21st Century Challenges to Democracy. Part II: The role of the internet, fake news and extremism

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(Photo: Wikimedia)

In looking at problems confronting 21st century democracy and possible solutions, the Independent Observer has spoken with a number of international figures. In Part II, we speak to Paul Wolfowitz, former US Deputy Secretary of Defense, Shyam Saran, former Indian Foreign Secretary, Ana Maria Gomes, former Euro MP and recently candidate for President of Portugal, Marzuki Darusman former Head of Indonesia’s Human Rights Commission and William P. Tuchrello, former Library of Congress Representative to Indonesia.

IO – When nations are created a people start by asking themselves, “Who are we? Who do we want to be?” William Tuchrello, who for many years was the Library of Congress Representative to Indonesia and remains an astute political observer says that the creation of the United States was based on a belief in God, as was also the case in Indonesia. The first principle of the Pancasila is: Belief in God almighty. The United States similarly turned to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount for inspiration. This was later paraphrased by John Winthrop (1588 to 1649), the first Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and frequently quoted by later presidents as, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. The Shining City upon a Hill.”

America was to be like that “Shinning City upon a Hill” and William Tuchrello notes, “In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount striving to attain the ideal of the City on the Hill symbolizes a unique experiment to create a multi-ethnic and multiracial society. While other countries such as Australia have a similar challenge none are as large or have such a domestic and international impact as the United States.

As that Anak Menteng, Barack Obama notes in his book, A Promised Land: America is the first real experiment in building a large multi-ethnic, multicultural democracy. And we don’t know yet if that can hold.

The fact is that no one will know if any democracy can survive the tests of time. A democracy is one of the most difficult political systems to maintain for democracy is messy and often chaotic and stressful and frustrating. It is a very difficult way to govern filled with paradoxes and inconsistencies. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. It is the worst system of government except for all the others.”

In the events of January 6th 2021 an attack on American democracy came from within. President Biden’s new attorney general Merrick Garland has said that at the top of his agenda will be domestic terrorism. In Part 1 of this series when analysing the causes leading to the events of the 6th of January the economy, racism, immigration and education have been discussed. William Tuchrello expands on these causes adding, “Open rebellion against technical and social change that advocated a Mercantile economy which often opposed science and the rule of law.”

Paul Wolfowitz observed that it was the notions spread by President Trump that it could not have been possible that so many did not vote for him and the fact that this misinformation was accentuated by several new voting procedures during the pandemic such as for example such large amounts of people voting by mail because of fears of the pandemic, that added to the causes for the events on January 6th, occurring.

After the last election in Indonesia, the nation found itself in a somewhat similar situation when the opposition candidate Prabowo Subianto also contested the election results claiming election fraud and bringing his accusations to the Constitutional Court. However, unlike Mr. Trump, he accepted the rulings of the court and thereby upheld the rule of law in Indonesia. In a healthy functioning democracy there must be well functioning free elections, freedom of speech and press, and the rule of law. Prabowo placed country above party when he accepted the rulings of the court and did not spread misinformation among his followers that he had in fact won the elections nor did he try to incite an insurrection. Afterwards, he was prepared to work together with the new government by accepting the position of Minister of Defense. Once elections are over in a functioning democracy bipartisanship is very important in order to actually get things done whether this is carried out in the form of working together in the legislative body or in coalitions with the government.

Tuchrello commented, “In the United States the actual attack on Congress was encouraging such nationalist and racist groups as the Proud Boys to defy the rule of law. As one organization noted the Trump leadership urged such groups to create an atmosphere to threaten Congress via an attempted insurrection (and re-enforced via social media platforms and demonstrations) to overrule the rule of law, separation of powers and constitutional means of a peaceful transition of government. This was further exacerbated by fake news by such movements as Q-Anon.”

Another major driver of the attack on Capitol Hill was the spread of misinformation or so-called “fake news”. This was made possible by the enormous technological advances in the late 20th and early 21st century causing the emergence of the internet with its increasingly powerful social media presence which changed the public source of information regarding politics and society. Through algorithms the internet helps to create bubbles which reinforce people’s prejudices by providing them with information and news that merely reflect their own views and beliefs. They do not or rarely receive information supporting other views. Thus, encouraging further polarization of society.

Former Indian Foreign Secretary, Shyam Saran comments, “The internet has made information available to people without the mediation of television, radio or newspapers. People have direct exposure to what is happening and are inundated by information. They try to filter this by creating information bubbles with like-minded people, assisted by internet algorithms which reinforce prejudices. On the one hand the world becomes more interconnected but the tools of technology are also creating islands within society. The sense of belonging to a larger community of humanity is becoming less and less important as is the idea that diversity is not a threat but interesting and enriching.”

Ana Gomez agrees and observes, “Social media and networks do not require journalists as mediators of what is the news. Many promote fake news to the masses. It is part of their policy. Trump and extreme right-wing parties such as Chega in Portugal and AFD (Alternative für Deutschland or Alternative for Germany), a type of German neo-Nazi party use this fake news to build on the resentment of people who feel left out of societal and economic growth. A lot of young people in Europe vote for extreme right-wing parties because they are jobless and houses are too expensive for them to buy.  During the pandemic Germany sent 26 military doctors to help Portugal but in the previous years, hundreds of Portuguese doctors and nurses left Portugal because of a lack of jobs and opportunities due to the austerity programs.”

So, it is not just the new technology that has helped to spread misinformation and strengthen extremist groups. Fake news which is verifiably false or misleading information together with a weak economy promotes the increase of extremist groups as well as the acceptance of disinformation by a disaffected public. A certain degree of socialism to decrease a widening economic gap brings with it an element of stability, especially to societies where capitalism has run rampant. Germany and Norway are good examples of capitalism but also of taxation and redistribution of wealth.

In the aftermath of the events of the 6th of January, social media platforms appeared to recognize their share of responsibility in allowing Donald Trump to spread the misleading information of election fraud. Donald Trump began to lose his public voice as social media sites started banning him from Twitter to Facebook to other social media sites – even Parlay which is a favorite for extreme right-wing groups. Meanwhile, law- makers in the European Parliament also raised concerns at the role that social media played in the storming of the United States Congress in Washington, saying the European Union’s proposed Digital Services Act or DSA should regulate and limit the spread of conspiratorial material online.

Ana Maria Gomes who recently ran for President of Portugal explains, “The European Union’s efforts to regulate the internet through the Digital Services Act and the Digital Marketing Act are necessary not only for the European Union but at a global level and the European Union has had to take the lead to push globally for this because the United States has until now not wished to regulate the digital platform and has received the results in hatred and fake news. Under former President Trump the United States did not want to enter into dialogue on that subject. It was only after the events of the 6th of January and the coming into office of a new president that this became important.

However, it is not only important to regulate the internet through laws but also to regulate the big digital companies so that they are taxed and do not just shift their profits to tax havens. Now, there is finally more awareness in the United States Congress. We see this with people like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and even more moderate members of Congress understanding that one way to break the digital millionaires is through taxes. There should be a wealth tax for this and the United States and the European Union should work together in this. It is the only way to control the hatred and the fake news namely, by controlling the digital platforms from which they emanate.

The big powers in the democratic world must act together because there are states that use the digital platform against their own people and other countries in anti-democratic ways. They use it to manipulate and repress their own populations and to interfere in other democratic systems and countries as for example China and Russia do.”

In lessening the polarization of a society it is important to disempower the giant media and digital empires that amplified misinformation for years whether from people such as former President Trump or from extremist websites like Q-Anon. As specified by Ana Gomes this can be done through antitrust enforcement and stricter regulation of social media, accompanied by countervailing financial pressure. The big digital platforms and media broadcasters should lose legal immunity for violence-inciting content and be liable for knowingly spreading lies. This is already beginning to happen with the producers of voting machines and software suing Fox News for saying that they rigged the election. Meanwhile, the American public has begun to boycott products of companies that have provided donations to the campaigns of politicians who spread fake news. This has caused some donors – Walmart is an example to begin to withdraw their funding from certain politicians.

In America extremists have targeted the military as well as the police. As in many democracies, in Indonesia the military has always been the bedrock and bulwark of unity in diversity and the same may be said of the Indian army and it is for this reason that the role of the military in remaining outside the realm of politics is so important. Although, there have been cases of military personnel or their families being recruited by extremist religious groups in the Indonesian military it remains rare. Nevertheless, the military needs to be vigilant. In America it has been shown to be a problem. Evidence has emerged that several prominent participants in the attack on Capitol Hill were members of the US military or veterans as well as members of the police from other states. Extremist groups try to target members of the military and the police because of their expertise with weapons. The new United States Secretary of Defense, Lloyd J. Austin III has announced that he is taking steps to protect members of the military from being targeted by extremist groups.

To decrease the polarization of a society bipartisanship is very much needed. One of President Biden’s most important tasks is in trying to promote unity which he does when he says, “There are no red states or blue states. There is only the United States.” By immediately sending Federal assistance in the aftermath of the power failure that affected millions of Texans after extreme weather conditions and by going himself to Texas which is an extremely red state he proves this. At the end of the day the leader of a country is the most influential person in that country. What he says and does has an enormous impact on people’s thinking and behavior. It is a leader’s task to unite the country.

Education is another extremely important instrument for promoting unity and working together. In Canada teachers try to prioritize cooperative and collaborative learning especially in graduate schools. In China teachers praise students who are collaborative and who get along with their peers. In Indonesia we see this in the traditional gotong royong ethic of working together and helping one another, as well as in the principle of musyawarah untuk mufakat or “deliberation to reach consensus” in the Pancasila. This is another traditional Indonesian cultural attribute that probably evolved as a consequence of being on one of the major world trade routes and having more than 300 ethnic groups and over 600 languages and dialects. Meanwhile, in the United States it is the centrists from both parties who control the balance of power in the Senate.

Paul Wolfowitz remains optimistic and remarks, “In the past we have been polarized before as a nation but we were also able to heal. The situation in the 1960s was very gloomy when Martin Luther King was assassinated however, by the late 1970s and 1980s the nation had largely healed. What is needed now is leadership that can reach out to the other side and work together on common concerns. The issue of immigration to the United States for example, needs bipartisan agreement on policy which should favour legal immigration while balancing it with the United States doing what it should for refugees fleeing for humanitarian reasons.”

For a government attempting to counter fake news there has to be trust of its institutions. Shyam Saran stresses, “The institutions in a democratic society need to be strong in order to create trust. When there is a lot of information available as is the case now people are unsure what to believe. There need to be institutions and leaders who are respected and trusted by the people who can provide them with a sense of what is right and what is wrong. If trust in institutions fails people start to go into bubbles. They find groups which they consider more trustworthy than societal institutions. So, there needs to be a strong and accountable bureaucracy as well as law and order machinery that people trust.

The events of January 6th have shown that most of the institutions of United States democracy have stood out as being very strong. Despite many new appointments in the judiciary by former President Trump the courts rejected his false claims of election fraud. As regards the bureaucracy in many states even when state officials were Republican they were not prepared to illegally overturn election results. Also, United States civil society has proven to be strong. The mainstream media resisted Trump’s politics and fake news. The same can be said for both conservative and liberal think tanks which have been remarkably united in their views. President Biden can draw strength from these institutions. Despite some individual cases as a whole there has also not been a politicization of the military. Such strong institutions have not however been able to wipe out all of the negative. It must be remembered that nearly 74 million people voted for Donald Trump and many of them believe his disinformation and overcoming this is not going to be easy.”

In Indonesia despite bureaucratic and legal reforms instigated by several Indonesian presidents the bureaucracy as well as the law and order machinery including the courts have all too frequently been shown to be incompetent or corrupt. Rule of law remains the weakest cornerstone of Indonesian democracy.  (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

If you enjoyed reading this article you may be interested in:

Part III of this series will discuss the role of political structures and party systems in preventing the polarization that is a serious challenge to democracy.

Part I of this series discusses the changing demographics, racism, the economy and education and their challenge to 21st century democracy. Please see: https://observerid.com/21st-century-challenges-to-democracy-part-i-the-role-of-changing-demographics-racism-the-economy-and-education/