Many of those enamored with technology, and the Internet, are quick to claim that the Internet is inherently better at accountability. In fact the rhetors go so far as to attack the old stalwart of accountability, mainstream journalism. With its would-be-could-be populism this sort of uprising has an odd sort of irony to it. If multiple television channels, with their payrolled staff, can't suss a reasonable facsimile of truth from outside, detached observation then what good will infinite channels do, with no such paid staff?
The very notion of the Internet getting our society "closer" to truth, in the platonic sense, is ill-conceived. After all many of the complaints from the new-media gurus revolve around dissatisfaction with the editorialism of one or more of the older-media channels, or personalities. Yet, as I will argue, editorialism and personality are the primary engines of accountability.
There has always been much made of the Internet's role to "speed up" interaction and to thus "bring us the truth sooner." Indeed it is a sort of game played on twitter. Now instead of a major channel offering "breaking news", now such "news" may be scooped by whomever. This is often exampled with the Arab Spring, much was made of the Internet "bringing to light", and "calling attention to" the new matters in the Middle East.
The irony here is in the state of mind of those who then agitated for slacktivist engagement. They themselves only seemed to care when, "social media" became part of the equation, and in this fashion they behaved no different from any other apathetic civically-overloaded westerner. This was a crystallization of moment that Brooke Gladstone alluded to at the end of her book, The Influencing Machine, "We are the Media."
In my conceptual model, the Internet increases the number of "channels" to an infinite degree. Any one and everyone is now capable of becoming a politician, speechmaker, or editorialist (I will leave it to the reader to decide where this blog fits). And as soon as anyone places a set of data or an opinion in such an environment it is subject to accountability. Just as anything "public" always has been.
Now, anyone who has rollicked and shot the bull with honest friends knows what true accountability is. Your friend's will likely call you out on all sorts of matters as they happen. The Internet shares part of its dynamic as in a close group of friends and part as way of letters to the editor. So like real time letters to the editor, an opinion, lets say, for lack of a better term, from an, "Internet personality" is shared via YouTube; and within minutes opinions for against and in-between start to roll in.
Yet just as it was before we notice that the act of accounting even now had no other result other then the shame the editorialist might express or the infamy gained amongst a wider audience. Essentially no different from such functions over other broadcast mediums. An explosive revelation to one group might have little effect on others outside the sway of such a group.
Here I am thinking of the failure of the Occupy Wall Street movement to force broader accountability. The "Occupiers", instead of playing along with the older forms of media (even as they high-handedly demanded such media's undivided attention) we witnessed the Occupiers refuse to submit to the mainstream accountability check of their views and actions. In turn the fairly simple and sympathetic attempts by the mainstream to analyze the movement were rebuffed vigorously and the outcome was not surprising. As those who mostly get their news via the TV, or with limited access to the Internet were probably even more agitated then the reporters lobbing the softball questions.
Thus accountability isn't fundamentally different in the digital age. Really all that has changed is the means of the wider audience to share its many differing views. The "truth" in this environment cannot always be agreed upon, and everyone is subject to the accounting of someone else.
This tendency produces many of the effects that I have discussed at other points in this blog. The main idea that I would like to highlight is that the Internet does not inherently make people or governments more likely to spill their secrets. This is counter to Julien Assange's much touted view that, "Information wants to be free." Rather, the Internet facilitates those who wish to obtain such data for their own ends.
Another irony of the Internet is that new media's political pundits still rely heavily on the traditional media for legitimacy. Many of the major news agencies still command a great number of audience and those online still seek to gain legitimacy from such mainstream recognition. After all the online pundits are trying to affect change in wider society.
So where does this leave us? The Internet does increase the number of people in positions to voice accounting opinions of news, events, and politics. However, the growing editorial nastiness does not in any way fundamentally alter the nature or practice of accountability or increase the likelihood that we as a society will arrive at the truth any sooner.