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DEMOCRACY AND CYBERSPACE - A NEW SHIFT

By: Mihnea Călin Loi

Editor: 

SP_Jan1 copy: News

January 2024

In 2016, while holding a campaign rally in Virginia, then-US Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton mentioned the phenomenon game Pokemon Go in an attempt to relate to her young voter base: “I don’t know who created Pokemon Go”, she said, “but I’ve tried to figure out how to get them to have Pokemon Go to the polls” (Bromanderinchief, 2016). While it may seem as merely an unsuccessful attempt at humor, Clinton’s reference could also be indicative of a shift in the political locus of American democracy—namely, a shift into the internet. Now, more than ever, the effectiveness of calls to democratic action seems to depend not just on appeals to a sense of civic duty but rather on emphasizing the necessity to escape cyberspace. How has this growth of the internet’s significance impacted the quality of American democracy? In order to answer this question, the present work will first determine how the internet has become a political locus, then analyze the effects of the aforementioned process, and lastly—assess whether there has been a decline in the democratic order of the US. 

To begin with, the concept of a ‘locus’ refers to the space in which political debate and involvement in politics occurs. This space has traditionally been constructed as a public sphere to which only men had access (Smyth, 2008), with women and racial, sexual, and ethnic minorities silenced and relegated to the private sphere. Following the early feminist waves and social justice movements of the 20th century, the inclusion of all sectors of the population into the matters of the public sphere has reconfigured the political locus, thus improving the quality of democracy by granting the right to vote in free and fair elections to all citizens (Herre, 2022), regardless of class, sex or race. Afterward, with the emergence of the internet and social media, the ontology of democracy expanded so as to encompass cyberspace, which has further enabled previously marginalized groups to voice their political concerns (Mehra et. al., 2004). Due to the prevalence of political discourse and the speed at which information can be shared, social media, and cyberspace as a whole, have become the new locus of politics, a new part of the ‘public sphere’. The present work argues that this ontological shift has enabled three relevant changes in democratic practice: a) the intensification of pre-existing social cleavages, b) the commodification of information, and c) the ease with which foreign intervention may be conducted. 

Regarding the intensification of pre-existing social cleavages, Ford and Jennings (2020) describe them as being social-structural (concerning large groups with differing interests), psychological (related to identity and ideology), and organizational (as the previous two aspects are mobilized by political parties). Ford and Jennings (2020) further explain how the current social cleavage rests on the conflict between Green-Alternative-Liberal and Traditional-Authoritarian-Nationalist values. While the cause for this division goes beyond the scope of this paper, the internet, and social media more specifically, has managed to intensify it through the creation of the so-called “echo-chambers”. According to Quattrociocchi et al. (2016), the latter manifest through the “users’ tendency to promote their favored narratives and hence to form polarized groups”. The algorithms of companies such as Meta further ensure that the polarized groups are cohesive and homogenous, mainly by either presenting information that supports users’ beliefs or presenting dissenting information that increases engagement on a given app. 

The aforementioned practices are illustrative of the commodification of information, which generates profit because it streamlines the sale of advertisements (Johnston, 2023). Due to the rise of the general adversity towards state intervention and market regulations in the US since the presidency of Ronald Raegan in the 1980s (Fukuyama, 2022), weak antitrust laws and little legal supervision have made the monopolization of cyberspace possible. Therefore, internet giants such as Google are able to extract their users’ private information and sell it to the highest bidders without any repercussions—bidders who often use this data to promote their political agendas. By accessing this private information, political advertisements are then targeted toward individuals who are prone to interact with them, thus increasing engagement on the social media platform, which, in turn, increases the revenue of the social media company. As such, this vicious circle further divides and polarizes the population. 

As polarization occurs both organically (through the users’ tendency to ignore dissenting information and retreat into online echo-chambers) as well as artificially (through the functioning of algorithms that extract data and commercialize it for advertisement revenue) the scene is set for the prospect of foreign intervention into the democracy of the United States. Due to the shift of the political locus of American democracy to the internet, the possibility of spreading misinformation and manipulating voters through buying bots arose. The digital expansion of the free-market capitalist system and the neo-liberal agenda that enable the purchase of exposure (and, as exemplified by Elon Musk, even an entire social media platform) created the conditions for major abuses—as exemplified by the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The case, now settled for 725 million dollars, concerned the unauthorized sale of users’ private information by Meta to a British consulting firm, which then used the information for political targeting and profiling on Facebook (Raymond, 2022).  

Therefore, considering the intensification of social cleavages, the commodification of information, and the possibility of foreign intervention in elections, how has the quality of American democracy changed after the shift of the political locus to the internet? Speculatively, the polarization of society and desensitization to misinformation are indicative of a democratic backslide. Empirically, indices that measure the quality of democracy show that the United States has been on a downward trend, as illustrated by V-Dem (2023), which argues that the country is undergoing an autocratizing process. 

Thus, despite the prospective benefits of almost instantaneous communication and access to information, the shift of the US political locus to encompass cyberspace has proven to have an adverse effect on the quality of American democracy (Wike et. al., 2022). Despite the challenges that this change has been posing, it may prove useful for the US, as well as the Western world, to reassess the philosophical backbone that has brought them to this very conundrum. To restore the health of American democracy, it may be necessary to stray away from the tenets of neoliberalism, in favor of its more socially-oriented roots. 












References

Bromanderinchief. (2016, July 14). Pokèmon Go (to the polls) [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/vwaiyjh1dGk?si=rylP7pdIa-g9H9ju

Smyth, J. (2008). Transcending Traditional Gender Boundaries. Defining Gender Roles Through Private and Public Spheres. 

Herre, B. (2022, June 17). Democracy data: how sources differ and when to use which one. Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/democracies-measurement

Mehra, B., Merkel, C., Peterson Bishop A. (2004, December). The internet for empowerment of minority and marginalized users. https://doi.org/10.1177/146144804047513

Ford, R., Jennings, W. (2020). The Changing Cleavage Politics of Western Europe. Annual Review of Political Science 2020, 23:1, 295-314. 

Quattrociocchi, W., Scala, A. Sunstein, C. R. (2016, June 15). Echo Chambers on Facebook. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2795110

Johnston, M. (2023, January 10). How Does Facebook (Meta) Make Money?. Investopedia. https://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/120114/how-does-facebook-fb-make-money.asp

Fukuyama, F. (2022). Liberalism and its discontents. Profile Books. 

Raymond, N. (2022, December 23). Facebook parent Meta to settle Cambridge Analytica scandal case for $725 million. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/legal/facebook-parent-meta-pay-725-mln-settle-lawsuit-relating-cambridge-analytica-2022-12-23/

Papada, E., Altman, D., Angiolillo, F., Gastaldi, L., KÖhler, T., Lundstedt M., Natsika, N., Nord, M., Sato, Y., Wiebrecht F., Lindberg, S. I. (2023). Defiance in the Face of Autocratization. Democracy Report 2023. University of Gothenburg: Varieties of Democracy Institute

Wike, R., Sliver L., Fetterolf, J., Huang, C., Austin, S., Clancy, L., Gubbala, S. (2022, December 6). Social Media Seen as Mostly Good for Democracy Across Many Nations, But U.S. is a Major Outlier. Pew Research Centre. https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2022/12/06/social-media-seen-as-mostly-good-for-democracy-across-many-nations-but-u-s-is-a-major-outlier/

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