Opinion
19 Oct 2018

Cybercracy, or how echo chambers hack liberal democracy

Are we living in times of change or experiencing a change of times?

Karolina Zbytniewska
Karolina Zbytniewska Euractiv, Europe
Cybercracy, or how echo chambers hack liberal democracy - NewsMavens
Deep web, PixaBay

The liberal democracy that was supposedly here to stay -- making the whole world live happily ever after -- is now being rejected and disdained. What we are getting instead is often visionless denials, blame games and rationalizations for nationalism. And we are endorsing all of these -- in elections, referendums and opinion polls -- more and more. If this endures, a change of times it will be.

Brexit, Donald Trump, Italian Lega governing with the 5 Star Movement, Marine Le Pen in the 2nd round of presidential elections now breathing down Macron’s neck, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Law and Justice in Poland, and many more suspect changes have been enumerated ad nauseam.

In the end, these ideologically bankrupt politicians embody Machiavellian principles in which the sole aim of politics is to maintain and enhance political power.

What further cements the illiberal turn that they herald, is the wanton division that is splitting societies.

Its most recent illustration is the US Senate hearing of Brett Kavanaugh, now already a Supreme Court Justice, in the context of Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation of attempted rape. It was nothing ideological or political in itself, and was instead a rather vague discussion about what happened in one bedroom 36 years ago. Still the ideological/political affiliation presaged who believed him or her. For Republicans, her testimony was 100% unreliable, incoherent and full of holes. And she was just pathetic. For Democrats, his testimony was 100% unreliable, incoherent and full of holes. And he was just pathetic. A further side effect of the hearing is that no one will ever again expect the justices to pass fair and impartial verdicts -- only ones that adhere to party lines. This change has nothing to do with the separation of powers and judicial independence -- the foundations of liberal democracy. It can only be considered as a form of democracy à rebours, i.e. you voted for us, so you agreed to whatever it will take for us to be effective -- including voluntarily giving up your rights and freedoms without regard for constraints.

But it’s not only the US which has anti-immigrant nationalist populists stripping citizens of power under the guise of returning it to them -- and by popular consent, no less. As in the US, supporting these populists means supporting all their views and decisions. The political weakness of the unseated mainstream opposition in the race against the united populist front lies in that it is usually more critically-minded and fussy, and less determined, as a result. The only thing it is immoderate about is its contempt for the ruling “idiots” and their supporters. And vice versa. The other -- existential -- weakness of the mainstream opposition is that they have become so used to power before, that they have lost their vision somewhere along the way. So, the score is tied at 1:1 in ideological bankruptcy.

This partisan divide is binary -- they are two fortresses entrenched against each other, mutually agreeing that there should be neither space nor communication between them.

One fortress focuses on assembling more power. The second one on taking the power (back). Each becomes an echo chamber, reinforced by the media and -- especially -- the internet. I’ll follow Yuval Noah Harari in quoting Abraham Lincoln’s “you can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time” and his view that Lincoln’s principle becomes invalid when a government controls the media and uses it as its propaganda department.

But media is just one thing, the Internet -- and especially social media -- is something else. Virtual reality is more and more a reality, merging our private and professional lives, with almost 90% of European households having an Internet connection and every smartphone user having access to the Internet constantly. But we don’t only chat, email, shop and search for a nearest café online. More and more often we treat the Internet and social media as major sources of news. In 2016, 57% of Europeans used social media news aggregators and search engines as their main sources of news. Social media constituted the main source of news for a third of young people aged 18–24. And these proportions are still increasing.

Based on our interests, friends and clicks, social media and search engines show us mostly these news, friends and comments that we agree with, buttressing our self-satisfaction and belief in ultimate righteousness of our judgement.

No questioning voices, no counterarguments -- that must mean something, no? And if one appears, ouch, that’s some nasty trolling, this person needs to be blocked/banned/unfriended/unfollowed!

The partisan islands that we cling to do not encourage our cognitive development but that’s the least of our problems. More serious is that this phenomenon further cements polarization. The “divide et impera” principle has served politicians throughout history and throughout the world. Our comfy echo chambers, where we spend long hours every day are their fondest dream. Now they are further endorsed by Internet companies as they see how they help them multiply profits and also by foreign leaders who see meddling there as a way to consolidate their influence.

Donald Trump recently accused China of interfering with American politics ahead of the incoming midterms. Yet, he is also one of the very few that doubt Russian interference in the 2016 elections, as it would undermine his victory (further) apart from him receiving more than 3 million less votes than Hillary Clinton.

The Internet is a perfect tool for making politics, business and geopolitics -- it is effective, cheap and -- in case of an assault -- attribution is difficult.

So, it pays to support centrifugal forces in the West, especially for economically troubled Russia and -- if this trade war continues -- probably also for China. Dismantling the European Union and Transatlantic relations means weakening NATO as well as the economic power of the West. So, fake news and disinformation campaigns pouring venom into our Western communities using echo chambers come in handy.

It is little wonder that this collective disinformation machine works so well today -- it benefits EVERYONE (although only to a limited, short-sighted and superficial extent).

Users feed their narcissism by being detached from a pluralistic -- yet insular -- reality. National politicians instigate tribal support on the seemingly e-grassroots’ level. Putin opens a bottle of champagne, happy with another “shocking” result for another Alternative for Liberal Democracy party, and Zuckerberg rakes in the cash from another ad data-gathering campaign.

Our views, relationships and world are being hacked by politicians and corporations who may say they are not on the same team, but, in the end, they really are. For what reason? Because it pays. But we, the people, like control. So, now we need responsible politicians to make us realize that Facebook is no Hyde Park and who will take the risk of giving us back control over our views and political choices.

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