A note on… the internet and democracy right now

(with great reference to ‘Google, democracy and the truth about internet search’ by Carole Cadwalladr in 4th December’s Observer)

How is that as ‘populism’ sweeps across the world the result is ego centric oligarchs? Before we go on we should define our terms so that we’re all on the same page. According to trusty Wikipedia, (maybe I shouldn’t be trusting the internet considering the content of what is to come but my dictionary is packed in moving boxes so you’ll have to forgive me) “Populism is a political doctrine that stems from a viewpoint of struggle between the populace and a ruling faction”. Meanwhile “Democracy (Greek: δημοκρατία, Dēmokratia literally “rule of the commoners”), in modern usage, is a system of government in which the citizens exercise power directly or elect representatives from among themselves to form a governing body, such as a parliament. Democracy is sometimes referred to as “rule of the majority”.” It seems to me that populism fits quite nicely within democracy and sounds, in fact, like a country successfully holding its government to account. And yet much of the world is apparently reeling as a succession of countries with a long democratic history elect leaders who wish to dismantle great parts of those systems against the march of history, and this is also populism?

A conversation between Yuval Noah Harari, who is currently writing about the threat of technology to the traditional functions of the human condition, and George Osborne was published in last week’s Guardian Weekend magazine, occurring before the results of the American elect:

“YNH What went wrong? If you look at “the end of history” moment of 1989 [Francis Fukuyama’s theory that the end of the cold war marked the victory of liberal democracy], it was: democracy has won, the free market won, the US and its allies could do basically anything they wanted in the world. So what went wrong, from that moment of victory to the dire situation we find ourself in today?

GO Well, maybe it’s both a great thing to celebrate and a curse of humankind: we’re not always happy with our condition, we’re always searching for some kind of meaning. And sometimes the meaning is provided by the nationalist leader who is trying to restore the power of mother Russia, or the religious leader who promises jihad. You know, people are very willing, it seems, to give up their prosperity and their security in pursuit of a vision.

YNH And are they wrong to do it?

GO Well, I’m not saying they’re wrong, but it can often… they should at least be aware that it quite often leads to a pretty unpleasant ending.”

I don’t think George Osborne’s thought is complete there but it does pose some interesting questions about the side effects of democratic freedom. Fukuyama called 1989 (think the Berlin Wall coming down) the end of history because liberal democracy had largely won over its threats. The wars with communism and dictatorships had been won (in white countries anyway) and there would be no more of the kind of history you studied in school; working class boys killing each other over the elite’s ideological disagreements. What George Osborne could be beginning to suggest is that the cult of the leader is preferable to the democratic government with all its hand wringing decision making. We don’t know what to do with all those freedoms, so hard fought, and we’d rather someone told us.

I’m not attempting to offer a complete answer about how this leads to a rise in populism, because as I will go on to discuss there are so many contradictions involved, but at the moment the internet is taking the brunt of the blame, from journalists at least, for the current situation. It allows us to say whatever we want and we certainly are doing that. It’s a libertarian’s dream.

(“Libertarians seek to maximize autonomy and freedom of choice, emphasizing political freedom, voluntary association, and the primacy of individual judgment.” Libertarians like small government, the rights of the individual over the majority and has been most successful in right wing politics, especially in the US.)

Populist, right wing and libertarian are all terms currently being used to describe the types of people currently leading polls all over the US and Europe. Draw a picture to represent the right wing or a libertarian and you might draw Trump, Steve Bannon or your grandad (not mine obviously). Old, white men with outdated views but the internet flourished under many of the same principles, and I’m sure you would draw a different picture of the people that run that.

It may be that journalists are bemoaning the internet’s role in politics because it represents them having lost the control they previously had over the agenda (what the rest of us are apparently talking about by the water cooler). It is evident that their failure to accurately voice the public’s views recently (as in the coverage of the UK election, EU referendum and US election) is either a result of a lack of connection with their readership or simply being left behind current trends. As it has done since its conception the internet as jumped in to fill the gap.

Carole Cadwalladr’s article is not explicitly about the ‘fake news’ and ‘post truth’ situation that the media have run away with to exculpate themselves, and neither is this piece, but its investigation into search algorithms sheds some light on how Macedonians teenagers can get more click throughs than the lead writer of the Washington Post (That’s not a fact, I’ve conflated and exaggerated, look how easy it is to post truth). Do read the article and come back to me and I’ll pick out a few quotes for discussion.


Charlie Beckett, a professor in the school of media and communications at LSE: “We’ve been arguing for some time now that plurality of news media is good. Diversity is good. Critiquing the mainstream media is good. But now… it’s gone wildly out of control. What Jonathan Albright’s research has shown is that this isn’t a byproduct of the internet. And it’s not even being done for commercial reasons. It’s motivated by ideology, by people who are quite deliberately trying to destabilise the internet.” Plurality again is seemingly very complimentary to populism and libertarianism, everyone’s voice should be heard. Sounds very democratic and the freedom of the internet is perfect for this. What is happening, and has happened for years, and what is leaving establishment writers behind is that the technology comes first and the moral outrage comes after but by then it is too late because the money has arrived and plurality shrinks. If we allow the moral outrage (or just the thinking, like that of Yuval Noah Harari) to come first then we would be stifling new developments. Is it an inevitable cycle that new developments are eventually used in a damaging way?

“These companies have found a way of transgressing 150 years of legislation that we’ve developed to make elections fair and open.” Martin Moore Kings College. I’m not sure that they’ve ‘found a way’ it’s just that, again, those in power are slow to respond to the potential of new technology and are only now putting in legislation that affects the internet. Even so, wouldn’t putting in controls entirely change what the internet is? How can we legislate an individual’s opinion, an opinion typed in their own home and not connected to any official role they play in society? Doesn’t that completely undermine freedom of speech? We don’t have town hall meetings anymore or neighbourly chats over the fence instead we try out and build up independent opinions on forums like Twitter. Wouldn’t it better if we were educated to see for ourselves what is real to be able to understand how to fit the media’s outpourings into our own ideology?

“The general public are completely in the dark about very fundamental issues regarding online search and influence. We are talking about the most powerful mind-control machine ever invented in the history of the human race. And people don’t even notice it.” Robert Epstein a research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioural Research and Technology

“They say it’s machines not editors. But that’s simply a mechanised editorial function.” Damien Tambini, an associate professor at the London School of Economics. Google’s algorithms may be created by machines but it results in curation. The internet felt different back in the day, you had to know how to find what you wanted because the internet didn’t know. Now it thinks it does. Google’s algorithms are obstensibly led by popularity, just as populism is leading now, if everyone wants it it must be right. It may have begun as the libertarian dream but power always wins and to have power you need control. The more Google exert the more self fulfilling the cycle will become — it seems like everyone is talking about one thing as so everyone talks about that one thing. The result is the exact opposite of the pluralist, libertarian dream and you find that you have just another unrepresentative elite.

“The internet is among the few things that humans have built that they don’t understand.” It is “the largest experiment involving anarchy in history. Hundreds of millions of people are, each minute, creating and consuming an untold amount of digital content in an online world that is not truly bound by terrestrial laws.” John Naughton Is this great? Is this a testament to the process of human development and an achievement or one of human history’s tipping points the culmination of human’s flaws?

The research done for this article shows how leaders like Trump could exploit the internet to support their rule with the algorithm technology, in the same way as those like him have used cultural propaganda in the past. He believes in plurality and libertarianism only for what it can do for him, he will use it as far as he can and exert control when that is what he needs. If we listen to old media we hear “Fear it, fear it” but we’re not giving up the internet any time soon. Oligarchs simply exploit what is there for personal gain, do not attribute more to them, they are only human too. The populism he has exploited is being linked to the internet by old media because this is where unfiltered voices can live. It is the definition of libertarianism. The solution is in education. We are all officially more educated than ever before and yet populism, isolationism and mistrust of experts are all flourishing. The President of Ireland spoke on World Philosophy Day about the importance and potential effects of how teaching the subject young people to create critical thinkers. We must think about what we are educating for. Gove’s focus on cultural capital (19th and 20th century novels is obviously all we talk about) has some benefits for creating contributory citizens but if they take every word they read about immigrants at face value then society will start to crumble. This is yet another case of the old establishment being left behind new developments. What we read in the media, including the internet, is more immediately relevant and more commonly read than Jane Eyre and therefore it seems to me vitally important that we teach young people how to interpret it. This will leave no room for falsehoods and exaggerations to breathe and they will die where they lie. The media should be the mouthpiece of the people, holding ruling bodies to account in between elections, instead it has become its own elite, truly the fourth estate, representing only itself. Going back to our definition of populism, perhaps it is the media that is the ruling faction that the populace should be in struggle with.

All parties involved, Trump, old media, internet media, currently extol the virtues, the necessity, of freedom of speech for their own cause. Existing in its purest form on the internet makes it extremely dangerous though without individual’s ability to interpret and understand, only when we can do this will we truly have an equal opportunity to be politically informed and influential. Without misinformation and ignorance there will be no space for people like Trump to exploit or weaknesses and seek to divide us, only to satisfy their own ego.