Is the Internet changing democracy as we know it?

wikipedian_protester

I have a rather complicated relationship with democracy. As a Costa Rican, it was ingrained in me from an early age that the only viable way of government is pluralist democracy, and that the balance of power could only be decided at the ballot box. My parents were fairly political, so I remember long talks about party politics at home, and became familiar with the names of all candidates as much as I did with footballers of the time. At the age of 12 I participated in the political process as a “guide”, where groups of kids would dress up in the colours of our party and stand outside of the voting precinct telling people how and where to vote. When I was 16 I volunteered to work in a warehouse distributing flags, pamphlets and key rings for our party, and I attended with my mum political events around the country where we would listen to speeches and cheer for our candidate. I still treasure those memories as an important formative experience in what is good about the democratic process.

However, this relationship has considerably soured in recent years. Because I left Costa Rica a long time ago, I had not voted in any elections for over 15 years because distance voting was not allowed, and when it was finally enabled and I was able to cast a vote at the Costa Rican embassy in London, my candidate lost. In fact, I don’t believe that I have ever voted for a winning candidate. Similarly, I am not a British citizen, so I cannot vote in any elections. As a result, I have been left feeling completely disenfranchised, and it seems like I have never had a say in the most important political decisions facing my life. I have had to witness US elections where a few voters in Florida and Ohio get to choose who gets to bomb the Middle East next. I have witnessed how the UK electorate decided to sweep the Tories into power. And I had to sit on the sidelines as the country that I call home decided to tell us to f*ck off and voted for Brexit. As I write these lines the US election is taking place, and the race appears to be closer than it is sanely possible.

Yes, I may be a little bit disillusioned with democracy right about now.

But what does this have to do with the Internet? As a detached observer of democracy, I have been troubled by various developments that are taking place online which I believe have a real effect in the democratic process. None of these are new, not a week passes by without a think piece about Millennial political disillusionment, or the rise of the alt-right. But I want to bring all of these together by arguing that what we are seeing is a fundamental change in how politics are conducted, and that these will have a serious effect on democracy.

Filter bubbles

Filter bubbles are the phenomenon by which we end up interacting only with people who already agree with our views, as dissenting opinions get blocked or unfollowed. Moreover, social media algorithms are designed to specifically feed us with things we like, so the more you click on items that confirm your biases, the more the sites will feed you the same type of information. This has the effect of creating islands of information where people share the same memes and links that tend to fit their world view, and they are never presented with different perspectives that may challenge those beliefs.

This has a polarizing effect where societies become increasingly unable to work for a common goal, and partisan allegiances are favoured because we are never presented with dissenting narratives. The ability to communicate with people who do not agree with you is an important part of democracy, and losing such a capacity can have nefarious effects, societies become gridlocked along partisan lines.

The post-factual society

As a result of the above, it seems like people are becoming more prone to suffer from misinformation. By operating in filter bubbles, the public is also more likely to be fed inaccurate and false data, which becomes factual by force of repetition. If you spend most of your time reading extremist memes filled with false information, you are more likely to trust them as fact because you never see any dismissal of such a data. This explains how it is possible for candidates to peddle outright false information time and time again, as this data is continuously shared within the filter bubbles, and even after debunked it continues to thrive online.

Clicktivism

As bad as the two previous problems are, I am perhaps more worried about the rise of what some are calling “clicktivism“. This is the phenomenon of using online platforms to engage in protest, be it by using hashtags in social media or by signing online petitions. While this type of political action is not problematic on its own, the issue we are having is that it seems to be truly affecting democratic engagement by making people believe that they have fulfilled their duty by clicking on a link, or sharing a post.

There seems to be a noticeably large disconnect between online engagement and voting. During the US Democratic primary Bernie Sanders was handily winning the online war, with levels of social media participation that exceeded anything I have ever seen. Yet these amazing rates were often not replicated in the polls, and Hillary Clinton handily beat Sanders in the overall number of votes cast. The same happened during Brexit, where I can honestly say that I never once saw a pro-Brexit post on my social timelines, yet the Leave vote won.

It is difficult to prove that there are large numbers of people who do not go out and vote because they feel that they have filled a certain responsibility by clicking on a link or sharing a hashtag, but it is hard to deny that the level of participation of the younger demographics is disappointing. In the Brexit vote, 75% of under-24 voters favoured a Remain vote, but this group underperformed considerably at the election, with only 36% of that same group turning out to vote. While this rate is part of a well-known trend, it seems like the levels of online engagement are not being replicated in real votes.

The Icelandic election also seems to prove this point. All the talk before the election pointed towards a real chance for a coalition led by the Pirate Party taking power for the first time anywhere in the world, but all of the amazing online buzz dissipated once counting began, and the culprit was once again low young voter turnout, with The Economist pointing out that youth vote seemed apathetic.

The rise of the digital right-wing

Another well-documented phenomenon is rise of the alt-right. Some corners of the Internet are teeming with right-wing rhetoric: racist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic rhetoric is widely spread in social media.

But beyond what is often reported, there is something else happening online that I find extremely troubling. In order to break out of filter bubbles, I spend a lot of time in “battleground” online spaces, where there is often a clash of political opinions. Similarly, as a gamer I tend to spend time in gaming chats, from Twitch stream chats to WoW’s infamous Trade channel. One thing that I have noticed in the last few years is that game chats are noticeably becoming right-wing, and these views are often so mainstream in those spaces that there must be an expression of a wider phenomenon. I first noticed this during the #gamergate controversy, where large parts of the gamer community became tarnished in the media as completely misogynistic. As a gamer I resented this, until I started noticing how mainstream some anti-feminist positions had become. The word “feminist” quickly became an insult, and I once had to quit a guild because of the growing rape culture that had been adopted by a number of its members.

This trend continues to this day, with pro-Trump, anti-feminist, xenophobic and racist behaviours becoming more openly vocal. I have tried to confront some of these behaviours from time to time, only to be shouted down by the right-wingers. I remember one person telling me, with no sense of irony whatsoever, that feminists needed to be forcefully shut-up to “protect free speech”.

Having said that, it is difficult to know just how much of the above is real, as often many such people admit that their racist online behaviour is not serious. “Journalists don’t get the Internet, most of this racist stuff is shitposting” is a common feeling expressed by those who were defending Pepe the Frog. It seems like for a certain demographic, posting non-politically correct views online is their version of rebelling against their parents. The much younger gamer generation has turned to the right, perhaps because it’s not real. They’re not racist, they just play it online.

Concluding

I contend that all of the phenomena described above are changing the way in which democracy works. On the one side, we have an emboldened extreme right-wing propelled by their own confirmation biases and trapped in their filter bubbles, sharing false memes that reinforce their preconceptions, fuelling a more angry and vocal minority. On the other hand, we have an increasingly distressed left wing that mistakes sharing a hashtag for political action, and then act surprised when they continue to lose important elections. Moreover, the right-wing opinions become more mainstream, and the old media is decreasingly relevant in this clickbait reality.

What can we do to change? I don’t know, I have explained that I am part of the problem as I don’t vote, and it looks like I won’t for at least the next five years. Perhaps democracy itself needs to change. As an outsider, I am baffled by the reliance in outdated and clearly inefficient systems of voting, form First Past the Post in the UK, to the US Electoral College. I will not use the B word, but perhaps it is time to look at the system once again, and perhaps decentralised systems can help.

But whatever you do, please vote whenever possible. I truly envy those who can.

Comments 6

  1. Great post, Andres. This pretty much echoes my thoughts, and I have to admit if you’d asked me 10 years ago, I would have said that the internet was a force for good as it would bring people together and allow people to experience other viewpoints and cultures. Sadly not: as a curious person, I’m keen to hear what other people have to say (hence my too-frequent forays into the Daily Mail comment pages), but it seems most people are keener on living in their bubble. I was completely shocked by the result on 24 June, not because I thought it was unlikely, but because it threw into stark relief the fact that literally 99% of the people I know are remainers. That’s what comes of living and working around Oxford and central London, and mingling mainly with academics and professionals. One thing that stands out, though, is how the standard of literacy, logic and understanding is dramatically higher on the remain side than the Brexit side. I’m conscious I’m heavily biassed towards this conclusion, and I wish there was an objective way of measuring it. Likewise, Brexiters seem to resort to violence much more easily than remainers (calls of ‘string ’em up’, incitement to riot etc.). And I won’t even mention racial slurs.

  2. Great piece Andres. Many people tend to walk into the trap of forming a quick opinion based on volatile, partial and simplified information and easy to adopt one liner opinions. Complex problems with many factors, viewpoints and large contexts are degraded to a single string of 140 characters. So the quality of democracy is endangered by non-well-formed opinions. Of course not something that is a new phenomenon in history, but the current popular social media networks may function as a catalyzer in this.

Leave a Reply