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Democracy for the Digital Society

Executive Vice President Dawn Nakagawa analyzes the state of discourse in this election year and how social media has impacted our political process.

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The global digital network is in a constant state of transformation and evolution and, because of its central position in our lives, we are shaped and changed by it. The multi-modal, user-generated, programmable, on-demand, virtual universe is increasingly our primary source of information, connection, community and meaning. Traditional social, political and cultural institutions that have framed our society are being fundamentally challenged to adapt to the rules of this ungoverned space. Governments most of all. 
 
The key source of meaning in society is through socialized communication and individual interpretation of it is highly influenced by the mechanism or medium of communication[1]. Although Marshall McLuhan’s assertion that the “Medium is the message” may overstate the case, we should not underestimate the importance of the norms, practices and conditions of the virtual environment and its influence on our worldview and behavior. 

In this paper, we will attempt to shed light on some of the characteristics - both programmed and collectively user-generated – of our communication technology and the opportunities and consequences for our political lives. The range of issues presented to governments by digital technologies goes far beyond our political culture. From disruption of industry and labor to the enhanced vulnerability presented by the Internet of things, governments have a complex landscape of changes to navigate. Our focus is the impact of communication technology on culture and how we must adapt our democratic institutions and practices for the digital age. 
 
 
The range of issues presented to governments by digital technologies goes far beyond our political culture
 
The World as We Know It
 
Despite its apparent chaos, the world has become much more predictable – in a fashion. As more and more of our time is spent online and on social media, our understanding of the world around us is shaped by what we find there. Mostly what we find is predicated on our expectations. Whether topics we are interested in, sources we trust, the networks we have joined or opinions we appreciate, they are all readily available in abundance in our social media feed and our email inbox. We need look no further. And when we do, not to fear, our personal algorithm will work hard to interpret what we mean based on our past online behavior and deliver more of what we want. 
 
Through a process of self-selection that is augmented by increasingly sophisticated predictive algorithms, our experience of the world through social media and the Internet becomes a reflection of what we already believe. Over time, perspectives that differ from our own become more scarce and elusive. Our weakness for conformation bias[2] leads us willingly into the echo chamber wherein our beliefs and opinions are consistently reinforced, strengthening our commitment to them. 
 
There is potential for this virtual reality to narrow our perspective on the world, blinding us to what lays beyond the box we have effortlessly built for ourselves. While the potential for this to limit our knowledge is low, the adverse effect on our ability to accept alternative opinions when we occasionally confront them, is significant. The comments section of any publication provides convincing evidence that many people struggle with views that diverge from their own though they have no problem expressing deep animosity toward them. 
 
The comments section of any publication provides convincing evidence that many people struggle with views that diverge from their own

To the Most Outrageous Go the Spoils
 
In the past, information was controlled by the powerful and delivered through a small number of media sources. We had a relatively shared worldview defined by those who controlled the channels of communication. Sources were few though generally trusted. When Walter Cronkite spoke, the nation listened and few questioned his word. 
 
Today, social media provides the platform upon which everyone can broadcast. Awe inspiring stories can spread like wildfire and set in motion innumerable acts of kindness. Appeals for help can rally thousands of strangers to donate for a child’s operation or for the safe return of a loved one. Wrong doings by governments and powerful corporations can no longer be so easily covered up.  The Chinese government discovered this when it tried to bury the Wengzou train accident in 2011. Coverage on social media led to a public outcry instigating an investigation and ultimately improved safety standards on rail lines across the country. 
 
The dark side of so many megaphones is that the cacophony of voices competing for our attention is overwhelming. New and old media alike, struggle to permeate the chaos to drive traffic to their sites. They resort to preying on basic human emotions with sensational images and inflammatory titles designed to incite enquiry. This baiting of the audience  - “clickbait”  - often panders in fear, greed, outrage and anger with stories of wrong doing and human tragedy. It thrives on demonizing public figures, detailing disaster and provoking voyeurism by exploiting privacy. 
 
Such hyperbole and vitriol is adversely affecting political discourse. Views in conflict with our own belief system are presented with ridicule.  ALL CAPS OUTRAGE is the primary way in which we learn about the positions of those on the other side of the aisle. Repeatedly made to look ridiculous, incredulity and indignation have become our conditioned response to anyone who aligns with such views. We fail to see that those who do, are being baited the same way about our positions and beliefs. 
 
Similar polarization – or in multi-party systems, fragmentation – characterizes political life in many democracies

The levels of political polarization and fragmentation we are seeing in many democracies are encouraged and intensified by this clickbait media culture. In 2014, Pew Research did a poll that concluded:
 
“Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades. These trends manifest themselves in myriad ways, both in politics and in everyday life. And a new survey of 10,000 adults nationwide finds that these divisions are greatest among those who are the most engaged and active in the political process.
 
Similar polarization – or in multi-party systems, fragmentation – characterizes political life in many democracies.  The politicians are not immune from the conditioning and are expected by their supporters to align unwaveringly with partisan positions. Compromise becomes impossible when shaking hands with your opponent equates to fraternizing with the enemy. 
 
If You Can’t Say Anything Nice, Please See the Comments Section
 
Simultaneous to this political fragmentation, the quality and tone of the public discourse on political issues has deteriorated. Politicians and their supporters have been known to speak about each other in less than generous terms on occasion throughout history. Deliberate insults and public personal attacks, however, have always been largely condemned  - and still are for the most part. The exception being in the comments section of almost any online publication. 
 
Public debate now plays out in virtual public spaces. The advent of the comments section was intended to gather the ideas of many, to engage audiences in an interactive relationship and possibly co-creation.  No doubt it has provided a useful platform for doing so in many cases and for many publications over the years. 
 
These partisan rants are the Internet equivalent of road rage

Nonetheless, platforms of public engagement are often hijacked by our ability to be quite nasty, particularly in conditions of anonymity.  Anyone can comment on almost any topic at any time and say anything they want. And they do. A short walk through the comment section will likely feature defamation, slander and often profanity. Similar behavior is common on Twitter, which reads like a scrolling comments section and regularly features public spats between celebrities.  The more political the content, the more uncivilized the responses to it. The tone and content of a typical comments section demands near constant moderation[3]. This has made hosting the section cost prohibitive. As of late August 2016, NPR disabled its comments section all together joining the ranks of Recode, The Verge, Reuters, Mic, Popular Science, The Week, and USA Today’s FTW.
 
These partisan rants are the Internet equivalent of road rage – potentially damaging, but often fleeting and inconsequential – but for the pervasiveness of the phenomenon. The Internet has enabled the venting of hostilities toward strangers in a public space to become a cultural norm. The spill over into our political dialogue is evident. So accepted is verbal brutality on political issues that we celebrate the most obnoxious pundits from both sides and, in our politicians, many mistake it for authenticity.  
 
 
Fact - Resistant Humans
 
Alongside political polarization and the deterioration of our public discourse, trust in institutions of authority, including government, has been at historical lows for nearly a decade in the United States and many parts of Europe[4]
 
Social media and communication technology alone cannot explain this distrust which emerges from a complex array of causes, most importantly the financial collapse of 2008. Experts, financial institutions and governments all failed to foresee or prevent a disaster which cost the livelihoods and financial future of millions of people. 
 
Still, digitalization of everything makes for a much more transparent society. Information, which used to be the source of power, is harder to keep secret. From the Panama papers, to mass surveillance by the NSA, to everything on WikiLeaks, we are often disappointed by revelations of deception, self-interest and evil perpetrated by institutions of authority historically entrusted with our collective welfare.
 
Even science has been tainted. Too often one “study” or another is exposed to have been funded by special interest groups or corporations whose goals predictably furthered by the findings.  
 
Fear, distrust and identity politics have performed impressively in the U.S. Primary contests

The growing skepticism casts a shadow on a wide range of institutions from political and religious to scientific and academic. Expertise has come to be questioned and data often ignored or outright rejected.  Whether it be denial of climate change, the vilification of immigrants as the root of all evil or the pretense that an ever-increasing public debt is not a problem, the ability to deny the facts in the face of great evidence, has important consequences for democracy. 
 
According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, trust in government has hovered around 40% globally among the general population since 2008[5] and there is growing divide between the Informed Public and the Mass Population.[6] The 2016 survey found a disparity in trust levels between the top 15% of the population (in terms of education and income) and the other 85%. The disparity is largest US where 64% of the Informed Public report trust versus 45% among the Mass Population – a 19-point gap. The United Kingdom and France also present large gaps of 17 and 16, respectively. 
 
The potential to exploit this disparity for political advantage is proving too tempting to resist. And a proliferation of alternative news sites peddling misinformation and conspiracy theories to the distrustful exacerbates their fear with unfortunate results for political contests on both sides of the Atlantic. 
 
Fear, distrust and identity politics have performed impressively in the U.S. Primary contests, having delivered a Republican candidate that publicly embraces all three tactics unapologetically. Similarly, the vote to leave the EU was highly influenced by a campaign designed to foment distrust of experts and the political class as well as a fear of immigrants. 
 
 
Saving Our Democracy
 
The conditions of our society are not wholly new. The eve of WWI witnessed fierce competition at the political poles across the Western world. Currents of incivility have at times run through political campaigns and often find voice in the debates of Parliaments across Europe.  Distrust of elites and experts has percolated at times of revolutions throughout history. 
 

We are easily seduced by emotional manipulation, prone to confirmation bias and find it too easy to be brutal from behind a mask

Predictive algorithms, click bait, WikiLeaks and the comment section are not accountable for where we find ourselves. Much of it can be explained by the weaknesses of the human condition: we are easily seduced by emotional manipulation, prone to confirmation bias and find it too easy to be brutal from behind a mask. The role of the Internet and social media has been to provide a platform with an abundance of opportunities to give into the lesser angels of our nature. Preying on human weakness is what drives the revenue model.
 
The point of this summary is not to condemn social media and communication technology which was has provided incredible opportunities for collaboration, democratized information and empowered millions with financial and educational tools they could not have access to otherwise. It is to shed some light on how social media and digital communication technology is having a destabilizing effect on social and political norms and therefore influence our political culture.  The consequences present unique challenges to liberal democracies which rely on the support of an informed and engaged public and a social contract based on trust, to establish effective governance. The current state of political polarization, general distrust of authority and uncivil discourse is an intensifying challenge to our democracies, but one that we can overcome.  By recognizing the context in which we are operating we can develop democratic institutions, tools and mechanisms adapted to it. 
 
Now is the time for political innovation. There are projects underway that hold promise. Some governments are increasing public trust and bureaucratic competence by adopting technology to improve the delivery of public services. Others are finding new ways to engage the public in legislative development by adopting deliberative polling. Still others are finding ways to increase transparency and de politicize certain issue areas by empowering bureaucracy and changing the appointment process. 
 
While few would ever advocate for turning back the clock, our digital society is experiencing growing pains in its transition from the simple analogue world we previously enjoyed (and suffered through). The benefits of the global communication network far outweigh the challenges it can give rise to and it will inevitably be part of the tool box utilized to adapt political governance to the current era. Effective solutions will not only adjust for current conditions to deliver on the promise of effective governance, but in so doing, restore trust in democracy. 
 
 
Dawn Nakagawa is the Executive Vice President of the Berggruen Institute
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    [1] Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Networked Society, 2001,2010, p. 97   [2] Confirmation bias is the tendency to selectively focus on information that confirms one’s beliefs. Studies from Stanford (1979) and Ohio State University (2009) have demonstrated our tendency to spend more time on material and research confirming our beliefs even when asked to do the opposite. We also tend to remember facts and figure that support our position.    [3] This online behavior in question is not trolling which are extreme cases when comments become violent often including threats of rape and murder.    [4] Pew Research, “Government at a Glance 2013, OECD Library   [5] Respondents indicated trust in government on a 9 point scale. Only    [6] Defined by levels of education and economic factors. Informed publics represent about 15% of population; Mass population represents about 85%.