Quora Answer : Will democracy survive social media?

Jan 6

I think that's one of the very big open questions of our times.

Possibly the biggest.

Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Brexit are just the first forewarnings. We're stuck with social media now and it's only just starting to corrode our previous democratic norms. We ain't seen nothing yet.

What I think is very obvious is that social media and mass disinformation have revealed the flaws at the heart of the Enlightenment / liberal conceptions of democracy and freedom.

Put bluntly, democratic government only gets legitimacy from the consent of the governed. But that consent is only meaningful if the governed are accurately informed about the government. But any attempt to try to ensure accurately informed voters, by restricting the free-flow of lies on social media, violates norms of freedom of speech.

It becomes impossible for democratic government to stay legitimate : either it bites the bullet, restricts speech and becomes authoritarian but loses legitimacy for that reason. Or it allows disinformation to flow freely, and starts to reflect the bad choices of misinformed voters (which I would argue is itself another kind of illegitimacy)

The whole of Enlightenment liberalism is, in a sense, a bet that some mechanism other than state authority - such as a kind of "self-organization" or "CriticalRationalism" or "wisdom of crowds / oracle effect" - guarantees that when enough people think and research and speak freely, the good information drives out the bad.

The horrific thing about our experience of social media in the last 20 years is that this bet starts to look increasingly shaky.

We overthrew our gate-keepers and gave everyone a chance to speak their brains.

And trust in "authorities", whether academia, "the scientists", the government, the intellectuals, "the experts", or anyone else who spent time and discipline trying to know, has plummeted. And ideas that many of us know to be false have flourished.

Forget politics. Beliefs in flat-Earthism, ancient aliens, perpetual motion machines etc. seem to be rising inexorably on YouTube. New political conspiracy theories like QAnon are spreading faster and further than old-skool conspiracism about Area 51 or the Kennedy assassination.

Having removed the gate-keepers, we see no sign of there being these other mechanisms that ensure that good information drives out bad information. Instead we see a kind of random drift where ideas come into and out of fashion, flare up and subside, regardless of their "truth" or accuracy.

So what does this mean for our ideals of democracy? If the bet that it's founded on, that freedom of speech leads to a better informed rather than worse informed voters, turns out to be wrong?

Now any attempt to reintroduce the gate-keepers to improve our information is immediately denounced as "censorship".

Any government that tried to take a position on what the truth is, and to improve the beliefs in its population would immediately forfeit legitimacy. We increasingly demand that institutions are "neutral" and take no position. Government telling us what to believe is "censorship" and totalitarianism. Media is meant to be "fair and balanced" (ie. give all sides of an argument equal weight). Universities are accused of "cancel culture" and "closed mindedness" when they try to promote the true and the good as they see it.

Social media has given us a glimpse of complete epistemic freedom, where we can always find someone to confirm whatever we want to be true. And we hate to give that up.

It's very hard to see how that can lead to anything other than people voting for misinformation. And the problem of that is not just that the decisions aren't good. It's that it becomes impossible to defend the decisions as legitimate.

In Britain, Remainers refused to recognise the legitimacy of the Brexit referendum, not because they thought that the votes were fake, but because they believed that those who voted for Leave had been lied to in secretive but powerfully manipulative Facebook advertising campaigns. This is true, there were such campaigns, and they were effective at manipulating voters.

But does it follow that the referendum result is illegitimate?

I've argued several times here on Quora that it doesn't. That some dishonest campaigning and gullibility of the voters is inevitable and if we tried to negate elections based on those mere facts, then we'd have no elections at all.

Nevertheless, while I don't think the Brexit referendum reaches the bar, I can see that there is some degree of misinformation among voters, some line, that if crossed, would make a nonsense of any claim that the victors of an election would have legitimacy.

And, as I see it, given the direction and speed of our current travel, I see no reason to be optimistic that we won't arrive there, sooner rather than later.

I hope we won't. I hope some other self-correcting epistemic mechanisms are going to kick in, to ensure that most people hold mostly true ideas most of the time. But I really wish someone could identify what such a mechanism would be.