Social Media Weakening Democracies?

Has the “Marketplace of Ideas” become a curse instead of a blessing?
Richard Pildes
Frances Lee
David Frum

Recent events in Sri Lanka, where tens of thousands of demonstrators, helped by their social media, attacked and occupied the Presidential Palace and forced the President to flee the country and resign, came as another example of the power of the world-wide social media that many American experts have been discussing. The discussion has recently been part of the Congressional investigation of the mob attack on the Congress in 2021 that was led by supporters of former President Donald Trump, and the accusation that Trump, in a famous Twitter message, encouraged his supporters. Twitter later suspended Trump’s account.

In Sri Lanka, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country amid a months-long economic crisis that triggered severe shortages, particularly in food, oil and cooking gas. The new president and prime minister would have to oversee a government composed of usually opposing political parties, with the continuation of the mass protests known as the “aragalay,” which was seemingly well-organized, thanks to the social media.

Following are opinions of three Americans (from their tweets, websites and statements to the media) about the dangers that democracies, in the East and in the West, have been facing because of the power of the social media:

First, an example from Spain, by Richard Pildes, professor of constitutional law at New York University School of Law and author of “The Law of Democracy," among other books.

Second, an example from the US, by Frances Lee, professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, and, among other works, the author of “Beyond Ideology.”

Third, an example from Columbia, by David Frum, former speech-writer for President George W. Bush, and author of many books including “The Rise of Populism.” 

PILDES: SPAIN

“Last month, Spain held another fragmenting election, after being governed by dominant center parties that had won alternating elections since the end of the Franco era. [Francisco Franco, a general who, leading conservative Nationalist forces, defeated moderate Republicans during the Spanish Civil War, then ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975 as a dictator] …

But in 2014, Spanish politics fragmented dramatically. A new party, ‘Podemos’ (We Can) arose out of street protests and social media.

Between 2015 and 2020, Spain held four national elections in an effort to find a stable governing coalition. During those years, the previous two-party system splintered into a five-party system. In the last of those elections, Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez, with no majority in the parliament, but in order to become prime minister, was forced to form Spain’s first coalition [more than two parties] in order to put together a thin majority in the parliament ...

Last month’s elections revealed more party fractures, discontent and continuing social media anger about the government’s shortcomings.

In Andalusia, Spain’s most populous region and long a stronghold of the Socialist Party, the conservative Popular Party won an outright majority in the regional parliament …

Spain is one example that democracies, throughout the West, are unable to marshal wide-enough support to deliver effective government. The communications revolution is one reason why. But, worst, we have not yet fully grasped the profound challenge social media poses to democracies. Even if the problems of disinformation, misinformation, incitement, and the like could somehow be solved, that challenge would remain …

Political authority must be accountable, of course, and badly exercised power deserves challenge. But democracies now function in an era in which the challenge to them is constant. Politics and government will be continually turbulent, but less able to deliver effectively …”

LEE: USA

“The political turbulence social media has fueled takes many different forms. In the United States, it has enabled the rise of independent, free-agent politicians, whose party’s leaders cannot corral to generate a unified party agenda.

The internet has also spawned the rise of small donors, one effect of which is to fuel the extremes of the parties. In the US, social media has enabled the emergence of free agent politicians who can find national audiences and raise vast amounts of money through small donations, even in their first years in office …

In the US, starting with the Republican capture of the Senate in 1980, not since the Civil War, have we had such an extended period in which a party’s control of the government has been up for grabs in nearly every election.

We are now governed by ‘insecure majorities.’ Voters continually turn on the party in power. This constant churn in our politics makes ‘the perpetual campaign’ …

In 2016, an outsider — independent Bernie Sanders — nearly captured the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, while another outsider — Donald Trump — did win the Republican nomination.

The faction-driven conflicts inside the parties are playing out now in the primary elections [before the general elections in November]. During the primaries, some Congress members are seeking to defeat their own party’s nominees who wanted to replace them in the Congress …

Public polls showed that the Americans believe that the two major parties (the Democratic and the Republican) are doing an inadequate job. Not surprising, then, half the country now identifies as independents, the highest share in history …

Last year, a Gallup poll showed that 62 percent of Americans said a third party is needed …”

FRUM: COLUMBIA

“Recent Colombia’s presidential elections tell a similar tale of churning democratic disaffection.

But in a more puzzling context, the two traditionally dominant parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, collapsed. The incumbent president, Iván Duque, a moderate conservative, was generally accepted, but his term had to end.

In his four years in office, Duque oversaw a record of policy success unmatched in recent South American history:

First, the economy expanded at an annual 9 percent in the first quarter of this year.

Second, the massive influx of almost two million refugees from nearby collapsing Venezuela didn't bring down the government …

But, despite this, Duque left office with an approval rating of only 20 percent.  Faced with budget struggles because of the Coronavirus, he had proposed raising taxes, and triggered a months-long street protest. Even after Duque rescinded the proposal, the protests turned into an expression of general anti-government rage.

At least 60 people were killed, many at the hands of the police …

As in other democracies recently, voters turned against the political class as a whole. Anti-establishment politicians trounced the Liberals and Conservatives, and neither party managed to get a candidate into the second and final round of the presidential elections.

Instead, one of the two final candidates was an independent populist and real estate mogul who was not widely known before the election and didn’t hold public rallies; his success in making it to the second round was credited in significant part to his substantial social media following, including on Tik Tok.  

The other candidate, Gustavo Petro, who became president, was a former guerrilla fighter who promised to change Colombia to a socialist economy …


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