Is there really something fundamentally different between digital/social media and the traditional press? The Brookings Institution thinks so, positing that the recent Brexit vote in England arguably represents “the first major casualty of the ascent of digital democracy over representative democracy.”
Many technology optimists have assumed that globalization would lead to the democratization of information and decision-making, and also greater cosmopolitanism. Citizens would be better informed, less likely to be silenced, and able to communicate their views more effectively to their leaders. They would also have greater empathy and understanding of other peoples the more they lived next to them, visited their countries, read their news, communicated, and did business with them. Or so the thinking went.
It is hard to dispute the authors’ contention that this world of enhanced democratic decision-making has failed to materialize.
Instead, digital democracy — the ability to receive information in almost real time through mass media and to make one’s voice heard through social media — has contributed to polarization, gridlock, dissatisfaction and misinformation.
In our “post-fact world,” thanks to social media and the internet, a lie (or–as the article notes– “better yet a half-lie) if told enough times becomes truth.”
A third result of digital democracy…is the political echo chamber. Social media, rather than creating connections with people who possess differing views and ideologies, tends to reinforce prejudices. As the psychologist Nicholas DiFonzo has noted, “Americans across the political spectrum tend to trust the news media (and ‘facts’ provided by the media) less than their own social group.” This makes it easier for views and rumours to circulate and intensify within like-minded groups. Similar digital gerrymandering was evident in the EU Referendum in Britain and the polarization is palpable in the Indian online political space.
Finally, instant information has increased the theatricality of politics. With public statements and positions by governments, political parties and individual leaders now broadcast to constituents in real time, compromise, a necessary basis of good governance, has become more difficult. When portrayed as a betrayal of core beliefs, compromise often amounts to political suicide. Political grandstanding also contributes to legislative gridlock, with elected representatives often resorting to walkouts, sit-ins, or insults — all manufactured for maximum viral effect — instead of trying to reach solutions behind closed doors. Even as ease of travel allows legislators to spend more time in their constituencies, making them more sensitized to their constituents’ concerns, less gets done at the national or supranational level. It is a trend that, once again, applies equally to the United States, Europe, and India.
The unintended consequences of digital democracy — misinformation and discontent, polarization and gridlock — mean that the boundary between politician and troll is blurring. The tone of democratic politics increasingly reflects that of anonymous online discourse: nasty, brutish, and short. And successful politicians are increasingly those who are able to take advantage of the resulting sentiments. Exploiting divisions, appealing to base instincts, making outlandish claims, resorting to falsehoods, and pooh-poohing details and expertise.
“Exploiting divisions, appealing to base instincts, making outlandish claims, resorting to falsehoods, and pooh-poohing details and expertise”… certainly describes Donald Trump.
When I was a new lawyer, the partner for whom I was doing most of my work had a saying: “There’s only one legal question, and that’s what do we do?”
If it is difficult to argue with the Brookings critique of digital democracy–and it is–his question becomes not just pertinent, but critical. What do we do?
What can we do?