Informational freedom might destroy democracy. I still stand by it.
The internet might destroy democracy
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Mysterious Twitter user “The Matthew Principle” (I am going to simply call him Matthew from now on) has an interesting tweet-essay in which he argues against Fukuyama’s central thesis that liberal democracy is the ultimate form of government. Unlike other critics of Fukuyama, he posits that the real threat to liberal democracy comes not from its external rivals, like Communist China or Putin's Russia. Rather, he thinks it’s going to result from internal issues, particularly the rise of social media, which empowers emotionally volatile and less-informed segments of the electorate, undermining the control traditionally held by the upper classes. In a way, Democracy is suffering from its own success.
He argues that what we usually conceive of as liberal democracy has not been an actual democracy, with the elites (upper middle and upper classes) holding much more power than usually recognised, via their control of the press and the informational ecosystem more broadly.
“The upper and upper-middle classes controlled the public discourse through their control of the media and thereby stabilised the system. In such an environment, it was difficult, bordering on impossible, for “grassroots” movements to obtain more than minor influence, except where they had the support of the elite establishment.”
(excerpt from Matthew’s tweet)
But, according to him, the rise of social media poses a fatal threat to this equilibrium; This epistemic control can no longer be sustained due to the current decentralisation of our intellectual ecosystem. Free speech in the current era is not the free speech of the 20th century. As a result, we are doomed to devolve into permanent populism in the near future, with Trump being just a harbinger of this new era. Since he thinks this type of populism is not going to lead to a stable political situation, he deduces from simple evolutionary principles that, in the long term, democracy will be replaced by a new political system. He bets on a more limited form of democracy, with extensive social media censorship and the right to vote being restricted to only some segments of the population.
The viewpoint articulated by Matthew, positing the internet as a potentially harmful force for democratic societies, resonates across a broader spectrum of mainstream commentators. One can sense a growing unease among societal elites, a kind of apprehension akin to feeling unstable ground beneath them. Take for example this tweet by Noah Smith, highlighting the same concern.
This apprehension seems to be driving a call for more stringent regulation of our information networks. I have previously written about the rise of misinformation studies, the academic field often used to justify the need for increased control.
Should elites control the information ecosystem?
I agree with a lot of what Matthew and others are concerned about. The core of my agreement with Matthew can be summarised as:
I am not a naive believer in the “marketplace of ideas”. As I said in my previous post, I think in the end it is healthy and normal that epistemic authorities emerge. The opinion of a Biologist on the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine should natter much more than the opinion of a random member of the public. It’s good that people take certain things these elite authority figures say for granted. So in that sense, it is true that elites have much more political power than indicated strictly by the number of votes allocated to them. And I think that is good. I agree that social media *is* a threat to democracy and to our current political stability by undermining the trust in intellectual authorities and decreasing the centralised power of our elites.
So given this, a natural question emerges: Isn’t it good then that elites are trying to put brakes on this chaos through the whole misinformation studies endeavour? If you are familiar with my writing, you know I believe this is a bad idea. I have spent the last 3 posts (see this and this and this) warning against the dangers of top down control of our informational ecosystem by bureaucrats and argued that the field of misinformation studies is in large part enabling this. The other thing you might know about me is that I like both democracy and political stability. So how do all these ideas fit with each other? Shouldn’t I support misinformation people based on utilitarian grounds? Yes, the intellectual foundations of their field are shaky, but who cares about it when our system of governance is at stake?
Well, my first point will be that even if they try, elites won’t be able to exert the control they so crave. That era is gone. We need to adapt to a new one. Misinformation warnings might serve the careers of a few commentators and academics, but they will NOT meaningfully put a stop to the spread of false narratives. If you do not believe me, I’d like to remind you that, despite all the screaming and shouting from elites Trump, a bona fide populist, is more likely than not to become the next President of the United States. So in a sense the only real chance for intellectual elites is to regain trust of the population, as I argued in a previous essay. If that happens, I think it would keep us on the path of a relatively liberal democracy.
But is this even possible in theory? Matthew’s essay suggests that the increased scrutiny posed by the internet is intrinsically incompatible with liberal democracy. I think he believes that elites, the flawed humans that they are, simply cannot withstand the increased scrutiny without emerging as much less respectable than previously thought. And that the general populace will naturally converge upon conspiratorial, populist narratives. I do not fully agree with him.
Firstly, he overstates his case by underestimating the veto power that the general populace has always had via voting. Yes, elites could manipulate narratives. While elites can indeed influence narratives, their power is not absolute – ultimately, votes do matter. This dynamic is akin to a river shaped by its banks. Elites may set the boundaries for discourse and ideas, much like riverbanks guide the river's flow, but they cannot stop the river. Increased scrutiny of elites might put an additional evolutionary pressure on elites, but it does not necessarily follow that it would lead to a complete breakdown of our governance system.
Secondly, there's an inherent human tendency to seek intellectual leadership and authority. In the era of the internet, despite the challenges it brings, it's conceivable for a principled elite to emerge and maintain influence.
A tale of two vaccination rates
To support my somewhat optimistic perspective that the internet does not necessarily lead to spiralling into stupid populism and conspiracy, let's consider some empirical evidence. Take, for instance, the anti-vaccination narrative, which has been a prominent example of populist anti-elite messaging in recent years. However, the response to this narrative, specifically in terms of vaccination rates, differs notably between the United States and the United Kingdom. As of May 2023, 70% of the U.S. population had received two doses of the COVID vaccine, compared to a considerably higher 88.8% in the UK (by August 2022). This 70% figure in the U.S. also conceals variations across different states. It's important to note that these populations, both in the U.S. and UK, primarily speak English and have similar access to social media platforms. This suggests that factors such as the degree of trust in elites and cultural influences play a substantial role in shaping public response, even when internet access is a constant.
For example, we know that Democrats tend to have a higher level of trust in intellectual elites, including academia, and this is reflected in the higher vaccination rates observed in Democrat-leaning states. This evidence indicates that while the internet provides a uniform platform for information and misinformation alike, the impact of such narratives is significantly moderated by the trust in elites and cultural context. As I argued before, the best thing intellectual elites can do to defend liberal democracy is act in such a way that increases the trust of the population.
To close this, I’d like to add another argument against centralised control of information: the fact that it is now used to control intra-elite discourse. In an ideal world, different elite factions would battle with each other: this would give the general public more choice between what kind of propaganda they want to believe. This might suggest that the most crucial form of free speech is actually within the elite circles themselves. Such dynamic inter-elite discourse ensures a check-and-balance system, preventing any single faction from dominating and potentially spiralling into extreme or unchallenged viewpoints. Like a cancer taking over one’s body, insanity will inevitably take over any ideology that is universally favoured by a monolithic elite.
I have noted before that the end goal of many misinformation experts seems to be weakening of elite free speech specifically (in order to ensure the victory of their preferred side). I believe so-called misinformation can be classified into 2 types: brute misinformation (e.g. the kind of Infowars drivels) and haut bourgeois propaganda (stuff you’d find in the New York Times). While brute misinformation trades in explicitly crazy ideas, haut bourgeois propaganda is usually more subtle and relies on presenting partial truths or spinning narratives in a way that is favourable to one side or the other. As I have noted before, the anxiety around brute misinformation and populist narratives is often used to justify the encroachment of freedom of speech/thought in an arbitrary way in more subtle situations (e.g. and thus enforcing haute bourgeois propaganda).
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