The Fifth Estate comes with risks and challenges, some of which are serious.

As in any social phenomenon, the most prominent members of the Fifth Estate tend to be the most energized, the most determined, and, in some cases, the most radical. They tend to be far more strongly opinionated than those who rarely engage in advocacy.

Although many causes that animate the Fifth Estate may well be prosocial, the people who espouse them are not necessarily any more benevolent than those in other human communities. On the contrary, digital and social platforms have been known to amplify some antisocial attitudes, making people less benevolent in their behavior, if not their intentions. The lack of subtle in-person social cues can prompt people to say and do things they would hesitate to say or do in person, or even in emails and text messages. This can be even more problematic on social media platforms, where algorithms are designed to keep people’s attention and stir their emotions. These platforms tend to exploit social biases rather than foster social learning. Together with the speed of information exchange and the rise of technologies such as AI, this can help spread misinformation and disinformation, distorting individuals’ perceptions and encouraging disruptive or damaging actions. A recent study in the U.S. found, for example, that neighborhood apps increase perceptions of high crime rates in the area when the facts don’t bear that out. At the extreme, this may cause some homeowners to arm themselves and react violently when confronted by a stranger, no matter how innocuous the stranger’s intentions. Recent months have seen U.S. homeowners shoot and kill people for simply knocking on their doors or pulling into their driveways.


In the international survey conducted for PMI by Povaddo, respondents were asked how significant they consider risks related to the rise of the Fifth Estate. According to the survey results, people believe online sources pose a significant risk in terms of spreading misinformation (59 percent), sharing opinions without evidence (53 percent), and lacking transparency on sourcing (50 percent). Many respondents are also concerned by the divisive potential of individual and community-based online sources, noting that they pose a significant risk in terms of enabling the spread of radical ideologies (47 percent), exacerbating divisions in society (44 percent), and fueling cancel culture (40 percent).

As in any social system, power accrues to individuals and entities that go to the trouble to learn and deftly navigate the system dynamics. Those who develop a good understanding of the Fifth Estate can better leverage it to influence debates and further their aims. Whether those aims are positive or negative, benevolent or malevolent, prosocial or antisocial is subjective. There are few major movements or pressure groups whose aims and methods are regarded with universal approval or disapproval. Actions in the Fifth Estate that some admire as “smart” may be criticized by others as “gaming the system.”

For better and worse, the Fifth Estate is set to cause and amplify a lot of disruption. Traditional power structures must do their part to ensure that disruption is for the better.

The Fifth Estate is also a natural home to populism—political programs and movements that claim to champion the interests of ordinary people, standing against the perceived elite or establishment. Populism typically combines elements of the left and the right, opposing large business and financial interests but frequently being hostile as well to established liberal, socialist, and labor parties. The anti-establishment ethos of the Fifth Estate and its digital platforms enable populist movements to reach vast audiences with punchy and emotionally appealing messages. While a natural fit for the Fifth Estate, given the realm’s positioning outside traditional power structures, populism can exact a heavy price. It can easily mutate into authoritarianism, which is contrary to the ethos of the Fifth Estate.


Next section: Harnessing the positive potential of the Fifth Estate