How the Internet Threatens Democracy

How the Internet Threatens Democracy

By Thomas B. Edsall MARCH 2, 2017

As the forces of reaction outpace movements predicated on the ideal of progress, and as traditional norms of political competition are tossed aside, it’s clear that the internet and social media have succeeded in doing what many feared and some hoped they would. They have disrupted and destroyed institutional constraints on what can be said, when and where it can be said and who can say it.

Even though in one sense President Trump’s victory in 2016 fulfilled conventional expectations — because it prevented a third straight Democratic term in the White House — it also revealed that the internet and its offspring have overridden the traditional American political system of alternating left-right advantage. They are contributing — perhaps irreversibly — to the decay of traditional moral and ethical constraints in American politics.

Matthew Hindman, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University and the author of “The Myth of Digital Democracy,” said in a phone interview that “if you took the label off, someone looking at the United States would have to be worried about democratic failure or transitioning toward a hybrid regime.”

Such a regime, in his view, would keep the trappings of democracy, including seemingly free elections, while leaders would control the election process, the media and the scope of permissible debate. “What you get is a country that is de facto less free.”

Scott Goodstein, the C.E.O. of Revolution Messaging, has run online messaging for both the Obama and Sanders campaigns. When I spoke to him in a phone interview, he argued that the internet has been a great thing for getting additional layers of transparency. It was true for Donald Trump as it was for Bernie Sanders; the internet ended smoke-filled back rooms, deal-cutting moved from back room to a true campaign, with a more general population. Maybe an unwashed population, but that’s the beauty of American politics with 350 million people.

Goodstein noted, however, “a horrible development on the internet” last year:

In this cycle you saw hate speech retweeted and echoed, by partisan hacks, the Jewish star used in neo-Nazi posts. There is no governing body, so I think it’s going to get worse, more people jumping into the gutter.

The use of digital technology in the 2016 election “represents the latest chapter in the disintegration of legacy institutions that had set bounds for American politics in the postwar era,” Nathaniel Persily, a law professor at Stanford, writes in a forthcoming paper, “Can American Democracy Survive the Internet?”

According to Persily, the Trump campaign was “totally unprecedented in its breaking of established norms of politics.” He argues that this type of campaign is only successful in a context in which certain established institutions — particularly, the mainstream media and political party organizations — have lost most of their power, both in the United States and around the world.

The Trump campaign is only the newest beneficiary of the collapse of once-dominant organizations:

The void these eroding institutions have left was filled by an unmediated, populist nationalism tailor-made for the internet age. We see it in the rise of the Five Star Movement in Italy and the Pirate Party in Iceland. We see it in the successful use of social media in the Brexit referendum, in which supporters were seven times more numerous on Twitter and five times more active on Instagram. And we see it in the pervasive fears of government leaders throughout Europe, who worried well before the American election that Russian propaganda and other internet tactics might sway their electorates.

The influence of the internet is only the most recent manifestation of the weakening of the two major American political parties over the past century, with the Civil Service undermining patronage, the rise of mass media altering communication, campaign finance law empowering donors independent of the parties, and the ascendance of direct primaries gutting the power of party bosses to pick nominees.

In a forthcoming paper “Outsourcing Politics: The Hostile Takeovers of Our Hollowed Out Political Parties,” Samuel Issacharoff, a law professor at New York University, writes about how the erosion of political parties played out in 2016:

Neither party appeared to have a mechanism of internal correction. Neither could muster the wise elders to steer a more conventional course. Neither could use its congressional leadership to regain control of the party through its powers of governance. Neither could lay claim to financial resources that would compel a measure of candidate loyalty. Neither could even exert influence though party endorsements.

The result:

The parties proved hollow vehicles that offered little organizational resistance to capture by outsiders. And what was captured appeared little more than a brand, certainly not the vibrant organizations that are heralded as the indispensable glue of democratic politics.

Issacharoff was even more concerned about the future of democratic politics in a talk, “Anxieties of Democracy,” that he gave in February at the University of Texas law school.

“We are witnessing a period of deep challenge to the core claims of democracy to be the superior form of political organization of civilized peoples,” he told his audience:

The current moment of democratic uncertainty draws from four central institutional challenges, each one a compromise of how democracy was consolidated over the past few centuries. First, the accelerated decline of political parties and other institutional forms of engagement; second, the weakness of the legislative branches; third, the loss of a sense of social cohesion; and fourth, the decline in democratic state competence.

In a phone interview, Issacharoff cited the emergence of internet-based methods of communication as a major contributing factor in the deterioration of political parties.

“Technology has overtaken one of the basic functions you needed political parties for in the past, communication with voters,” he said. “Social media has changed all of that, candidates now have direct access through email, blogs and Twitter,” along with Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and other platforms.

Two developments in the 2016 campaign provided strong evidence of the vulnerability of democracies in the age of the internet: the alleged effort of the Russian government to secretly intervene on behalf of Trump, and the discovery by internet profiteers of how to monetize the distribution of fake news stories, especially stories damaging to Hillary Clinton.

In an email, Samuel Greene, the director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London, described his “best estimate” of Russian cyber hacking under Putin’s guidance:

Teams of hackers, operating with varying levels of resources and at various distances from the central chain of command, had a lot of license to poke and prod and see what they could come up with. Some of these people found it easier to do certain kinds of things — like break into Podesta’s emails — than they had expected. Having obtained a windfall, they were then given license to push it even further.

The question now is who benefits more from the digital revolution and the ubiquity of social media, the left or the right?

Andreas Jungherr, an expert in social and computer science at the University of Konstanz in Germany, argues that the internet is particularly helpful to opposition movements. He emailed me:

It seems to me this is not a question about ideological placement but more about organizational or movement strategy. As long as I am in opposition, the payoff is higher in investing in digital infrastructure and thereby channeling the activities and enthusiasm of my supporters than when in power. So I would expect a re-emergence of political activity, for example in the form of alternative news sources, on the liberal side in the coming years.

Along parallel lines, Cristian Vaccari, a reader in politics at Royal Holloway, University of London, argued in an email that social media have contributed to the sudden emergence of candidates and parties running the ideological gamut:

By qualitatively expanding the pool of participants, social media may thus be substantially contributing to some of the vivid examples of political disruption that we have witnessed over the past few years across and beyond the Western world: from the spread of protest movements to the sudden rise of new parties such as the Five Star Movement in Italy and Podemos in Spain, from the ascent of populist leaders all across Europe to electoral upheavals such as the Brexit referendum and the surge of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the United States 2016 Presidential elections.

Clay Shirky is a professor in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at N.Y.U. In a 2009 TED talk — the full political significance of which has only become clear over the past eight years — he described some of the implications of the digital revolution:

The internet is the first medium in history that has native support for groups and conversation at the same time. Whereas the phone gave us the one-to-one pattern, and television, radio, magazines, books, gave us the one-to-many pattern, the internet gives us the many-to-many pattern.

Shirky continues:

The second big change is that, as all media gets digitized, the internet also becomes the mode of carriage for all other media, meaning that phone calls migrate to the internet, magazines migrate to the internet, movies migrate to the internet. And that means that every medium is right next door to every other medium. Put another way, media is increasingly less just a source of information, and it is increasingly more a site of coordination, because groups that see or hear or watch or listen to something can now gather around and talk to each other as well.

And the third big change, according to Shirky, is that members of the former audience can now also be producers and not consumers. Every time a new consumer joins this media landscape a new producer joins as well, because the same equipment — phones, computers — let you consume and produce. It’s as if, when you bought a book, they threw in the printing press for free; it’s like you had a phone that could turn into a radio if you pressed the right buttons.

There is good reason to think that the disruptive forces at work in the United States — as they expand the universe of the politically engaged and open the debate to millions who previously paid little or no attention — may do more to damage the left than strengthen it. In other words, just as the use of negative campaign ads and campaign finance loopholes to channel suspect contributions eventually became routine, so too will be the use of social media to confuse and mislead the electorate.

Of course, this problem goes much deeper than the internet. Sam Greene of King’s College London put it this way in an email:

Our politics are vulnerable to nefarious influences — whether of the Kremlin variety or the Breitbart variety — not because our information landscape is open and fluid, but because voters’ perceptions have become untethered from reality. For reasons that are both complex and debatable, very many voters have stopped seeing government as a tool for the production of the common good, and have instead turned to politicians (and others) who at least make them feel good. Thus, the news we consume has become as much about emotion and identity as about facts. That’s where the vulnerability comes in, and its roots are in our politics — not in the internet.



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