About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Monday, May 24, 2021

A dangerous new world

How social media promotes radical extremism with a high potential to undermine democracy as we know it

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | Democracy is in crisis. Globally. The risk is not the effort of tyrants. It is the naivety of liberals. For a century, two institutions underpinned democracy, political parties and the mass media. Political parties provided organization to aggregate and articulate interests. The mass media offered a platform through which interests could be publicly expressed. Both these institutions were centrally organized, with filters editing the tone of the interests that gained public expression. Their success lay in the ability to build a consensus by moving opinions towards the center. How?

In the West, political parties were largely divided between the right and the left. These formed the ideological base of each party. Large democracies like the USA, UK, France and Germany were dominated by two parties –right and left. In the smaller democracies of Belgium, Holland, Norway, Sweden, etc. no single party could win an outright majority and therefore relied on coalitions to govern. Italy is a large democracy without two dominant parties that spread along the right and left continuum.

But in all these cases, no political party could win an election by relying entirely on its base. So, during elections the real contest was over the center. This therefore forced political parties to moderate their policy and other positions to win centrists. The same applied to the mass media. In order to win a large audience, most media sought to appeal to a wider audience and could therefore not afford ideological purity. Those who sought purity built a fanatical following but remained fringe media.

Political parties brought together diverse and sometimes conflicting interests and held them together through negotiation and compromise. Those with radical ideas and intolerant of divergent views were often disciplined or even thrown out of the party. Outside of the mainstream parties, one could only form a fringe party without hope of capturing power singly. Those that got a chance to sit in cabinet only did so by being part of a coalition with a large traditional party. This meant that they had to moderate themselves.

The mass media acted in similar ways. At the heart of a democracy is the idea that the public should be well informed if they are to make a good choice. Media had therefore to be not only truthful but also accurate; it had to be fair and balanced, it had to try to be impartial and objective and it had to provide context. These are the values that define traditional journalism. To publish or broadcast anything, it had to go through gatekeepers – editors, subeditors, proof readers etc. And it had to be subjected to the house style of the media institution, its rules and values.

Studies show that when someone is writing something and knows that it is going to be peer reviewed before it is published, they tend to be more thoughtful, more factual, and more moderate. They also avoid making extreme claims and assertions. However, when restraints for review and approval are removed, people’s intellectual thoroughness declines as does their attention to the factual accuracy. Thus, by providing these filters, the mass media moderated public debate and improved its factual basis.

Then comes social media. This has turned the tables upside down. To post anything on social media, someone has no gate keepers. And to be effective, one needs to stand out of the crowd and be bold and radical. The more extreme one’s claims, the more it tends to attract the attention of the micro communities that populate this space. Human beings suffer from confirmation bias i.e. we often look for claims and opinions that agree with our preexisting, prejudices, biases and beliefs. Hence each micro community on social media will attract a community of like-minded people.

Furthermore, studies also show that when you put people of similar opinions in a common space for a discussion, they will reinforce each other’s biases, prejudices and convictions, pushing everyone to the extreme of their beliefs. However, when you put people of divergent views and values into a common space for discussion, participants tend to move towards the center of their opinions, thereby moderating their biases, prejudices and convictions.  This is exactly the role traditional political parties and traditional media did. Social media does the exact opposite. Its greatest attribute is to mobilize the angriest. Moderates find limited traction.

The mistake has been to think that social media is a democratizing force. Yet it is a political tool that any group – whether anarchist or totalitarian, liberal or fascist, terrorist or otherwise can use to pursue its ends. These ends can be democratizing or seeking to undermine democracy. The problem is that because social media mobilizes the most extreme and angry voices, the most successful political groups on it are those that are radical, extremist and intolerant of divergent views i.e. anti-democratic.

The first democratic experiment in Western political development was the city state of Athens in 594 BC with the election of Solon as archon eponymous (ruler or lord). The democracy that ruled Athens for 190 years (ending with its defeat by Sparta in 404 BC) was a chaotic mess in large part because it was direct. Every Athenian male citizen could go to the assembly and vote on every issue. Victory went to the most eloquent taking the most extreme positions to win the hearts of the hoards.

Socrates, the leading Greek philosopher of the time, while defending the right to free speech strongly opposed democracy. He called it a government by a debating society that appealed to emotions as opposed to reason. He was sentenced to death by the democratic assembly. His most famous student, Plato, wrote the strongest denunciations of democracy, proposing a government by philosopher kings and later by dictators.

Modern democracy and its representative institutions like parliament elected through political parties moderated the passions of the masses. Social media has returned us to direct democracy and its results can be seen. It is breaking the power of traditional parties and mass media and with them, their gatekeeping role plus their moderating influence on the passions of the masses.

The election of Donald Trump in USA, Rodrigo Duterte in Philippines, Brexit, etc. are the first but not the last signs. The West will have to come to terms with this development and realize that what they consider to be a democratizing force could turn out to be the instrument that destroys democracy, at least as we have always known it.



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