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In order to answer questions about the production, moderation and regulation of public communication on the Internet in a theoretically profound manner, a normative orientation framework is required. Societal expectations must be theoretically justified and specified, and statements about their fulfilment should be empirically substantiated. That is the aim of this study. Eight values are used as a yardstick to evaluate the state of the Internet. This is done based on empirical research regarding much debated topics such as free speech, digital divide, network power, propaganda, filter bubble, echo chamber, fake news, hate speech, cybercrime, and privacy. The following overview does not claim to be complete. However, it should elucidate the essential current empirical research.
1. Freedom or Control?
The notion that the Internet public sphere is a sphere of unlimited freedom, has now turned out to be cyberutopia. Conditions for free communication on the web are set not only by the state, but also by intermediaries who are vital for enabling broad participation by citizens in public communication.
2. Equality or Inequality?
The question of (in)equality arises in many forms on the Internet: it concerns access to the medium, its selective use and the outcomes achieved. A distinction must be made between the reception and the communication side. While access gaps have largely been reduced, selective use for reception and communication is likely to vary considerably. Political interest and media literacy are extremely relevant when it comes to explaining gaps. Whether it is possible to achieve advantages can ultimately only be seen from the effects, which have scarcely been researched on either side, however.
3. Gains or Losses in Diversity?
The diversity of content on the Internet is not automatically guaranteed by the fact that there are hardly any technical barriers to participation in public communication. On the contrary, it must be assumed that there are a number of possible causes for a limited diversity of supply and use. Therefore, there is still the need for design and regulation to ensure diversity.
4. Power Levelling or Power Concentration?
The Internet is leading to a shift in the location of power over public opinion. What is new, in particular, is that non-journalistic actors and intermediaries can also have considerable power. There are a number of novel persuasive techniques available on the web to influence public opinion formation. The loss of their monopoly as gatekeepers, on the other hand, tends to cause traditional media providers to lose power over public opinion. Hopes for a broader distribution of such power, however, have not been fulfilled.
5. Integration or Disintegration of the Public Sphere?
The question of the (dis)integration of the public on the Internet must be posed along several dimensions (topics, opinions, spaces, etc.). Active user selection and passive control through algorithms can contribute to this. At present, echo chambers and filter bubbles are discussed as negative consequences of the public sphere´s disintegration. However, empirical evidence is hard to find for both; there are only a few indications. Spatial integration is questionable. Rather, the existing borders between countries, languages and cultures are reflected on the Internet.
6. High or Low Information Quality?
The technical potential for higher information quality is scarcely exploited on the Internet. Professional journalism – essentially due to the Internet – has fallen into an economic crisis. The ability to recover the cost of quality journalism is questionable, at least over the longer term. There is no prospect that amateurs (citizen journalists) can achieve a similarly high quality of information as professional journalistic editors. Here not only must the quality of the content be taken into consideration, but we must also ask how the users deal with it. There is still a preference for traditional mass media websites, and their quality is also highly valued. However, social media are gaining in importance for political information and news. Beyond the websites of well-known journalistic brands, users often lack contextual references, which makes quality judgments more difficult for them. In particular, the truth of the information disseminated in social media has become open to scrutiny.
7. High or Low Discourse Quality?
The Internet offers excellent conditions for public discourse – from a purely technical perspective. But even this potential is still scarcely exploited. The dark sides of participation and the many deviations from the deliberative ideal are now clear: the special context of the Internet promotes disinhibition of behaviour, an emphasis on group identities, pressure to adapt to the perceived climate of opinion and reinforcement and polarisation of opinion. There is little opposition to populist and propagandistic strategies of political actors. In future, social bots could have a lasting impact on public communication.
8. Security or Vulnerability in the Network?
The Internet is associated with a number of security risks. Government measures are intended to increase security online, but they can also restrict freedom at the same time. Users themselves can contribute to the protection of privacy, with variation in the subjective assessment of the need for protection. Secret state surveillance requires special legitimation and can easily be abused. The same applies to the manipulative leaking of secret information.