely no such global consensus today.

Perhaps the new U.S. administration will be able to put together a so-called coalition of the willing and using U.S. jurisdiction over leading media organizations lay down common rules to ensure democratic oversight. But even that would not be easy – considering America's national and global corporations' business interests.

Because of all this, the possibility of splitting major media corporations into several smaller ventures and curbing their political influence and market power this way is being considered.

How to do that? It could deepen historical political differences if done along national lines, while ideological dividers run the risk of amplifying existing echo chambers and polarized confrontations worldwide.

Food for thought aplenty, also in Estonia. I would very much like to hope that the discussion will not split into a war of words between progressives/liberals and conservatives even before it begins as we all need freedom of speech and other constitutional liberties.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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