How social media undermines politics

By Jamie Bartlett

Democracy simply wasn’t designed for this technological revolution.

It’s no longer original to argue technology is undermining democracy. Take your pick: Cambridge Analytica, tax minimization, Russian bots, a shrinking press. It’s being undermined, we’re told, because shadowy data analytics firms have swung elections, because Kremlin linked bots and trolls have been flaying public discourse, because Donald Trump is blowing a fuse on Twitter, because John Podesta’s emails were hacked, leaked, shared.

However, these accounts – perfectly legitimate in themselves – have focused on specifics rather than generalities. As I argued in my recent book, each is a symptom of a deeper problem, which is relatively simple to explain: at a structural level, digital technology and democracy are not made for each other.

This is not intentional. It’s just that our two mega systems are products of completely different eras and run according to different rules and principles. The machinery of modern representative democracy was built during a time of nation states, hierarchies, the written word, deference and industrialized economies. The fundamental features of digital tech are at odds with this model: non-geographical, decentralized, data driven, subject to network effects and exponential growth.

Put simply, democracy wasn’t designed for this. This is why, of course, none of the hacking, trolling, or data analytics stories will stop. They are the tremors and quakes of two tectonic plates rubbing uneasily against each other, and will almost certainly increase in intensity.

I’m hardly alone in thinking this. Many early digital pioneers saw how this new ‘cyberspace’ was mismatched with the physical world too. John Perry Barlow’s frequently quoted 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace sums up this tension rather well: ‘Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.’

All very uplifting, except the problem is that democracies are based on matter, and the legal concepts of property, expression, identity and movement. True, this explicitly anti-democratic impulse in Silicon Valley is a minority view these days, but it’s nevertheless hard-wired into the technology itself.

There are plenty of examples of this fundamental incompatibility playing out. Take the story of Cambridge Analytica. The real lesson from the story is not ‘psychological warfare tools’ swinging elections with personality-based persuasion (which was overstated). It’s the colossal and abject failure of old regulations to deal with a new form of political advertising, and the subsequent loss of legitimacy for the result.

Several advertising executives I know are currently pacing around nervously, since they routinely do what Cambridge did. The fact Cambridge and Trump could target voters with dodgy messages that other people couldn’t see – including regulators – was enough to undermine the legitimacy of the result. Old laws, new technology.

Despite the frenetic media, this is one of the easier problems to fix. We can update the law without too much difficulty. (Forcing campaigns to publish all adverts and targeting techniques would be a start.) Far more difficult to tackle is the change in behaviour social media has wrought.

Liberal democracies are based on the idea that calm, rational citizens can debate thoughtfully with each other, and arrive at broad consensuses. In a sense, democracies are built to what Daniel Kahneman described as ‘system two’ logic: its institutions are arranged to arrive at logical, thought-out, fact-driven decisions.

Despite the well-meaning aspirations and pieties about how the internet would create a more informed style of politics, it turns out the opposite is true. This is built into the current social media business model, and even hard wired into the internet itself. As many have noted – most notably Jaron Lanier in his recent book Ten Reasons to Delete your Social Media Accounts Right Now – the advertisement-driven model of social media prioritises eyeballs and outrage, since the more outrage, the more clicks, and the more ads sold.

But it goes deeper than this, which is what all the articles about ‘echo-chambers’ and ‘filter bubbles’ miss. The internet doesn’t only create small self-sealed tribes: it also gives easy access to enemy tribes. I see opposing views to mine online all the time; they rarely change my mind, and more often it serves to confirm my belief that I am the only sane person in a sea of dangerous idiots.

Long-term, careful debate with other people can change minds and create consensus of course. But when was the last time you actually changed your mind after discussing something online? Probably never, because who really has time to go online to get into the long, careful, respectful discussion necessary to see the other side of it?

This is a fairly fundamental problem. To focus on racist tweets or shock-jock cranks or digital anti-Semites misses something bigger. Because of its speed, its design, its overwhelming connectivity, social media incentivizes tribal loyalty, fabricated rage and the sanctity of action without thought.

This is why, incidentally, social media is helping populist politicians. Their Tinder approach to politics – swipe left or swipe right, but get what you want right away without compromise – is far more in tune with digital culture than the boring old centrists.

If I’m right that the crisis runs far deeper than this or that news story, then the solutions will also require something that goes beyond fixing isolated problems. I don’t have the answers. But in the end, whenever society goes through a major transformation in its mode of communication or its mode of production, there is typically a period of great turbulence, and new forms of government and social arrangements eventually form.

We are living through a period equivalent to the Industrial Revolution and the invention of the printing press occurring simultaneously. It is inevitable therefore that established methods of self-governance – which have barely changed – need to change too. That’s nobody’s fault – not Mark Zuckerberg’s, not even Vladimir Putin’s. But now democratic citizens need to figure out what to do about it.

Jamie Bartlett Demos

Author of The People vs Tech (2018) and The Dark Net (2015).

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