As I learned recently, it doesn’t take much to spark right-wing outrage. The occasion was a column I had written criticizing Governor Ron DeSantis’ authoritarian style of government.
Although I got used to the backlash from the usual crowd, this was different, angrier and more distant (the column had been picked up nationally by Yahoo News). Knowing my professional background, a commentator urged me to “[g]Go back to Washington and stop spreading lies. Another just wanted me to leave Florida, suggesting I’d prefer New York or California, “where they probably meet [my] corruption standards [and] unethical policy.
I mention this not because I am offended when people criticize what I write. No, I’m doing this only to illustrate how social media (and other Internet communications) can so easily degrade today’s political dialogue.
If the current path we are on leads to a further dismantling of democratic norms, and I believe it will, social media will certainly be a contributing factor. In fact, I seriously doubt that we can ever escape the crippling influence of hyperpolarization without some restraint on certain elements of social media.
Let’s be clear. Social media is a wonderful tool for staying in touch, sharing ideas, organizing activities and just having fun. It can even document, in real time, critical current events, such as developments in Ukraine. But it’s also a place where conspiracy theories, blatant lies and subversive calls to action circulate nonstop.
What makes a demagogue successful – someone capable of arousing emotions, passions and prejudices – is the ability to catch and ride a wave of populism, which our founding fathers deliberately sought to protect themselves. They did this by designing a system of checks and balances and limiting the popular vote (with presidents elected by an electoral college, rather than voters directly, and US senators initially elected by state legislators).
However, never in their wildest dreams could they have imagined the kind of technology unleashed by the internet. Today, social media (and other blatant propaganda vehicles like talk radio and Fox News) provide a particularly attractive platform for budding demagogues.
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The risks social media poses to our political system are well documented in a new book by political scientist Barbara F. Walter, “How Civil Wars Start.”
“If you’re an extremist and want to proselytize,” says Walter, “social media is the perfect tool.”
In the past, if you sought to influence voters, you had to go through “gatekeepers” (party leaders, newspapers, and controlling broadcast and cable networks). With social media, any group or candidate can easily circumvent these obstacles.
A charismatic outsider, preaching a false message to a sensitive online audience, is particularly threatening to a crumbling democratic system. It turns out that too many people seem to prefer “fear over calm, lies over truth, outrage over empathy,” Walter writes. Indeed, studies have shown that information designed to engage people in this way “is exactly the type of information that drives them to anger, resentment, and violence.”
In its worst manifestation, therefore, social media has built a virtual highway freely accessible to the enemies of democracy.
I don’t have ready, well-developed answers. I just know that we need to find a way to address and exploit disinformation and deliberate fabrication, especially when used to constantly distort political discourse or advance seditious activity.
Obviously, we cannot regulate social media like other behaviors that threaten the common good. The message may be odious but it’s still speech, and speech is protected by the First Amendment, including political speech (a distinction long recognized by the US Supreme Court).
However, one action we could take would be to update Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act 1996 – which currently grants websites (tech companies) broad immunity for content that they broadcast. We could start by removing protection from liability under Section 230 for algorithms that have been shown to fuel hate speech or incite violence.
At one point, I naively believed that flooding the public sphere with unrestrained political voices would somehow allow the truth to prevail. Today, with so much unchecked misinformation circulating so fast, there is little time left for truth or consensus to take hold so far.
Without meaningful change, we end up with more chaos, more dysfunction, and ultimately less democracy.
Carl Ramey, a retired Washington communications lawyer and monthly columnist for The Sun, lives in Gainesville.
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