If information is power, then communication is crucial to how that power is wielded and deployed.

The Fifth Estate is reshaping how information is created, shared, sought, and consumed. It is fundamentally altering the landscape of influence and power in modern societies.

In the traditional estates, each had its own form of power. The First Estate, the clergy, had religious and social power that they exercised within and far beyond places of worship, instructing the faithful on what to believe and how to live their lives. They owned land, levied taxes, and accumulated great institutional wealth.

The Second Estate, the aristocracy, owned land, levied taxes, and had a virtual monopoly on high positions in the government, military, and church. This gave them social, financial, and political power.

For centuries, the Third Estate, the common people, had virtually no power despite far outnumbering the members of the First and Second Estates combined. Then came the Age of Enlightenment, followed by the American and French revolutions, and the Third Estate began to assert itself, demanding effective political representation and rights. Their power grew as ordinary people became crucial to industrial production and consumption, driving economic growth and military power. As they gradually earned more than just enough money to survive, their spending preferences as consumers had the power to make companies and their owners rich. And as voting rights were extended to the whole adult population of democracies through the 20th century, the Third Estate exercised political power by choosing whom to support in elections.

The power of the Fourth Estate rose in tandem with the third. As more commoners learned to read, newspapers flourished. Journalists provided information about people in power and social issues. This shaped what politicians and the electorate discussed and prioritized, influencing public opinion and policy. As the mass communication channels of radio and TV spread, so did the reach and influence of the Fourth Estate. It could not only broadcast news and opinions but also advertise consumer goods and services. Still, only the gatekeepers of the Fourth Estate had the financial and organizational means to produce, market, and distribute mass media. This made (and still makes) media owners enormously powerful. With a de facto monopoly on mass communication, only the gatekeepers of the Fourth Estate could make money from that power.

Now, with low-cost, powerful technologies widely available, expensive equipment and television crews, dedicated communication links, editorial operations, and high-priced distribution channels are not necessary to reach huge audiences. This gives the Fifth Estate unprecedented power. It can bypass the mass media networks of the Fourth Estate and deliver real-time information (or misinformation) much faster than traditional media can. The Fifth Estate also provides a much broader range of perspectives and opinions—at least for those willing to look for and consider them. At the same time, it enables others to focus on a narrow range of perspectives and opinions, creating their own digital echo chambers.

As audiences shift their attention from traditional media channels and mainstream media outlets, so, too, are advertisers shifting their spend in pursuit of audiences. With far fewer ongoing costs, the Fifth Estate can afford to offer its content free to most. Those who build a substantial audience base can attract advertisers and offer ad-free premium content to subscribers.

Traction, Virality, and the Network Effect

In the Fifth Estate, all opinions expressed are open to virtually the entire world. Beyond the rules and policies enacted by the various online and social platforms, there are few gatekeepers—if any—deciding what can or cannot be said. But not all opinions get noticed. Traction, virality, and the network effect act as de facto gatekeepers, determining which opinions and content gain prominence.

Traction is the initial grip an idea needs to stick and be shared. Virality follows when the content resonates deeply, prompting widespread sharing thanks to a rare alchemy of timing, relevance, and emotional impact. And the network effect amplifies a message, with each share increasing the value and reach of the information. An infinitesimal fraction of individual opinions posted make a ripple on their own merits. Only by striking a collective nerve or serving an emerging discourse is content subsumed into the waves of the Fifth Estate’s complex, interconnected currents.

Driving Narratives

Another power of the Fifth Estate comes from its influence on public discourse—shaping the topics people discuss, how they talk about them, how many people talk about them, and how quickly the topics achieve currency. The narratives the Fifth Estate communicates become the frameworks through which events, issues, and experiences are interpreted and communicated. These narratives largely determine which types of information attract attention and how that information is understood, discussed, and remembered by the public.

Consider, for example, #MeToo. In 2017, the hashtag went viral following sexual misconduct allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. On Twitter (now X), actor Alyssa Milano urged victims of sexual harassment and assault to post their accounts and include the hashtag. In subsequent months, the movement and variations on its hashtag spread to Australia, France (#BalanceTonPorc), Italy (#QuellaVoltaChe), Hispanic cultures (#YoTambién), and beyond, including China, where the authorities banned it but locals found a workaround (米兔—meaning “rice bunny,” pronounced mi tu).

There’s nothing new in high-profile accusations of wrongdoing nor in public shaming and boycotting. What’s new is the speed and scale at which the public can learn about such allegations and act on them. As the Fifth Estate democratizes public discourse, it gives voice to the marginalized. As with the Fourth Estate, members of the Fifth Estate can hold influential figures and entities accountable. Also as with the Fourth Estate, this mechanism is imperfect and can all too easily lead to hasty trials in the court of public opinion where allegations are taken as facts. Ad hoc groupings form around the issue and demand that the accused be boycotted, ostracized, and removed from public platforms. In a word, canceled.

Across national borders, the Fifth Estate has mobilized around a range of serious and often contentious issues. In the same way that the #MeToo movement highlighted sexual harassment and violence, #BlackLivesMatter became the rallying cry for protests and heated debate about racial justice. The environmental pressure group Extinction Rebellion has made effective use of social media to organize protests, disseminate information, and rally support.

The Avaaz movement, founded in 2007, is one of the most developed and structured examples of the Fifth Estate. In what could describe the entire Fifth Estate phenomenon, Avaaz claims, “Our model of internet organizing allows thousands of individual efforts, however small, to be rapidly combined into a powerful collective force.” Unlike movements such as #MeToo and campaigning organizations such as Greenpeace, Avaaz is not dedicated to a specific issue. Rather, its global team is mandated to work on any matter of public concern its members raise.

As these examples show, the Fifth Estate already is significantly affecting social and political discourse, with serious real-world consequences. It can rapidly mobilize communities around various causes and lead to swift change, as seen in the influence of grassroots campaigns on political or corporate decisions. Whether the causes and changes are prosocial or antisocial tends to be a matter of opinion.

Next section: The promise of civilized civil society