Social media is rotting democracy from within

It is easier to spread misinformation on social media than to correct it, and easier to inflame social divisions than to mend them. The very nature of how we engage with Facebook and the rest now helps far-right, authoritarian factions weaken the foundations of democratic systems — and even give themselves an easier pathway to seizing power.

It seems we have to admit a somewhat uncomfortable truth: Social media, in the way that it’s used now, is an authoritarian medium.

.. “It seems undeniable,” Deibert writes, “that social media must bear some of the blame for the descent into neo-fascism.”

Ten years ago, Deibert’s view — now widely shared among journalists and scholars — would have sounded absurd.

In 2009, Iranians rose up to protest against a rigged election, the so-called “Green Movement” using Facebook and YouTube clips of protests to spread their message globally. Two years later, the Arab Spring protests showed the true power of these mediums, as protest movements that made skillful use of social media for coordination and messaging toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt.

At the time, the consensus among observers was that social media was, by its very nature, democratizing. Social media facilitates the swift spread of information, allowing citizens to easily get around government censors. Social media allows rapid communication among large groups of disparate people, giving citizen activists new tools for organizing actions. The spread of social media would necessarily weaken authoritarian states and strengthen democracies — or, at least, that’s how the argument went.

There were some dissenters, like the acerbic writer Evgeny Morosov, but they were largely brushed aside in an Arab Spring-induced high. More representative was the 2013 issue of the MIT Technology Review titled “Big Data Will Save Politics,” featuring an interview with the singer Bono declaring that new technologies would be “deadly to dictators.”

.. This theory turned out to be partly true: It can be difficult to simply repress the spread of information on social media. But as we’ve come to discover, it’s equally difficult to repress the spread of disinformation. The core feature of social media that gives it democratic promise, the rapid spread of information, can be used against democracy via information overload.

A savvy person or political party looking to discredit online critics doesn’t need to ban their speech to hamstring it. Instead, they can respond with a deluge of false or misleading information, making it very hard for ordinary citizens to figure out what’s actually going on.

.. The WhatsApp propaganda in Brazil is one example of the effect Deibert is talking about. A well-funded campaign to spread false information was extremely difficult for Bolsonaro’s opponents and Brazil’s independent press to expose or discredit. The falsehoods these messages spread likely became truth in the eyes of a significant percentage of people who encountered them, many of whom would never see rebuttals and wouldn’t believe them if they did.

.. A recent study found that conservatives were more than four times as likely to share fake news on Facebook as liberals. Another study, from researchers at the University of Oxford, found that conservative users were overwhelmingly more likely to spread “junk news” (defined as outlets that “deliberately publish misleading, deceptive or incorrect information”).

“On Twitter, a network of Trump supporters consumes the largest volume of junk news, and junk news is the largest proportion of news links they share,” the Oxford researchers write. “Extreme hard right [Facebook] pages — distinct from Republican pages — share more junk news than all the other audiences put together.”

.. We’re seeing the same phenomenon beyond the US and Brazil. The Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte has cultivated an online fan base — even bringing popular social media influencers into the government — that’s known for patriotic trolling”: sending hate messages to his critics and spreading smears about them. The Philippine news site Rappler has identified a network of more than 12 million pro-Duterte propaganda accounts on various platforms, reporting that led to a concerted smear campaign against the site from Duterte’s fans. An #UnfollowRappler social media campaign cost the site tens of thousands of Facebook followers, a huge hit for an online publication that depends on clicks to stay profitable.

Social media isn’t the only — or even the primary — reason far-right populists have been able to win elections. There are all sorts of more fundamental reasons, ranging from ethnic divisionsto anxiety about crime to the weakness of the political opposition that these leaders have exploited in their rise to power. It would be absurd to blame technology for a phenomenon that has much deeper political roots.

But while the global challenge to democracy from within isn’t social media’s fault, the major platforms do seem to be making this crisis worse. The platforms by their nature allow far-right politicians to marginalize opponents, consolidate their base, and exacerbate the social divisions that helped them rise to power. It helps them act like authoritarians even inside the confines of a democratic political system.

“Social media [outlets] not only are compatible with authoritarianism; they may be one of the main reasons why authoritarian practices are now spreading worldwide,” as Deibert puts it.

Stephen Miller’s Biggest Gamble Yet

With less than a week to go before the midterm elections, President Donald Trump is warning darkly of an imminent immigrant “invasion,” deploying thousands of troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, releasing a racist ad on Twitter, and threatening to issue an executive order aimed at ending birthright citizenship.

The president has, in pundit-speak, found his “closing argument” for the 2018 campaign season.

.. “The future of the Republican Party should be tapping into … the feeling of belonging and meaning and pride that comes with being part of this whole ‘America First’ movement,” he told me. “There’s something really beautiful about people from all different walks of life … who are bound together by this big idea about American identity, and American unity, and American interests.”
.. Continuing in concern-troll mode, Miller said, “I think one of the big challenges facing modern liberalism is that there’s not a great emotional appeal to an international identity, like a citizen-of-the-world identity.
.. “Look, the current nation-state model is the product of thousands of years of political, social, and cultural evolution,” Miller said. “I mean, it was only recently, in like the last few decades, that people have tried to create an organizing principle larger than the nation-state.” The desire to root for your own native country is “intrinsic” to human nature, he told me. “You see that flag, you sing the national anthem, or you hear your team wins the gold medal … it creates a kind of pride in you that is really hard to translate.”
.. “Find today your most liberal friend, and ask them this question: Who has more of a right to a job in America—a U.S. citizen, or an illegal immigrant? And if they don’t say U.S. citizen like that”—Miller snapped his fingers—“then that means on some philosophical level they find the idea of America First objectionable.”
..  “But the idea of having official membership in the nation-state, and therefore that state has an obligation to protect you”—that was the big idea he believed voters would keep coming back for. Voters feel that connection at a visceral level, Miller suggested, and in the end they would always side with a president offering that appeal.

The Tribal Appeal of Conspiracy Theories

But one of the key points at which superstition and reason part company is the fact that superstition is non-falsifiable. If the king sacrifices an ox to Baal in the hope he will end the draught, and it rains, Baal will get the credit for the rain. If it doesn’t rain, Baal doesn’t get the blame. Instead, it must be that Baal wanted two oxen — or maybe a virgin maiden or the head of Alfredo Garcia, whatever. If you keep offering sacrifices, it will eventually rain, and when it does, “Praise Baal!”

.. The central fallacy here is the idea that conspiracy theories are reasoning toward anything at all. It is in fact a form of pseudo-reasoning: thinking backward from the proposition that a bad event must have been caused by dark forces, which (allegedly) benefit from it. Like the drunk who only looks for his car keys where the light is good, the truth-seeker only looks for evidence to support the proposition. The levees in New Orleans did not hold, Spike Lee observed, so it must be because George W. Bush had them bombed.

Of course, everything becomes so much more complicated by the fact that sometimes there are conspiracies. But they are rare, they are almost never vast, they usually fail, and when they succeed it is most often more from luck than will. Whenever you hear someone insist that “there are no coincidences,” they are revealing that they live in a world of magical realism where powerful unseen forces are treating us all like pawns. It’s a form of secular demonology.

I’ll be honest: I am far more annoyed by conservatives who traffic in conspiracy theories than liberals who do so. My reasons are twofold. As a practical matter, it bothers me because they make conservatives look bad, and I consider myself more invested in protecting my “side” from making an ass of itself. More generally, it bothers me because conservatives are supposed to understand, as a matter of philosophy, the limits of planning.

For instance, it’s one thing for liberals to claim simultaneously that George W. Bush was an idiot and that this idiot nonetheless managed to orchestrate a massive conspiracy to attack the United States on 9/11. It’s another for conservatives, presumably trained in the laws of unintended consequences, the limits of reason, and the fatal conceit of planning, to argue that the hijackers were just a bunch of patsies for an operation that would have involved hundreds or thousands of American agents — without a single whistleblower among them. This can best be visually represented by someone turning Occam’s Razor into a heavy spoon or soup ladle and beating Friedrich Hayek about the head and neck with it. But that’s what happened to people such as Morgan Reynolds and Paul Craig Roberts. Worse, these people have to believe their colleagues and ideological comrades — whom they knew and for whom they often worked — were in fact brilliant mass murderers.

.. I increasingly feel more like a spectator to American politics than I ever have before. It’s really quite liberating, if exhausting. Because I have zero personal loyalty to, or emotional investment, in Donald Trump, I feel no need to defend him from legitimate criticism, never mind bend my understanding of conservatism to his behavior and rhetoric.

.. Because humans are wired to believe that their leaders are worthy of being the leader, they bend their views to extol the character traits and priorities of the leader. Today, definitions of good character are being bent to fit Trump’s character, and the yardstick of what amounts to being presidential is being shaved down to a nub to match Trump’s conduct.

.. Newt Gingrich is a great example of how everything must be bent to the president’s personal needs. The man who led the expansion of NATO and the passage of NAFTA long ago cast aside these essential parts of his legacy, like so much ballast, in order to stay afloat on the Trumpian tide. But on Thursday, he reached a new low. When asked about a possible Supreme Court fight to release Trump’s tax returns, Gingrich said, “We’ll see whether or not the Kavanaugh fight was worth it.”
.. I’m sorry, the 40-plus-year fight to get constitutionalists on the Court wasn’t about protecting Donald Trump from embarrassment or criminal jeopardy. The reason why the Kavanaugh fight united nearly the entire conservative and Republican coalition wasn’t about circling the wagons around Trump. Indeed, the only reason the Right unified around Kavanaugh was that it wasn’t about Trump. If Trump had picked Jeanine Pirro, you would not have seen the Federalist Society, The Weekly StandardCommentaryNational Review, et al. rush to support her.
.. During the confirmation fight, before the sexual-McCarthyism phase, conservatives — including, most emphatically, Kavanaugh himself — insisted that the charge that Kavanaugh would be a Trump crony on the bench was everything from wrong to an outrageous slander. Newt himself described the stakes very differently. When the fight was on, it was all about decency and patriotism.Now that the fight is over, Newt is saying “never mind.” None of it would be “worth it” if Kavanaugh doesn’t protect the president’s tax returns — which candidate Trump said he would release! It profits a man nothing to lose his soul for all the world, but for Trump’s tax returns?

.. Transactional Shmansactional

This is the fatal flaw with the “transactional” defense of Trump. Very few people seem capable of sticking to it. The transactional argument holds that one can be critical of the man while celebrating what he is accomplishing (or what is being accomplished on his watch by Cocaine Mitch and others). In private, most of the conservatives I talk to around the country offer some version of this defense. And I find it utterly defensible, as far as it goes. Indeed, my own position of praising the good and condemning the bad is a version of the transactional defense, even if I was a critic of making the transaction in the first place.

.. Indeed, the president’s job description is being retroactively rewritten as Media Troll in Chief.