We believe that most people have positive, prosocial intentions.

By this, we mean that they want to foster what they judge to be in the best interests of themselves, their loved ones, their communities, their countries, and global society. Yet many have neither the time, energy, resources, and skills nor the tools to put those intentions into effective action. Moreover, some may base their judgments on partial, misleading, or intentionally inaccurate information.

This is one area in which the Fifth Estate can bolster the power of civilized civil society. It can fight misinformation and disinformation— promoting in their stead critical thinking and respect for science and facts. It can help people turn good intentions into good actions. As a decentralized network of digital platforms and communities, the Fifth Estate can create spaces for informal, informed, constructive dialogues across diverse societal groups. Particularly on complex issues such as climate change and economic and racial equity, it has the potential to deepen understanding, spur individual actions, and hold corporations and governments to account.

Experience shows that the Fifth Estate has the potential to foster prosocial developments, but it also shows that it has the power to harm.

Time to update outmoded mindsets

For people’s prosocial intentions to be supported, traditional power structures, including governments and corporations, must take the Fifth Estate seriously. They must recognize it as the shape of things to come and not a passing craze. They must become familiar with the Fifth Estate and learn how to work with it as an emerging force within civil society. An essential first step would be to recognize existing prejudices regarding emerging forms of power and influence. This requires identifying blind spots and moving past the tendency to fall back on old models and outmoded mindsets. They must move beyond the temptation to view the Fifth Estate as just another channel in their media strategy

To understand and respond effectively to the Fifth Estate, one must recognize two of its most fundamental features: agility and creativity. Members of this realm have gotten exceptionally good at quickly trying out responses to events and seeing which work best within the evolving digital ecosystem. For example, during the 2019–2020 Australian bushfires, communities and organizations such as GIVIT25 quickly came together on digital media platforms to coordinate relief efforts, spread awareness, and raise funds. The agility of the Fifth Estate was evident in the rate at which relief reached afflicted areas, with efforts amplified by influencers and celebrities using their platforms to encourage donations and other support.

It’s hard for traditional power structures to act so quickly. They are constrained by established chains of command and the need for due process and accountability. Unencumbered by such constraints, the Fifth Estate will always be more agile. This opens up the potential for traditional centers of power to work cooperatively with the wider population to create a better future. Such collaboration will require that the more established powers work respectfully with the Fifth Estate and understand that it is a decentralized and unregulated space where different dynamics and unwritten rules apply.

A smart complement to opinion research

Governments, NGOs, companies, and media organizations rely on public opinion surveys to understand society’s expectations, concerns, and aspirations. Engaging with the Fifth Estate offers a smart complement to their traditional methodologies. It can deliver real-time, unfiltered insights into public sentiment, capturing a broader and more diverse range of voices.

Unlike structured surveys, the expressed views of members of the Fifth Estate offer a more nuanced understanding of public attitudes and trends. The interactive nature of digital platforms allows for a deeper exploration of the reasons behind opinions. While not scientifically structured in the manner of formal surveys, the Fifth Estate’s vast and varied content can reveal emerging issues and shifts in public sentiment. Monitoring such communications can be a valuable tool for gauging the pulse of the wider population and an opportunity to engage peer-to-peer with civil society. This will require a serious commitment to learning how best to identify and parse the most valuable insights and information out there.

A space to develop participatory democracy

Some of the most influential movements of the Fifth Estate operate on the basis of participatory democracy. Rather than having an issue-focused agenda set by an organization’s leadership or their financial backers, they implement agendas set by their members and then help their members spring into action.

In the case of Avaaz, the organizers don’t set goals and then try to convince members to meet them. Instead, they listen to members’ concerns and then facilitate actions to ameliorate those concerns. The global campaigning organization Ek ō (formerly SumOfUs) employs a similar approach. Likewise, Australia’s GetUp movement has one million members, movement partners, and a central team of expert strategists who work together to create a more equitable nation.

Next section: All is not sweetness and light—Challenges and controversies