Over the past two decades, the internet has rewired civil society in unprecedented ways, propelling collective action to a radically new level of citizen autonomy.
Democracy is now not only infrequently exercised at the ballot box, but is lived and experienced online on a day-to-day basis.
Much has been made of the democratizing effect of the internet, and its emancipatory impact on under-represented and marginalized groups living under authoritarian regimes, where it nurtures a networked public sphere that constitutes an independent alternative to tightly controlled media environments.
According to Harvard’s Yochai Benkler, this networked public sphere allows for bottom-up agenda-setting, universal access to information, and freedom from governmental interference. Benkler explains: “The various formats of the networked public sphere provide anyone with an outlet to speak, to inquire, to investigate, without need to access the resources of a major media organization.”
Since more members of society are now encouraged to participate in public discourse and speak up about matters they deem to be of public concern, the internet has rendered the diversity of citizens’ views more salient. This is particularly visible when there is conflict and disagreement between different political or civic interest groups. Whenever there is a controversial policy announcement, there will always be a highly motivated group of people who use the internet to apply enormous pressure on politicians in these moments by voicing their discontent.
Democratic bodies are typically elected in periods of three to five years, yet citizen opinions seem to fluctuate daily and sometimes these mood swings grow to enormous proportions. When thousands of people all start tweeting about the same subject on the same day, you know that something is up. With so much dynamic and salient political diversity in the electorate, how can policy-makers ever reach a consensus that could satisfy everyone? If our representatives are unable to keep up with digital expressions of citizen sentiment, does that mean that we have become ungovernable by the institutions that exist today?
At the same time, it would be a grave mistake to discount the voices of the internet as something that has no connection to real political situations. Last month, British politicians and activists campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU in the recent referendum had to learn this lesson the hard way.
What happened in the UK was not only a political disaster, but also a vivid example of what happens when you combine the uncontrollable power of the internet with a lingering visceral feeling that ordinary people have lost control of the politics that shape their lives. When people feel their democratic representatives do not serve them anymore, they turn to the internet. They look for others who feel the same and moans turn into movements.
In this regard, the Leave campaign’s main social media messages appealed to the agency of ordinary voters to reject the rule of the bureaucracy and “take control” of their own country. Using very simple language, largely consisting of only a few syllables, these messages spread very fast across the internet and were often reinforced with amusing memes, instead of rigorous expert opinions or statistics.
Polarization as a driver of populism
In light of these recent developments, right-wing populist sentiments have been growing in strength and popularity across both Europe and the US. These movements are fuelled by populist anger, resurgent nationalism, and a deep-rooted hostility towards immigrants.
People who have long entertained right-wing populist ideas, but were never confident enough to voice them openly, are now in a position to connect to like-minded others online and use the internet as a megaphone for their opinions. They become more confident and vigorous, because they see that others share their beliefs. This is concerning, because we know from previous research that increased contact with people who share our views makes our previously held beliefs more extreme. It grants us new group identities that permit us to do things we deemed inconceivable before. In this way, one could argue that the Brexit vote was as much a vote to reclaim one’s political independence as it was a vote to reclaim one’s lost national identity.
The greater diversity and availability of digital content implies that people may choose to only consume content that matches their own worldviews. We choose who to follow and who to befriend. The resulting echo chambers tend to amplify and reinforce our existing opinions, which is dysfunctional for a healthy democratic discourse. And while social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter generally have the power to expose us to politically diverse opinions, research suggests that the filter bubbles they sometimes create are, in fact, exacerbated by the platforms’ personalization algorithms, which are based on our social networks and our previously expressed ideas.
This means that instead of creating an ideal type of a digitally mediated “public agora”, which would allow citizens to voice their concerns and share their hopes, the internet has actually increased conflict and ideological segregation between opposing views, granting a disproportionate amount of clout to the most extreme opinions.