This article was written in response to “Policing Propaganda”, published in The Economist, November 30th, 2019.
The recent development of social media sites has introduced an entirely new platform for politics. The internet provides the opportunity for discussion and interaction between people far and wide. Communication is no longer limited by time or distance. This is what has led to a recent surge in the popularity of social media apps and sites. Unfortunately, as people connect, they group themselves according to their preferences and commonalities, which increases contestation and polarization online. They are also more vulnerable to the allure of populism.
Katherine Cramer, in her book The Politics of Resentment, explains how people align themselves according to social identity and similarities in values, lifestyle, and beliefs. She uses the case of Wisconsin to show how people side with political groups based on this sense of identity. She calls this “group consciousness.” The internet assists individuals in finding a group who shares the same identity. Once they do, they surround themselves with it by subscribing only to news sites that cater to their preferences. However, the information published on these sites can be biased. A study showed that 75% of participants could not differentiate between real and fake news. This is because when we read something that aligns with our beliefs, we immediately perceive it as true. When something does not align with our preferences, we assume it is false. 9% of social media users have even gone as far as blocking or unfriending someone who posts something about politics that they have disagreed with. 18% of these people did it to a member of their own family. This creates a less tolerant atmosphere, with less stimulating discussion and more polarization between those with opposing political views.
In this article “Policing Propaganda”, published in The Economist, the author examines the extent and consequences of politicians’ presence on social media, as well as the pressure on lawmakers to regulate digital politics. I strongly agree with the author, believing that the technology creators and bosses are not adequately prepared to protect democracy online. The regulations they have put in place are not strong enough to slow the acceleration of democratic erosion that the invention of the internet has caused. As Levitsky and Zieblatt write in their book How Democracies Die, there must be guardrails in place to protect office from authoritarians and populists. It is the duty of the political parties to recognize these characteristics and keep those who exhibit them off the ballot. As a second guardrail, it is the role of journalists and reporters to share the truth. They exercise their right to freedom of speech and use it for the benefit of the people, by making them aware of the actions of those in power. However, the internet makes it very difficult for these guardrails to function successfully. Politicians can subscribe to populist antics and share extremist rhetoric to their millions of followers in a matter of seconds. When the digital press attempts to hold our leaders responsible for their online presence, it is easy for them to avoid accountability by misdirecting or delegitimizing the source.
The 2016 election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is a prime example of how the internet allowed the rise of a populist leader. According to Nathaniel Persily’s article, “Can Democracy Survive the Internet”, half of Trump’s media budget was spent on digital media. His team purchased ads on social media, banners on YouTube, and even Facebook live-streamed presidential debates with personal commentary. From January to August, Donald Trump’s Twitter following doubled to around 13 million. Millions of people online were exposed to his extremist rhetoric, and they were retweeting, liking, and commenting on it. His messages mainly contained derogatory adjectives paired with his opponents’ names (6). He called Hillary Clinton “nasty” and “crooked”. He retweeted fake news stories that claimed she hired fake protestors to disrupt his rallies. The conspiracy theory “Pizzagate”, which proclaimed Hillary and her campaign team were involved in a sex trafficking ring, resulted in a man opening fire on a pizza parlor in Washington D.C. The press was helpless against the attacks on digital media. When they tried to confront Trump or spread truth, he redirected readers’ attention to his opponent’s “crimes” and more fake news or lashed back at the press. His ability to unite people under him was even greater than his ability to tear down those who opposed him. His most used pronoun was “we” as he sided with the people and promised them he would “Make America Great Again.” Large groups formed by social identity took Trump’s tweets as truth when they shared values. This made his social media presence even more impactful.
The majority of Trump’s digital campaign tactics can be compared to that of a populist. Levistsky wrote that a populist leader would be recognizable by their attacks on opponents, willingness to curtail the liberty of media, tolerance of violence, and rejection of democratic rules. The most dangerous of his tactics was his “weaponized communication”, which represents a dangerous demagoguery. He promoted fake news that skewed public opinion of candidates. Trump criminalized Hillary and never saw her as an equal opponent. He did not adhere to the Rule of Law and avoided being held accountable for his offensive tweets and hate speech by instead directing public attention to the flaws of the press.
After the 2016 election, there was a call for regulation on digital politics. There was worry that the internet had become more harmful than helpful in regard to politics. As The Economist points out, technology firms implemented mechanisms to protect democracy. Twitter banned political advertisements and Facebook began to label fact-checked fake news. I believe these regulations are a step in the right direction, but are not enough to slow democratic erosion. Tech bosses are motivated by profit, not democratic preservation, and therefore the rules they implement are too relaxed. Further, some social networking states are owned and operated by other countries, meaning they have no restrictions for American politics online. I agree with The Economist’s call for lawmakers to step up and make stricter rules pertaining to candidate’s behavior online. As the use of social networking sites increases, now is not the time to hide behind our screens and get swept up in the world wide web of conspiracy theories and populism. Now is the time to protect democracy from electronic erosion.
Cramer, Katherine J. The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker. , 2016. Print.
Stayton, Jennifer. “Fake News Study Finds Truth Has ‘Very Little Influence’ On What We Believe.” KUT, 18 Feb. 2020, www.kut.org/post/fake-news-study-finds-truth-has-very-little-influence-what-we-believe.
Rainie, Lee, and Aaron Smith. “Social Networking Sites and Politics.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, Pew Research Center, 12 Mar. 2012, www.pewresearch.org/internet/2012/03/12/main-findings-10/.
Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. Penguin Books, 2018.
Nathaniel Persily. “Can Democracy Survive the Internet?” 28 Journal of Democracy vol 28, no. 63, 2017.
Tsur, Oren, et al. “The Data Behind Trump’s Twitter Takeover.” POLITICO Magazine, 29 Apr. 2016, www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/04/donald-trump-2016-twitter-takeover-213861.
Jennifer R. Mercieca (2019) Dangerous Demagogues and Weaponized Communication, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 49:3, 264-279,