Open for Debate

Political Debate in the Digital Age

In an ideal democratic world, all citizens are invited to debate political necessities and possibilities to the best of their knowledge and to forge their country’s future in this way. In an ideal democratic world, political debate is, in other words, both inclusive and evidence-led. In a dystopian world, by contrast, political debate is exclusive and ignores available evidence on politically important matters. The rich and powerful few are able to manipulate political debate just for the sake of becoming even richer and even more powerful.

Countries such as the UK and the US are at risk of moving closer and closer to the dystopian world and the rise of social media has no small role to play in this. What is happening and what can stop this dystopian threat?

At first, starting with the Arab spring, the rise of social media was hailed as the beginning of a more radically democratic age. After all, social media drastically lowers the cost of participating in political debate – anyone with access to the internet can blog or tweet their political views or post political videos on Youtube. Social media thus has the potential of making political debate much more inclusive and we have seen the positive effects of this with movements such as “Me Too” or “Black Lives Matter”.

The inclusivity of social media provides an important check-point for democratic debates that are inevitably always at risk of excluding important perspectives. Democratic debates can be high-jacked by influential lobbyists, for example. Similarly, experts that are in the pockets of lobbyists or that are biased towards their privileged social background may also be more influential than their views merit. Political debate needs evidence-led contributions and on some issues, there are people who know more than others. But it’s not always easy to protect political debate from undue influence, including from false experts.

But inclusivity also has a dark side. It has become evident that political debates on social media can easily get out of hand and facilitate hate speech of all sorts. While there is nothing wrong with negative emotions such as anger or fear in the right place, social media appears to be a fertile ground for overshooting emotions. The business model of social media companies that relies on facilitating more ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ has some role to play in this. It forces political debate on social media into a what we may call a boo-hooray structure: EU—boo!, MAGA—hooray!, for example.

Relatedly, evidence-led contributions often struggle to get a hold on social media. The boo-hooray structure of political debate on social media is not conducive to scrutinise the evidence that supports – or fails to support – particular political claims. In this way, social media facilitates, and even invites, the spread of fake news and other false information. This puts political debate on social media at risk of ignoring evidence about politically relevant matters.

Even more concerning is the possibility that the boo-hooray structure of social media can be exploited by those already in power to intentionally spread disinformation and to undermine the critical role of inclusive political debate in this way. It has been commented on several time already (here and here, for example) that we might be witnessing a concerted effort to destabilise the functioning of democracy in precisely this way. The more dysfunctional and evidence-ignoring debates on social media are, the better for the powerful who want to circumvent scrutiny in order to further advance their own ends.

A new regulatory framework for social media is needed to stop the ongoing erosion of democratic institutions and practices before it’s too late. In light of the above, restoring the key democratic function of political debate, namely to allow for the informed, critical scrutiny of all political claims from all relevant perspectives, is particularly important.

How can this be achieved? That’s obviously a difficult question. But focusing on political advertising campaigns and on social media contributions by influential politicians is a good start, I want to suggest. Of particular importance is limiting the influence of obviously false information on political debate as such contributions can only serve to derail political debate. This can be achieved by not allowing political advertising campaigns to include obviously false information – contrary to Facebook’s own policy, for example – and by imposing a similar restriction on social media contributions by influential politicians. I emphasise that only obviously false information should be regulated in this way, to avoid worries of undue censorship or limitations on free speech.

In sum, the inclusivity of social media is a good thing, but the boo-hooray structure it imposes on political debate is not. The boo-hooray structure needs to be replaced by a structure that facilitates the informed scrutiny of political claims from all relevant perspectives and that thus hast the potential to bring political debate closer again to the democratic ideal.

Picture from Norwood Themes on Unsplash

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