We are witnessing a stunning decline of liberal democracy around the globe—the hollowing out of the center, the rise of the radical fringes, of populism, of authoritarian Trump-like leaders who feed on know-nothing views. We’re talking not just across Europe, but on every continent, from Turkey, to Russia, to India, Venezuela and Brazil.
Why is this phenomenon happening now? Some say it’s because of the growing gap between the rich and the poor, the destruction of jobs by AI and robots, climate change, the crisis of immigration, a universal disgust with politics and politicians.
All those factors are at play. But I would argue that the principle cause for the collapse of traditional politics is the astonishing rise of the Internet and social media. As of of April, 2019, more than 56.1% of the world’s population have Internet access. In the developed world that figure is 81%.
In theory, for the first time, the majority of people on our planet can now obtain the facts they need to make sound judgements about the issues impacting their lives and the people they choose to lead them. You could look at that as the liberal’s dream. What better way for democracy to thrive?
Except the results have been exactly the contrary. Rather than providing us with a marvellous opening to the world and to conflicting views, the Internet has done just the opposite: It is tribalizing the planet.
It has enabled us to construct our own ideological cocoons—and hunker down inside them. Rather than demolishing walls, we have erected new ones, intent on protecting our own perceived interests and identities.
No matter how deranged your views may be, today you can find battalions on the Internet and social media to confirm your righteousness and cheer you on.
The numbers—already stunning—are growing vertiginously:
There are now more than two million podcasters; 330 million twitter users, 500 million bloggers; one billion users of Instagram; 2.38 billion users of Facebook.
No longer do we have to read or listen to uncomfortable facts that might make us suspect our views are mistaken. That plays neatly into the fact that, biologically, as a species, we humans just don’t like to admit we are wrong. It releases the wrong kind of hormones.
And you don’t have to search out those who support you. Thanks to sophisticated algorithms, sites like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Amazon, Good Reads, Pinterest and Google make it their business to bombard you with an unending stream of sites or blogs or podcasts that correspond to your own political views and interests.
For every New York Times or Washington Post team that spends months painstakingly digging up “the truth”, there are hordes of Internet users ready to reassure you that those troubling accounts are just “Fake News.”
And something else:
Experiments show that the inevitable result of isolating people of different views, leaving them to discuss issues just among themselves, is that their views become even more radical. Those on the left, swing even further to the left. Idem, those on the right.
Which is exactly what has been happening across the planet.
And, mind you, we are not even mentioning the insidious and skyrocketing activities of government-backed cyber-forces—Russia’s being only one--with their millions of fake sites and twitter accounts and vast armies of bots.
Is it possible to halt this fatal process? Not, I would argue, within the bounds of our current laws and “democratic” traditions.
So, the question is: are we in the middle of an inexorable downward spiral that will end with politics becoming ever more radical? Ever more dysfunctional? Governments ever more extreme? Ever more Orwellian?
The irony, of course, is that, all this is happening at the same time as the Internet and Deep Learning are coming up with revolutionary breakthroughs—in medicine, robotics, and climatology, for instance-- that, if acted upon—rationally--by humans, could lead to a spectacularly better life on this planet for us all.
The key word there is “rationally.”