Democracy is eroding across the globe – at least being transformed in such a way that we have to rethink what it means and how it works. How would one measure democratic backsliding in a country? Many believe the best measures of the state of democracy are driven for the most part by the health of public discourse rather than by any kind of systematic evaluation of the institutions themselves. This criteria raises worrisome indicators in countries like Poland, Hungary, Russia, Turkey, and now the US, with the shredding of norms – feeding concern that democracies are dying. In this post-fact era, more and more authoritarian states around the world are holding elections, pretending they are fair when they are not, and using a lot of the techniques that are associated with democracies. To ensure the health of democracy it is necessary to refocus on the quality of deliberation in a society and the reasonableness of the discourse.1
Nobody, looking back at the first 18 years of this century, can suggest that the political, economic and financial elites who brought you the euro crisis, the war in Iraq, the Great Recession of 2008, growing inequality and middle-class income stagnation have not made some very serious mistakes, of very enduring consequences, with very startling impunity. A lot of that anger and distrust toward large institutions remains to this day. A common complaint against twenty-first century democracy is that it has lost control of corporate power. Big companies hoard wealth and influence. They fuel inequality. They despoil the planet. They don’t pay their taxes. For many corporations these kinds of complaints come with the territory – banks and oil companies have heard them all before. Ordinary folk reckon the system is rigged, that elites are not in it for the people but, rather, the money.
Populism is a phenomenon which can emerge in all forms of a democratic system. Conservative populists target those with a monopoly on representation (journalists, scholars, established political parties) rather than those with a monopoly on production. Social media gives populist actors the freedom to articulate their ideology and spread their messages. Politics of fear is used to get people to vote a particular way, allow excesses in spending, or accept policies they might otherwise abhor. In post-truth politics social media assists political actors who mobilize voters through a crude blend of outlandish conspiracy theories and suggestive half-truths, barely concealed hate-speech, as well as outright lies. These “populist” voters now live in a media bubble, getting their news from sources that play to their identity-politics desires, which means that even if you offer them a better deal, they won’t hear about it, or believe it if told.
During the 1940s, the tobacco companies promoted the health benefits of cigarettes – preventing colds and relaxing individuals. Lung cancer was rare in the early 1900s but by the mid-20th century it had become an epidemic. In 1952 a Readers’ Digest article decried the negative health consequences of cigarette smoking. The following year was the first year in two decades that the sale of cigarettes dropped. The tobacco industry responded by setting up the Council for Tobacco Research. This was the beginning of a survival strategy. This meant denying the health consequences of smoking; deceiving customers about the true nature of cigarettes through marketing and PR, as well as damaging the credibility of industry opponents. The tobacco companies joined many associations who typically oppose taxation and promoted themselves as supporters of freedom of expression, but blocked making available any information linking smoking to death or any negative outcomes.
In 1996 a whistle blower exposed the wrongdoings of Big Tobacco publicly – how the tobacco company he worked for misled consumers about the highly addictive nature of nicotine, how it ignored research some of the additives used to improve flavor caused cancer, how it encoded and hid documents that could be used against the company in lawsuits brought by sick or dying smokers. Today there is a parallel with addiction to social media, and Facebook in particular. Behind the veneer of the motto “bringing people together” and “building community” exists a machine built from day one to be addictive thanks to millions of cleverly arranged filter bubbles. Facebook was never designed to provide in depth knowledge to its users rather it encourages everyone (news publishers for instance) to produce and distribute the shallowest possible content, loaded with cheap emotion, to stimulate sharing. It locks people into feed-back loops or bubbles that become harmful to democracy.2
Today banks and oil companies are no longer the world’s most powerful corporations. That mantle has passed to the technology giants: Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple. The digital revolution has been simultaneously good and bad for democracy, and Facebook is no exception. The good is in the breadth and the openness of the network. The bad is in the secrecy and opacity of the way the network is run. This includes the blurred line between opinion and fact. Changes in media content and the media business model have contributed to the jumbling of fact, fiction, and opinion. Examples include journalistic content that fails to distinguish between opinion and fact, news programs that rely on commentary rather than factual reporting without clearly labeling them, and social media platforms that allow anyone to become a source of information. In the end it is only the regulatory power of the state that can make Facebook safe for democracy.
Cognitive dissonance is the brain’s inability to handle two conflicting realities, so it creates an alternate one, which often defies actual reality. Cognitive biases reflect mental patterns that can lead people to form beliefs or make decisions that do not reflect an objective and thorough assessment of the facts. For instance, people tend to seek out information that confirms preexisting beliefs and reject information that challenges those beliefs. Segregation across the American electorate along economic, political, and social lines contributes to the development of insular and isolated communities, each with its own narrative, worldview, and, increasingly, even “facts.” The growth in the volume of subjective content relative to factual information increases the likelihood that audiences will encounter speculation or downright falsehoods. That makes it more difficult to identify key pieces of factual information. What is the importance or significance that individual citizens understand the debacle of policy or even a good grasp of all the facts?
Ideas on the web tend to be about problem solving, while opinions on the web are mostly theatre, in which emotions drive decision-making. The advent of the information age seems to have created individuals who feel they know more than ever before – when their reliance on the internet means they may know ever less about the world around them. Today in the post-fact era people are more likely to accept an argument based on their emotions and beliefs, rather than one based on facts. The problem in the US is how to objectively measure the impact of the media environment that is so partisan and fragmented – such that – Americans can no longer agree on a baseline set of facts. With Republicans and Democrats more polarized than ever, each group believes what they want to believe, supported because they don’t trust the people providing the facts, or can find some way to explain them away.
Conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), home of Paul Wolfowitz and John Bolton, have many projects that support the neoliberal economic project. AEI supported a 1980 study on the emerging ‘social cost’ arguments against smoking in support of the tobacco industry, and more recently supports various studies that cast doubt on global warming. These tactics include introducing manufactured uncertainty by raising doubts about even the most indisputable scientific evidence, by setting up so called independent front organizations to publicly promote its desired message. As in the 1990’s, when Big Tobacco felt its home market dwindling, the companies decided to stimulate smoking in the Third World – Facebook’s tactics are reminiscence of that. Today, it subsidizes connectivity in the developing world, offering attractive deals to telecoms in Asia and Africa, in exchange for making Facebook the main gateway to the internet.
After the election of Donald Trump, Facebook’s initial attitude was to bluntly deny any involvement in the torrent of misinformation that contributed to the Trump victory. Now it is certain that Facebook, for the sake of short-term profit, turned a blind eye to what was unfolding. Like the approach to Big Tobacco it is necessary to have as many agencies as possible participate with respect to cross-cutting issues. For example, effective tobacco control required the use of fiscal policies to reduce tobacco consumption, allied with labor and environmental laws to reduce exposure to smoke, and regulation of marketing practice. With respect to the addiction promoted by companies like Facebook it will not be enough to just raise public awareness, rather the response will require a series of regulations and taxes to address the power exploitation of devices. These are important necessary steps to restore the health of democracy.
1 Sean IIling. (2 July 2018) Why the death of democracy may be overhyped https://www.vox.com/2018/7/2/17500564/is-democracy-dying-trump-treisman-interview
2 Frederic Filloux. Facebook has a Big Tobacco Problem. https://mondaynote.com/facebook-has-a-big-tobacco-problem