The future of democracy in an online world

(this is the second of three blogs on democracy and the future of progressive politics. The first blog examines why the Progressive Alliance initiative failed and the next blog looks at what can be done)

Remember the early promise of social media to transform democracy, give everyone a voice and circumvent mainstream news outlets with their own controlling agenda? The Arab Spring in 2011 was the high point of those hopes. It ended with Cambridge Analytica seven years later.

In 2011, it seemed that democracy was breaking out across the Middle East as Facebook, Youtube and Twitter were credited with mobilising mass networks of dissent and protest that toppled dictators and faced down tanks and riot police. Tahrir Square is said to have inspired the Occupy movement with messages of solidarity sent by Cairo based campaigners to Occupy Wall Street.

But maybe we mistook democracy for populism in countries that had no history of democratic governance, and were already riven with religious and political splits. For very quickly, democratic aspiration gave way to bitter factionalism, extremism and violence as new players such as Isis and Al-Nusra moved in.

What we had not bargained for was the power of social media platforms not only to give everyone a voice, to be a publisher and express a point of view, but the hidden dangers of being able to freely choose what to believe and whom to follow. It is this element of personal choice that has proved a powerful recipe for tribalism: if we can choose who to follow and what to believe, we follow the easy path of self-affirmation and ‘group think’. We follow people who agree with us and unfollow those who dont; and in doing so we diminish our capacity to be challenged by uncomfortable facts and people. There is nothing to provoke us to think and reflect in ways that enrich our understanding.

Critically, that includes our understanding of others and why they think so differently to ourselves. This empathetic understanding of others is even more vital than so called fact-based rational analysis. Put simply, the less we know how others think, the less we know.

The result is filter bubbles, anti-semitic conspiracy theories and an endless array of online parallel universes populated by people and sets of ‘alternative facts’ closed off from each other. This is toxic for it is but a short step to then rubbish, damn and de-humanise those who are ‘not like us’. In an online world, you can choose your tribe, however way out, exotic and weird its values and viewpoint; weird that is, to everyone except you and your people because you alone know ‘the truth’.

Nor is this danger only applicable to fringe groups and extremists, for different gradations of the same creeping polarisation is infecting broader public debate online and offline.

One example is the final report National Conversation on Immigration, whose authors make the telling observation that “face-to-face discussion is different to the online debate on immigration” :

While the National Conversation on Immigration showed that there is a moderate and balancing majority on immigration, this is not reflected everywhere. We found considerable difference between the face-to-face discussions in the citizens’ panels and an online debate dominated by relatively few voices, where those with stronger views at either end of the spectrum are most likely to voice their opinions. The difference between online and offline debate was profound……

The open survey was taken online by 9,327 people. The red line marks out the spread of responses – look at the peaks at either end of the red line.

NationalConversation on Immig

page 3 of final report

(See page 3 of final report)

As the report comments:

A majority of the online survey respondents chose either the minimum or the maximum score: almost one-third (31%) gave a score of 1 out of 10 and a quarter (23%) gave a score of 10 out of 10. This helps to explain the highly polarised nature of online debate. These most strongly-held views were much rarer in the nationally representative ICM research, where just 15% of the ICM sample chose either end of the spectrum: in ICM’s representative poll, just 8% chose the lowest score of one, and just 7% the highest score of ten.

In another piece of research by social social scientists in America, several hundred people – a mix of Democrats and Republicans – were encouraged to follow a Twitter bot that re-tweeted messages opposed to their point of view. Far from building understanding, it pushed them to a more polarised viewpoint.

These findings chime with a recent article by Jamie Bartlett “How social media makes fascists of us all”, in which he makes the chilling connection between the growth of social media and a new kind of fascistic style of politics unwittingly embraced even by those on the Left. It is a hardened, angry, blame-seeking politics that prizes action over reflection, and loyalty over independent thinking. It is hard wired into the nature of social media with its constant, disconnected stream of news,comments and updates that work against careful, deliberative thought. And he sees tribalism as endemic to social media:

It is the return of tribalism, which is the natural state for social media. This is because in our hyper-connected, over-saturated yet under-informed world, we are encircled by enemies and protected by fellow travellers. Joining a tribe is the only way to survive.

Moreover he sees nothing in it that expands our understanding or challenges our thinking. He goes on to remark:

online there is always a fact or a comment or a hot take to prove your side is right and the other side is utterly wrong. When was the last time you actually changed your mind after discussing something online? I’ll answer that for you: probably never, because who has time online for the long, careful, respectful discussion necessary to see the other side of it?

The role of Cambridge Analytica

This brings us to Cambridge Analytica and the role of ‘dark money’ (defined as money from unknown sources) and online political advertising to spread disinformation and ‘fake news’ in order to game election results.

To be clear there is nothing new in so-called ‘fake news and disinformation by governments, corporations and the media. What is new is the scale and power of online tools to effect changes in an individual’s world view through highly personalised disinformation campaigns. This is for two reasons:

Firstly, our every action online leaves a digital trace as our lives translate ever more into electronic media and data. This enables online platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter to collect vast amounts of personal data by continuously monitoring its users. This ‘surveillance capitalism’ enables the creation of extremely accurate psychological profiles on both individuals and groups based on who we communicate with, what we ‘like’, and the content we consume and share such as photos, movies, music, news. These profiles include personal beliefs, opinions and behaviour and importantly: the ability to predict which side you will ultimately vote for in an election. Indeed, research has suggested Facebook ‘likes’ alone enable algorithms to assess your personality better that your own friends could, or indeed levels of self-understanding achieved through introspection (1). Cambridge Analytica claimed to have individual profiles on over 200 million American citizens.

The second reason follows on from the first: it is because algorithmic intelligence is able to capture and model indepth profiles on each of us, that tailored political advertising is able to frame a given message that speaks to us directly. Because only I see it on my newsfeed, it is possible to frame messages that may even say opposing things to different groups and individuals but always personalised in a way that triggers an emotional response. Unlike a printed newspaper article or party political flyer where all of us see the same message, read the same argument, agree or disagree on the points made, there is no such need for consistently worded common message in online political advertising. Its reach and power is precisely because a given message can be tailored and framed in multiple ways. Moreover, the information source remains unknown – there is as yet no legal obligation to identify the author.

All that is needed is for you ‘like’ ‘share’ or ‘retweet’. While you may not have bothered to check its source or veracity, ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ will take it on trust because the message came from a trusted source -YOU!
As Mark Turnbull, former Managing Director of SCL Elections said in an unguarded moment:
We just put information into the blood stream of the internet and then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again… It has to happen without anyone thinking, ‘That’s propaganda’. Because the moment you think, ‘That’s propaganda’, the next question is: Who put that out?

None of this is to say that we must abandon social media; it is too much a part of our lives, family and friendships. But it is to say that we need to take a big step back and re-balance our use of social media by combining it with more deliberative democratic forums that are face to face, as well as online. There are now a number of groundbreaking experiments underway with proven power to re-balance our politics and act as an anti-dote to fake news. It is this that forms the next and last of the three blogs

Footnote 1: Youyou, Kosinski, Stillwell, Computer-based personality judgments are more accurate than those made by humans, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Jan 2015, 112 (4) 1036-1040; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1418680112. Quoted in Data and Democracy report by Constitutional Society
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