How democracy came under attack | #socialmedia


Opinion: disinformation campaigns, conspiracy theories, denial of science and distrust of government distort the truth and makes democracy impossible

The 1990s may have been the zenith of democracy. Enthusiasts claimed liberal democracy had triumphed in the clash of ideologies and would henceforth provide economic success worldwide. The expectation was that successful democratic economies would seduce authoritarian countries to change. Such naïve analysis assumed democracy was essential to wealth creation, while ignoring the dislike many cultures have for liberalism’s ego-centred individualism and consumerism’s environmental destruction. Despite the Russian rouble default that brought Vladimir Putin to power, impatient neo-conservatives idealogues moved to aggressively spread democracy worldwide.

Fast forward to January 2021 and the world’s oldest democracy witnessed an insurrection by Donald Trump’s supporters trying to overturn election results because of his ‘Big Lie’ that his victory had been stolen. It became apparent just how remarkably fragile democracy is to misinformation.

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From RTÉ News, President Biden on how the storming of the US Capitol in Washington DC was one of ‘darkest days’ in America’s history

Some of the problems leading to this insurrection were specifically American: racial tensions and white supremacy have remained unresolved for centuries in the United States. However, there is probably no nation immune from political fault lines that cannot be resurrected to ignite tensions. Additionally, many throughout the Western world share a worldview that hard work and a good education achieves the American dream.

However, neo-liberal policies such as Regan’s trickle-down economics have failed to deliver the material success frequently promised, but have nonetheless spread globally. Instead, such policies have led to the migration of manufacturing to cheaper countries, a growing gap between the wealthiest and everyone else, prohibitively expensive healthcare, escalating drug use, stagnating wage levels, heavy debt burdens and poorer employment conditions for most. The 2008 economic collapse exacerbated the financial uncertainty, from which many have not recovered.

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From RTÉ News, the final Banking Inquiry report has blamed bankers for the Irish financial collapse in 2008

But rather than acknowledge the flaws in the system itself and the expectations it creates, the simpler explanation for failure to achieve success is to blame outsiders and political correctness for the decay of American values. Social media and partisan news are instrumental in spreading misinformation to feed into this narrative. These profit-driven organisations proactively retain user engagement through outrage themes such as the nation, the other, protection and fear.

Such misinformation unites groups of like-minded individuals into echo chambers that ultimately undermines trust in government. Moreover, conspiracy theories such as QAnon, Covid and anti-vax compounds this distrust, while feeding political and religious extremism. Meanwhile, social media companies seem bemused that their platforms and algorithms have been weaponised and watch apparently helplessly while continuing to profit.

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From RTÉ Radio 1’s Drivetime in 2019, Hildegaard Naughton TD and Elaine Burke from Silicon Republic on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s meetings with Irish TDs on the impact Facebook has had on the political and social landscape internationally

In such contexts, ‘alternative facts’ become acceptable; creating opportunities for grifters and unscrupulous politicians to serve personal agendas while offering simple solutions. With no sanctions for lying, it becomes an effective tactic. Indeed, the only sanctions are for those who criticise or dispute the Dear Leader’s ‘truths’ as US Republican Liz Cheney recently discovered. Over time, group psychology suggests that extremism will only grow in such isolated, self-enforcing conditions.

Unfortunately, humans are not the rational beings so beloved by economists. Instead, the primary emotional driver for most is the need to belong and find meaning in their life while minimising anxiety and uncertainty. Furthermore, our behaviour is generated more by external information than we realise and over which we have little control. That is because we all have a worldview that consists of hidden assumptions or beliefs, which creates the rules that define what to pay attention to, what things means, how to react emotionally to what is happening, and what action to take in various circumstances.

These assumptions have a powerful unconscious influence on behaviour while also being vulnerable to manipulation through false information, especially from those with in-group celebrity status. Even conscious decision-making is plagued by knowledge gaps, biases, and heuristics that adversely effects the quality of decisions. All of which rational economic models choose to ignore to simplify their models, even if doing so leads to unwelcome outcomes.

When lies become a routine tool of government, tyranny is not far behind

However, the deterioration of democracy has not been entirely organic. Some authoritarian countries have adopted various strategies to counter American global dominance and the perceived threat democracy poses. Combined with sophisticated image management for both internal and external audiences, strategies such as cyberwarfare and disinformation seek to undermine American prestige and leverage any existing conflict in democratic countries. The more mayhem becomes associated with the rule of democracy, the more any internal threat of dissension is reduced. As in any covert operation, effort is used to ensure that important local influencers – such as journalists or academics – inadvertently spread the disinformation, rather than revealing the true source.

Disinformation campaigns, conspiracy theories, denial of science and distrust of government all distort the truth which in turn makes democracy impossible. An essential freedom of democracy is having the freedom to criticise authorities without fear of retribution, but it needs agreed truths and accepted facts, otherwise compromise and governance is impossible.

The alternative model of authoritarian rule permits no such freedom and insists truth originates only in the rulers. When lies become a routine tool of government, tyranny is not far behind. Democracy is not the default social condition. We are living in interesting times, but many remain blissfully unaware of the threat. It would be unfortunate if George Orwell was wrong simply on the timing.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ






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