The article “Policing Propaganda” in The Economist claims that lawmakers need to start regulating politics in the media instead of the media companies making the regulations themselves. The article begins by discussing how the telegraph was first used as a way to discover the truth within politics, but over a century later news media makes politics more confusing than ever. It discusses how in America some tech companies like Twitter have done their part to regulate what kind of political content can be posted but other companies like Facebook seem to have no fear of the false information that can be spread on their platform. Similarly, in Britain political parties are trying to do their part to make sure that accurate information is being presented to the public but there’s only so much they can do. In Britain and the United States television, radio, and newspaper political advertising is restricted, but online advertisers have free reign when it comes to political content. Both countries fear overstepping the unknown legal boundaries in the legality of the tech industry. However, I agree with The Economist article and think that both countries will have a much bigger problem concerning the integrity and resilience of democracy if they don’t create limitations to online political propaganda that is constantly blurring the line between truth and lies and attacking those who are most vulnerable to political persuasion. To further create some context on why this is a problem that needs government assistance, a 2018 study from PEW found two-thirds of Americans are receiving their news from social media. Despite this, the majority of this group feels that the information they are receiving is “largely inaccurate.” I believe that the government formation of legislation that restricts the use of political advertisement is essential to maintaining democracy in the United States and Britain.
The first way that unrestricted online media works against democracy stems from the falsification of information. False information in the media often contributes to the rise of party polarization within a democracy. The author Nancy Bermeo has attributed party polarization to democratic backsliding because it affects the decision making of both the citizens and those in power. A media that is uncontrolled and creates polarization within a democracy makes it hard for citizens to determine which candidate can best meet their preferences even if it is outside of their party. Party polarization can make it easy for an us versus them mentality to form which can be detrimental to creating a liberal democracy that does what’s best for all citizens. This can also make it hard for the majority and minority party to work together and effectively do what’s best for a democratic nation.
This goes into my second point about the damage that unrestricted online media can have on democratic norms. The two norms necessary to maintain democracy according to Levitsky and Ziblatt are mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance. As I described in the media’s contribution to party polarization when the media can post untrue or exaggerated information it can make it hard for the two political parties to maintain mutual tolerance between each other. The political parties are supposed to be the gatekeepers for the norms so if they do not have mutual tolerance due to uncontrolled media attacks and are not able to effectively work together to benefit the democratic nation as a whole they leave the country vulnerable to democratic erosion.
Another reason why the United States and Britain need to establish restraints on the media is because of dangerous demagogues. In her article about demagogues, Mercieca tells about how dangerous demagogues use weaponized communication to enforce their political rhetoric on vulnerable populations. Demagoguery often lacks knowledge or accountability and rallies the base by attacking other groups. In his article about demagogues, Gutman explains how demagogues also utilize extremist rhetoric which can be single-minded and not allow for other ideas. Unlimited freedoms in the media give demagogues the perfect opportunity to get into power and erode democracy through their antipluralist and uninformed bases.
Those who oppose my ideas about how the media without laws can destroy the goals of liberal democracy would probably say that such legislation contributes to constitutional retrogression. The authors Huq and Ginsberg claim that this is one of the main threats to democracy. Constitutional retrogression is the slow erosion of democracy over time. A case could be made for constitutional retrogression through media laws in America because it restricts free speech. Similarly, in Britain, this idea could be expressed through small changes to freedom and rule of law that start with media restrictions. Those who claim that the media does not need restrictions could also reference Norris in his arguments about executive aggrandizement, which is the increase in power of a country’s executive that can be used to erode democracy.
Although it is fair to worry about the impact that media restrictions can have on a country’s freedoms, the dangers of unrestricted media are much more severe. If countries allow what is said in the news media to get out of control they will lose the ability to have the inclusivity and contestation that Dahl says are so essential to liberal democracy. If nothing is done about the current state of media in the United States and Britain they could be in a situation that the authors Foa and Mounk fear where citizens become dissatisfied with the state of democracy as a whole and become more attracted to other forms of government. To conclude, Levitsky and Ziblatt’s other norm institutional forbearance applies here in being in the final support for my thesis that creating legislation that makes sure news media is being used with good and just intentions will help political institutions maintain their power for a long time and be more resilient against democratic erosion. For the democracies of the United States and Britain to avoid their downfall it is of the utmost importance that they restrain the negative impact that online media can have on their societies.
Photo by Carlos PX, Unsplash, Creative Commons Zero license.
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