Can democracy survive the internet?

Can democracy survive the internet?
Comment: The digital political spectacle is a phenomenon that could prove fatal to democracy in America and beyond, writes Wilson Dizard.
7 min read
07 Nov, 2018
'Finding ourselves jumping at the latest alert is a feature, not a bug' [AFP]
The 2018 midterm elections are now over. Democrats have taken back the House and Republicans retain a narrow lead in the Senate. The racist fearmongering and barrage of lies President Donald Trump unleashed in the last weeks did not work, except where it did.

White nationalist Steve King retained his seat in Iowa, as two Democratic candidates fell to Republicans. Andrew Gillum would have been the first black governor of Florida, but lost narrowly to Trump loyalist Ron deSantis.

Republicans gained seats in the Senate, holding on to their majority. The day after the election, and a disastrous press conference for the president, Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned, throwing the future of Department of Justice into question.

Democrats with dozens of lower profile wins in the House of Representatives, some still being counted as of early Wednesday morning, scored both practical and symbolic victories.

The first Muslim American women took office on the party's ticket, and the party won the right to form investigative committees to bedevil the White House into 2020.

American democracy in 2018, however, is stuck between hospital and a hospice, severely ill but with injuries that may just be survivable.

Trump's message of hate and fear prevailed amid brazen voter suppression efforts in key states. But the country also expressed a broad rejection of Trump's Republican party, which won races in rural states and districts but lost out to Democrats in suburban areas.

Reds got redder as blues got bluer. Trump won the spectacle of division nationwide as Democrats won the process in Washington DC.

But Trump's presidency has turned public life into a matter of spectacle, and away from process.

Representative government only works if its goals are optimistic, and not simply a means of carrying out revenge on rivals, fellow citizens or public servants

Creating a larger than life presence in his loyalists' minds was no accident, but rather a calculated move, abetted by a world so saturated with screens and social media that spectacle becomes the currency of our lives both off and online. This digital political spectacle is a phenomenon that could prove fatal to democracy in America and elsewhere.

The ringleader of the posse threatening American democracy is the Internet itself, tearing asunder the assumptions of reality upon which politics depend.

It's possible to have healthy turnout and a broken democracy, as long as voters think they're voting against each other, and not for the general good of all.

Representative government only works if its goals are optimistic, and not simply a means of carrying out revenge on rivals, fellow citizens or public servants. That's a mindset Trump's presidency, using the internet as a shovel, has buried alive.There's no guarantee it will claw its way back.

Trump's bombastic disregard for constitutional restraints and his party's enabling of his meanest instincts are often called "not normal" by his opponents. But an American president mobilising right wing resentment and white identity politics has plenty of precedent. Trump is just doing it an particularly crass, unlettered way.

What's not normal is the technology that enables him. Smartphones, the internet and even easy-to-use graphic design software have precipitated a rapid mutation of human behaviour. In the scale of history, this is what's "not normal". Hatred is old. Twitter is new.

We should consider the possibility that democracy and the internet are incompatible.

And while this may sound like fearmongering itself - blaming technology by reflex or overestimating the impact of machines - the rise of an international authoritarian league has followed the widening of the Information Superhighway to wrap around the world. It would be foolish to consider the correlation merely a coincidence.

There has been a lot of sound and fury in Washington over the role of social media in public life, with a particular emphasis by some on how it renders the voting public vulnerable to manipulation by foreign enemies.

Others, usually conservatives, claim Facebook and Twitter unfairly restrict right wing views to appease political correctness. Both of these claims miss an even more grim diagnosis: The internet in any incarnation endangers democracy.

The reasons aren't so much political as they are psychological or neurochemical. Social media profits off its ability to grab hold of our brainstems and shake cash out of our conscious experiences.

The sharp claws of social media have wound around Trump's brainstem, exacerbating his already severe narcissism

Each like or reaction stabs out a measure of dopamine or endorphins at a rate and in a way unknown just two decades ago. On a psychological level, the internet collapses the boundaries of space and time into devices both small and expansive.

Finding ourselves jumping or leering at the latest alert is a feature, not a bug.

Democracy relies on the assumption of linear time. Social media obliterates that pattern, recalling past outrages over and over again, denying us the mercy of forgetting that our ancestors once enjoyed. Yesterday is happening now and always, strangling today and taking tomorrow hostage.

Read more: For a window on the future of America, look to Israel

There is a reason why Trump rallies still resound with chants of "Lock her Up!" against his erstwhile rival, Hillary Clinton. It's the same reason Trump repeats the story of his 2016 victory at every big event, to loud cheers. Every time he does this, Trump supporters can glance down at their phones for an instant reminder of where they were when he won, repeated in technicolour.

The psychological consequences of the past's refusal to fade carry over into our political consciousness as well, in ways that make compromise harder and harder. Here it gets tricky to disentangle the cataclysm of Trump's presidency from technological trends.

One conclusion, however, is that Trump's own boorishness and disregard for others have not decreased thanks to his access to the internet.

Ultimately, hope lies in reasserting a commitment to solidarity with strangers

It is reasonable to assume his worst qualities became even worse, as the sharp claws of social media have wound around his brainstem, too. Access to the internet has exacerbated Trump's pathological narcissism, pumping cybernetic steroids into the seeping ego glands.

Of course, fascist politics existed before the internet drove us all to distraction. It's important to consider how previous incarnations of mass media have helped precipitate disorder - for better or for worse - on a mass scale.

Gutenberg's printing press presaged centuries of religious conflict in Europe. Newspapers and pamphlets helped spur 18th century rebellions. The telegraph and wire reports taught Americans about other Americans, and later became a crucial tool in fighting a civil war over what they learned.

Radio helped brainwash millions of Germans in a matter of years to devote their lives to Adolph Hitler, who would lead their nation to ruin, and wipe out millions. Television has hypnotised millions around the world to believe reactionary lies and warmongerers' promises of peace.

Yesterday is happening now and always, strangling today and taking tomorrow hostage

The internet, a self-replicating brand of television, is having profound effects that remain difficult to understand. Facebook apps helped genocidaires form violent flash mobs in Myanmar in 2018, just as Hutu chants of "cockroach" killed Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994. Whenever avenues of communication grow, violence follows.

"Language is biological," a teacher of mine once told me. Our thoughts come out of the words we've heard others speak, and we cross-pollinate ideas just as we share benign bacteria with hugs and handshakes.

In that light, we can think of today's dangers to democracy as molecules of callousness or inhumanity we can vaccinate against or sanitise away, but never fully defeat.

Ultimately, hope lies in reasserting a commitment to solidarity with strangers, a redoubling of habits of empathy and a recognition that votes cast for vengeance undermine democracy's optimistic hypothesis that we want what's best for each other, and we can make it happen.

Unfortunately, the internet, the medium that brings you this message, is standing in the way.

Wilson Dizard is a reporter and photojournalist covering politics, media and culture. He enjoys bicycling. 

Follow him on Twitter: @willdizard

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.