Questions About Democracy From the US Election


The following post was written the day before the news of allegations that Donald Trump was collaborating with the Russian government due to the possible existence of compromising video material of a sexual nature. This post discusses the challenge to democracy that is posed by Fake News and the emergence of the Post Truth political era. While we don’t yet know whether the allegations are true, post truth emphasises that, true or not, the impact of the allegations on what people believe and on the political system itself may be more important.

If the allegations that are being made, true or not, undermine public confidence in the American political system and in the new President they will have had a very substantial political impact. This impact would only have been possible in the wider context of the information technology enabled way that people now access their news today.

 

The American election highlighted new issues about democracy and information technology. Are people becoming more extreme? What is the impact of technology enabled foreign election interference? What impact will post truth politics have and do all politicians need to Tweet now? This post continues the discussion on this blog of the impact that information technology is having on democracy. This is an area that is changing very quickly.

Is information technology making people more extreme? Our exposure to and consumption of political information is changing. Recent studies have shown that people are reading newspapers and television and traditional media less and many are getting news from social media, such as Facebook and through search engines like Google. This has raised questions about the personalisation of news and the rules that are used to determine the news that people see.Recent controversy has surrounded Facebook’s rules for news selection – their algorithms – which were argued to provide confirmation of the views that people held by showing news with opinions that they were likely to share. After first claiming no responsibility, the social media providers have accepted that effort is required to provide a balanced point of view.

Doing this may be difficult with the growth of lies as a political weapon. Lies have been a feature of politics for some time but the internet makes it easier for these to be distributed – everyone can create and share social media and other internet content. In the recent Brexit and US polls, lying was common and debate exists over the extent of the impact that it had. Some have argued that it had a large influence and others that it had very little.  News has traditionally tried to present balance (usually including the bias of the news organisation) with a common understanding of what the truth was.

The growth of the internet and social media has allowed lies to gain a higher profile than they may have had in the past. Now news organisations and social media providers with news feeds have to decide how they will deal with this. Should they present balance with the lies being presented as the opinion of a political candidate or group and simply balance it with an alternative opinion or should they expose the lie and identify it as such in their coverage? Irrespective of this, will lies become, if they haven’t already, a new political weapon with worrying potential impact on the accountability and truthfulness of politicians.

Discussion of this topic has especially focused on the alt-right who appear to have used lying extensively in the US election. Studies have examined how this impacted voters. They have shown that the existence of many fake news sites, promoting political views with fake evidence to support them, is leading to the creation of echo chambers or bubbles in which participants have their views confirmed and which may be causing views to be amplified and to be come more extreme. The argument that is presented on this is that rather than the impact of individual instances of lies being the issue, rather the combined influence of multiple appearances of lies within a close eco-system is the greater concern. Their combined impact on the public’s view may be more powerfully impacted by multiple fake news sources with similar messages.

Western democracy is based on an educated civil society with access to truthful information. In the past the traditional media performed the information provider function and was broadly accepted as being mainly truthful. If it will perform this function in the future this raises serious questions about the proper functioning of democratic systems.

What impact is external interference having? The US intelligence authorities are vigorously arguing that the Russian government has used information technology to interfere in the US election in support of Donald Trump. Trump’s refusal to accept this seems to reflect an understandable concern – if the Russian interference was significantly influential, is he legitimately the US president?

The process of Russian interference is described by the New York Times. They show how the political campaigns were slow to respond to the attacks that took place.

Foreign interference in elections globally is not unusual and has taken place for many years. the US CIA has been accused of interference often and it is reasonable to assume have engaged in it.

The internet is a new factor in external election interference which may enable this to be undertaken more easily. In the past, interference may have required the participation of agents and collaborators within the country targeted. Today, interference may be organised from outside the country with a potential widespread impact.

In the US election this seems to have featured spreading of fake news and hacking and exposure of secret information – especially the emails Democratic candidates and organisers – which was likely done by a hacker situated outside of the US. The importance of these activities and the role that the internet has played is that it was easier to do and could be used more effectively. It was easier to obtain secret information and to distribute it more widely than would have been possible without the internet.

The events of the US election exposed this threat to future elections. It is likely that  actions by governments and political campaigns will be more conscious of the threat posed by external influencers and will act to protect themselves from it. It is as yet unclear how effective these actions will be or whether external interference will increase and undermine democratic processes further.It is interesting to note that the Russian government has been reported to have recently adopted a plan to prevent external interference in their own political affairs.

What impact will post truth politics have? The Oxford English dictionary has made post truth their word of the year for 2016 which they define as a situation “in which objective facts are less influential than appeals to emotion”. The word was popularised by the practices which had been observed in the US election, that voting behaviour had been influenced by belief in “facts” that were not supported by true facts.

The creation of a post truth environment is argued to have been possible due to the existence of the internet. In the previous two topics discussed in this post we have highlighted the growth of fake news, the existence of echo chambers, bubbles and ecosystems and the role played by foreign actors in elections. All of these factors are enabled by the internet and contribute to post truth.

The chief concern about the proliferation of fake news is that the practice of democracy will be undermined. If the public do not have access to politically relevant information (such as on the activities of politicians, companies, organisations and the economy) that is accurate then the decisions that they may make in elections will reflect this. Those decisions may then reflect bias’s and prejudice rather than accurate data. Politicians would be less accountable and truth would be determined by the ability to control the public’s understanding of the truth. It becomes easier for foreign governments and well organised political groups to manipulate opinion.

How can this situation be avoided. We have seen that trust in traditional news sources is in decline and that most people are getting their news from various online sources that have been subject to the growth in fake news. This has led some to argue that the political divide that will be important in the future will be based on education. Those with lower educational levels will be more subject to the disruption in their economic welfare that is partly influenced by technology (automation, globalisation) and will also be less educationally equipped to deal with the widespread presence of fake news.

It is argued that civic education, to create better skill in interpreting and assessing fake news and discerning its possible truth, is now very important. Improving people’s ability to decide whether news is fake or not will be essential to the survival of democracy.

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