Social media, populism and democracy

I’ve been ranting on a bit about “fake news” and “influence operations” that, in my opinion, do pose real threats to our liberal democracy, but I said (first link, 8 Mar 18) that “Facebook and Twitter are, likewise, not threats to democracy … in fact they may be something of a throwback to the days of the ancient Athenian agora and to the pamphleteers of  the 17th and 18th centuries where relatively “ordinary people” could “shout out” their views to their friends and neighbours and passersby.” However, Niall Ferguson, a historian with whom I regularly agree, thinks otherwise and says, in the Globe and Mail, that he sees two problem areas:

  • For one thing,” he says, “the growth of network platforms with unprecedented data-gathering capabilities has created new opportunities for authoritarian regimes, not least in China and Russia, to control their own populations more effectively;” and, he adds
  • For another, the networks themselves offer ways in which bad actors – and not only the Russian government – can undermine democracy by disseminating fake news and extreme views. “These social platforms are all invented by very liberal people on the west and east coasts,” said Brad Parscale, Mr. Trump’s digital-media director, in an interview last year. “And we figure out how to use it to push conservative values. I don’t think they thought that would ever happen.” Too right.

In other words Facebook and Twitter “enabled” Donald Trump and they are, therefore, a threat to democracy.

As I said, before, there are real threats to democracy out there and Professor Ferguson deals with one when he explains that “Having initially dismissed as “a pretty crazy idea” the notion that fake news on Facebook had helped Mr. Trump to victory, Mr. Zuckerberg last year came clean: Russians using false identities had paid for 3,000 Facebook advertisements that sent implicitly pro-Trump messages to Americans before and after the election. By some estimates, between 146 and 150 million users – more people than voted – had seen posts from accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency, a pro-Kremlin organization, including around 16 million users of Instagram, which Facebook owns … [and] … One analysis of six Russia-linked Facebook pages found their posts had been shared 340 million times. And those were just six of 470 pages that Facebook had identified as Russian. Trolls with false identities had also used Facebook Events (the company’s event-management tool) to promote political protests in the United States, including an Aug. 27, 2016, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rally in a rural Idaho town known to welcome refugees.

This,” Niall Ferguson says, “is not just an American story. To an extent that is not well enough appreciated, it is a global crisis of democracy. Similar efforts were made, albeit on a smaller scale, to influence the outcome of the British referendum on European Union membership – mainly via fake Twitter accounts – as well as last year’s elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany. And the fact that the Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election has since become the focal point of multiple inquiries in Washington – which may even pose a threat to the legitimacy and longevity of Mr. Trump’s presidency – does not mean that similar things are not going on in other countries even as you read this article. Canadians have good reason to worry about how social media could impact the 2019 federal election. When Facebook and Twitter told MPs last year that they could increase public engagement in the debates between party leaders, some people wondered how much of this would be provided by Russian bots.

But, notwithstanding the fact that some people, some political parties and some governments are using Facebook and Twitter and all the other platforms in ways that Mark Zukerberg and Jack Dorsey (co-founder and now CEO of Twitter) never imagined does not make them an “enemy of democracy” any more than the newsprint on which Niall Ferguson’s opinion is printed is an enemy of anything. But he does get to one very human problem: us. “As a recent Harvard paper co-authored by Gary King demonstrates,” he explains, “the network platforms essentially amplify news from established news outlets. As they do so, however, a strange thing happens. Whether one looks at blogs or at Twitter, social media tend to promote polarization. Liberal bloggers link to liberal bloggers, rarely to conservative ones. Liberal Twitter users re-tweet one another, seldom their conservative counterparts. And tweets on political topics – gun control, same-sex marriage, climate change – are 20 per cent more likely to be retweeted for every moral or emotional word they employ.” That’s that old “conformation bias” thing about which I have been worrying ~ we are the problem when we close our eyes and ears and minds to our neighbours’ opinions … and we are all “neighbours” in the information age, there a billions of people in the electronic agora.

know-nothingsMany people, including Professor Ferguson are worried about the rise of populism … there is a spectrum to populism, running from the 19th century “Know nothings” through and many supporters of e.g. President Trump in America and Marine LePen in France in the 21st century through to modern libertarians. Some populists are isolationist, protectionist, racist and so on … others just want governments to “stick to their knitting” and leave most people alone most of the time.

Professor Sheri Berman, of Barnard College, too a look at populism in late 2016 in an article in Foreign Affairs. Her conclusion, as a student of modern European history, is that “What turned fascists from marginal extremists into rulers of much of Europe was the failure of democratic elites and institutions to deal with the crises facing their societies during the interwar years. Despite real problems, the West today is confronting nowhere near the same type of breakdown it did in the 1930s. So calling Le Pen, Trump, and other right-wing populists “fascists” obscures more than it clarifies.” Today’s right wing populists, like President Trump and Marine LePen,  Professor Berman says “certainly share some similarities with the interwar fascists. Like their predecessors, today’s right-wing extremists denounce incumbent democratic leaders as inefficient, unresponsive, and weak. They promise to nurture their nation, protect it from its enemies, and restore a sense of purpose to people who feel battered by forces outside their control. And they pledge to stand up for “the people,” who are often defined in religious or racial terms … [but] … if the similarities are striking, the differences are even more so. Most obvious, today’s extremists claim they want not to bury democracy but to improve it. They critique the functioning of contemporary democracy but offer no alternative to it, just vague promises to make government stronger, more efficient, and more responsive … [and] … Current right-wing extremists are thus better characterized as populist rather than fascist, since they claim to speak for everyday men and women against corrupt, debased, and out-of-touch elites and institutions. In other words, they are certainly antiliberal, but they are not antidemocratic. This distinction is not trivial. If today’s populists come to power—even the right-wing nationalists among them—the continued existence of democracy will permit their societies to opt for a do-over by later voting them out. Indeed, this may be democracy’s greatest strength: it allows countries to recover from their mistakes.

It seems to me to be important for all of us, progressives, Liberals, Conservatives and populists of various sorts, to focus on the values that we share. Everyone wants to be part of the “natural governing party” but we should know, by now, that no such thing exists; most ~ a substantial plurality if not an absolute majority ~ of Americans, Australians, political-bell-curveBrits, Canadians, Danes and other Europeans are moderates … somewhere in the “mushy middle.” (A blogger named Stephen Eggleston produced this bell curve, it, including the characterization of people on the extreme left and right fringes as “crazy people” seems about right to me.) They want to have a say in government giphyand, on a fairly regular basis, they swing, like a pendulum, towards the left and the right … but how to describe Donald Trump? He’s certainly not a conservative, not if that word is to have any useful meaning at all, he is, in my guesstimation, a throw-back to those 19th century “Know nothings.” He does share some views with the European radical populists who do share some fascist views about the need for a cohesive nation which they often describe in racial or religious terms. The common thread is that “we” ~ the old stock, pure laine “we” would be just fine if it wasn’t for the “others” ~ the Irish, in particular and Catholics in general, mid-19th century America, African and Arab migrants for many Europeans, Mexicans for some Americans. I reiterate that in my belief what drives the extreme populists is fear fear  of change, economic fear of competition, and so on, and it drives people to want to be part of a comfortable, familiar society or nation and to want a stronger state to protect them from “others.”

Which takes me all the way back to Niall Ferguson and the “threat” of social media … he’s 220px-Jacques_Louis_David_-_Bonaparte_franchissant_le_Grand_Saint-Bernard,_20_mai_1800_-_Google_Art_Projectright to the extent that social media makes it easier than it haas ever been to feed our “confirmation biases” and ignore the points of views of our neighbours. Then we go looking for the man on the white horse to save us from all the “others” who hold opinions we don’t like, but instead of listening and trying to understand different points of view, too many of us just “tune out” any opinion which does not mirror our own … and we end up with this sort of thing on social media …


… and I’m not sure which is less odious, but the sad thing is that they are out there and otherwise decent people “believe” in one or the other or even both. Since the man on the white horse is rare and since a good man on a white horse is even more rare we must not be surprised that we end up with President Trump … or Justin Trudeau.

3 thoughts on “Social media, populism and democracy

  1. Populism intellectually supported – per Ambrose Evans-Pritchard

    “Europe’s political uprising is shifting to a second front. Once-silent intellectuals are starting to challenge the core assumption of EU ideology, indicting the project for moral vandalism and a reckless attack on the democratic nation state.

    It is almost as if a counter “doxa” is emerging in the cultural capitals of the Continent. Theorists and professors are proclaiming the virtues of the nation – the precious liberal nation, inspired by the universal and redemptive values of the French and American revolutions – in a way we have hardly heard in recent times.

    They defend it as the only real vehicle of democracy known to man. At its best, it has been an agent of moral progress, an upholder of social solidarity and the rule of law, and a supple manager of ethnic and religious difference. It has been a bulwark against the unforgiving clash of communitarian identities, and should not be discarded lightly”

    Every idiot has a right to make their own mistakes – including voting intellectuals into public office.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s