Can democracy survive the 21st Century?
“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Is the truth knowable? And if we find the truth, will it set us free?
Democracy requires a large pool of well reasoned, well informed voters. But Facebook-era prevents revealed we no longer have both.
Instead, we have truth as tribal identity. We believe what we feel is true. News that confirms our views are fed to us by the bubble of social media, even when it’s fake news. And when we see fake news, it’s only because we assume contradictory information is fake.
When truth becomes a tribal identity, there is no space for debate. And with it, democracy dies.
What are the steps that made this happen? And what are the ways out of this?
Can we have Informed Voters in a Facebook Bubble?
Facebook and Google chooses what news articles you see on your search results and Facebook feed. It chooses articles it knows you like. It constructs a “safe space” – a filter bubble and echo chamber – just for what you like.
US President Barack Obama’s former social media adviser has highlighted the dangers of how Google and Facebook select news for its users:
“Forty-four per cent of US adults get news on the site, and 61% of millennials… if that doesn’t frighten you, you don’t know enough about Facebook’s algorithm. If you have a parent who’s a Trump supporter, they are seeing a completely different set of news items than you are.”
And, indeed, governments are beginning to take notice. German chancellor Angela Merkel demanded major internet platforms to disclose their algorithms. Merkel joins a raising chorus of leaders who demand more disclosure from Facebook and Google on how information is presented.
Can governments legislate “fair and balanced” news? And who gets to define “fair and balanced”? And how can one build an algorithm for it?
Can we have Informed Voters & “Truthiness”?
“Truth that comes from the gut, not books”
– Stephen Colbert
Comedian Steven Colbert stumbled upon an amazing wisdom. People do not want the truth, they want to feel the truth or rather, as Colbert said, “the truth we want to exist.” And with that he invented the term “truthiness.”
And truthiness was everywhere during the 2016 US election season.
Buzzfeed looked at leftist and rightwing partisan pages with over 13 million Facebook followers. Both sides routinely posted misleading and mostly false articles. Leftist pages like Occupy Democrat falsely claimed Trump wants to “expel all Muslims” and declared “service women should expect rape.” Meanwhile, rightwing spread false rumours of secret Hillary Clinton body doubles to racially motivated attacks against whites.
Not surprisingly, partisan websites are now big business. Buzzfeed uncovered over 100 pro-Trump websites spreading, often fake or misleading news, for Trump supporters. A fabricated article claiming Hillary Clinton would be indicated by the FBI generated over 140,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook. Operators of these website claim they can earn over $3,000 per day, by selling ads on the website.
Many of these Facebook groups had more followers than reputable news organizations like Politico or CNN Politics. Yes, maybe they’re less reputable, but for too many people: it just feels like the truth, so it must be.
Can we have Informed Voters, when digital manipulation is so easy?
Beyond truthiness, can we ever have conclusive video or audio evidence of what a person said or how a person acted?
Today, all information is digital and all digital information can be easily manipulated. It’s not just photoshopped images, but now researchers can “put words in your mouth”:
This year, Adobe – the maker of Photoshop – announced Adobe VoCo which lets anyone rearrange and add in new words to any recorded speech:
In Adobe’s example, a recording of comedian Keegan-Michael Key went from “And uh I kissed my dog and wife” to “And uh I kissed Jordan three times”—Key’s comedy partner Jordan Peele co-hosted the Adobe Max Sneaks session.
By the next US election in 2020, no leaked video or audio recording will taken as “fact.” Instead, we’ll rely on “truthiness” to judge it. Any new evidence that doesn’t fit one’s narrative of the truth will simply be derided as “photoshopped.”
Can we have Democracy when there is shared Truth?
If Democracy is to survive, we may need to ask ourselves a few questions:
- Can we have educated voters? Can people become educated voters?
- Can we have still afford to have “Freedom of the Press” and “Freedom of Speech”?
- Can we objectively and fairly have a Ministry of Truth? Of Social Order?
- What is Facebook and Google’s role on this? Who will be the arbiter of truth on these platforms? And how?
The bigger question is how can we go beyond debating facts? Do we have to move beyond debates of act to building bridges with empathy?