Blame social media for the state of democracy today

Chow Kum Hor says the bombardment of instant messaging is fanning our tendency to get carried away by emotions and reinforcing our biases, particularly in elections

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 November, 2016, 12:24pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 November, 2016, 7:50pm

Democracy relies heavily on voters’ ability to discern the useful from the harmful. Sometimes, voters make the right choices, sometimes they make the wrong calls. Mostly, the decision at the ballot box is made in a calm, rational manner, although “likeability” or charisma of candidates may colour the voters’ choice. For most democratic countries, this form of governance has worked fairly well.

But this system is now facing a new threat: impulse voting, where facts and reasoning take a back seat to voters’ raw emotion and perception. Voters decide based on their gut feeling, often underpinned by seething anger at the political elite. That’s no different from making an investment call on a whim, rather than on fundamentals; in the long run, such decisions are going to be harmful.

And such irrational behaviour is what led to Donald Trump’s election as US president, and, earlier on, Brexit. In the US polls, Trump won by playing on the fears and insecurities of Americans, not through the appeal of well-articulated policies. In Brexit, voters’ concerns about immigration led the UK to vote to withdraw from the European Union. A referendum about the economy turned out to be one about xenophobia, fanned by racist undertones.

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How is it that the democratic system that we had held in such high esteem for centuries has become so flawed that people are wondering if it is still viable today?

Social media is a key part of the reason. It allows for the full-on assault of messaging that taps into our primal instincts. To quote renowned scientist Professor Stephen Hawking, Trump merely “appealed to the lowest common denominator”. The speed and ease with which emotionally charged messages spread through Facebook, Twitter and platforms like Reddit can numb reasoning in even the most collected of individuals.

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Voters, already incensed by the antics of the ruling class, become easily drawn to the cesspool of online content that preys on their insecurities, and which social media helps amplify. As it turns out, many viral stories in the run-up to voting were at best questionable, and fed on voters’ preconceived notions to heighten their impulses. Common sense cannot stand up to such impulses, in the same way as a girl smitten by a preying Casanova cannot see through his scheming ways despite what others may tell her.

True, politicians have been harvesting votes from public discontent since democracy first dawned in Athens in the 4th century. But it is social media that has brought about the disruption, unprecedented in scale, to the democratic system that we witness today.

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Distorting our judgment with emotion is not the only way social media is undermining democracy. Social media like Facebook creates an echo chamber where we become oblivious to views different from ours. Through its algorithm, our Facebook timelines become populated with items that mirror our inclinations and persuasions.

Through its algorithm, our Facebook timelines become populated with items that mirror our inclinations and persuasions

When we live in that kind of bubble, we become less inclined to make concessions – a fundamental prerequisite in any democracy. Worse, we hold on even more dearly to our world views, which are enhanced by computer codes written for the sole purpose of maximising profits for social media companies.

So, what then? We can only mitigate this. First, we need to admit that animal spirits reside in us. We have instincts, proclivities and emotions which we usually – but not always – keep in check through reasoning or social norms.

There is nothing shameful in admitting that we can get carried away by hyperbole and political grandstanding. Awareness about such impulses within us is a first step in managing them. And it also helps to get out of our comfort zones to listen to views that are diametrically opposed to ours.

Social media is not going to go away. And, until the next viable system of governance comes along, many of us are stuck with this mutated form of democracy.

Chow Kum Hor, an ex-journalist, is the executive director of Centre For Better Tomorrow, a civil society organisation that promotes moderation and good governance in Malaysia