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Are internet populists ruining democracy for the rest of us?

Mad as hell and tagging you in the comments. Mike Lowe, CC BY

The internet has rewired civil society, propelling collective action into a radically new dimension. Democracy is now not only exercised at the ballot box, but lived and experienced online on a day-to-day basis. While this may have positive implications for political participation, it’s also causing problems for leaders. They have been elected through time-honoured democratic systems, but now find themselves vulnerable to the whim of the baying internet mob.

People are encouraged to speak up online about matters they deem to be of public concern, so the internet shows just how diverse public opinion can be. This is particularly visible at times of controversy, when a motivated group of users can be relied upon to speak out. They are capable of applying enormous pressure in these moments.

All over the world, contradictory views are expressed online, and these views can impede the smooth governance of a country. Sometimes that’s a positive step but this is uncharted territory. We have to wonder if we are heading in a dangerous direction.

Digital people power

Democratic bodies are typically elected in periods of three to five years, yet citizen opinions seem to fluctuate daily. Sometimes the collective mood can swing on an enormous scale. When thousands of people all start tweeting about the same subject on the same day, you know something’s up.

It would be a grave mistake to discount the voices of the internet altogether, since they are not disconnected from real political situations. Those campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU in the recent referendum, for example, learned this the hard way. The messages being spread online proved far more effective than the official campaign literature. Brexit memes spread faster than Remain statistics and the Leave campaign eventually triumphed.

But with so many views flying around, how can politicians ever reach a consensus that satisfies everyone? That’s of course a problem as old as democracy itself, only now citizens have the real power to assemble online. The force of their discontent can disrupt governments and threaten the security of representatives even outside electoral cycles.

Sudden, attention-grabbing events, such as natural disasters or terrorist attacks have always had the potential to engender passionate public opinion, but if that public opinion is powerful enough to trigger hasty political decisions, instability can ensue. And the institutions that exist today have proven time and time again that they cannot keep up with digital expressions of citizen sentiment.

Gunnlaugsson: Tweeted out of office. EPA

Iceland’s social media users, for example, were credited with playing a central role in forcing the prime minister, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, to resign over the Panama papers scandal. Similarly, the internet was used to organise the Euromaidan protests that caused long-lasting political turmoil in Ukraine.

And in Britain, Labour MP Emily Thornberry was forced to resign from her shadow cabinet job as a result of the angry response elicited by one single tweet.

The populist feed

The EU referendum was a vivid example of what happens when you combine the power of the internet with a lingering 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 look for others who feel the same. The internet makes that so much easier. There, moans turn into movements.

People who have long entertained populist ideas, but were never confident enough to voice them openly, find themselves in a position to connect to like-minded others online and adopt new group identities. The Leave movement had a very strong online presence and came away victorious.

However, this trend is concerning because we know that increased online contact with people who share our views makes our previously held beliefs more extreme, rather than encouraging us to be flexible.

Diverse opinions are available on social media but that doesn’t mean we are seeing them. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter allow us to surround ourselves with social feeds that only show us things we like. We choose who to follow and who to befriend. The filter bubbles we create are exacerbated by personalisation algorithms which are based on a our previously expressed ideas.

Instead of creating a digitally-mediated agora which encourages broad discussion, the internet has increased ideological segregation. It filters dissent out of our feeds and grants a disproportionate amount of clout to the most extreme opinions due to their greater visibility and accelerated viral cycles.

This is why US presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have come to play such a huge role in the US election. They represent extreme political views, where other candidates had more moderate agendas.

Prospects for a future-proof democracy

In political philosophy, the very idea of democracy is based on the principal of the general will, which was proposed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century.

A society needs to be governed by a democratic body which acts according to the will of the people as a whole. However, Rousseau noted that when contradictory opinions arise the general will ceases to be the will of all. When people reject their governments, the institutions that are meant to represent them lose their representative power.

The internet makes this an almost perpetual problem rather than an occasional obstacle. Only the most passionate, motivated and outspoken people are heard – as happened during the EU referendum campaign. And politicians run the risk of making important decisions based on popular opinion during an emotional moment in time rather than what is best for the country.

Of course, the internet can be used to make a positive political contribution. It is a great tool for enabling ordinary people to set the political agenda during political campaigns, for example.

So we’re not ungovernable in the long term. However, our current political institutions are incapable of handling the dynamism and diversity of citizen opinions. They are susceptible to emotional bursts and intimidated by the power of internet users. The critical challenge is, therefore, to distinguish when a seemingly popular movement does actually represent the emerging general will of the majority and when it is merely the echo of a loud, but insignificant minority.

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