How to Put Out Democracy's Dumpster Fire

Longish but very OGMy read from The Atlantic… a few excerpts:

With the wholesale transfer of so much entertainment, social interaction, education, commerce, and politics from the real world to the virtual world—a process recently accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic—many Americans have come to live in [a nightmarish inversion of the Tocquevillian dream a new sort of wilderness. Many modern Americans now seek camaraderie online, in a world defined not by friendship but by anomie and alienation. Instead of participating in civic organizations that give them a sense of community as well as practical experience in tolerance and consensus-building, Americans join internet mobs, in which they are submerged in the logic of the crowd, clicking Like or Share and then moving on. Instead of entering a real-life public square, they drift anonymously into digital spaces where they rarely meet opponents; when they do, it is only to vilify them.

Conversation in this new American public sphere is governed not by established customs and traditions in service of democracy but by rules set by a few for-profit companies in service of their needs and revenues. Instead of the procedural regulations that guide a real-life town meeting, conversation is ruled by algorithms that are designed to capture attention, harvest data, and sell advertising. The voices of the angriest, most emotional, most divisive—and often the most duplicitous—participants are amplified. Reasonable, rational, and nuanced voices are much harder to hear; radicalization spreads quickly. Americans feel powerless because they are.

In this new wilderness, democracy is becoming impossible. If one half of the country can’t hear the other, then Americans can no longer have shared institutions, apolitical courts, a professional civil service, or a bipartisan foreign policy. We can’t compromise. We can’t make collective decisions—we can’t even agree on what we’re deciding. No wonder millions of Americans refuse to accept the results of the most recent presidential election, despite the verdicts of state electoral committees, elected Republican officials, courts, and Congress. We no longer are the America Tocqueville admired, but have become the enfeebled democracy he feared, a place where each person,

withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if a family still remains for him, one can at least say that he no longer has a native country.

The world’s autocracies have long understood the possibilities afforded by the tools tech companies have created, and have made use of them. China’s leaders have built [an internet based on censorship, intimidation, entertainment, and surveillance; Iran bans Western websites; Russian security services have the legal right to obtain personal data from Kremlin-friendly social-media platforms, while Kremlin-friendly troll farms swamp the world with disinformation Autocrats, both aspiring and actual, manipulate algorithms and use fake accounts to distort, harass, and spread “alternative facts.” The United States has no real answer to these challenges, and no wonder: We don’t have an internet based on our democratic values of openness, accountability, and respect for human rights. An online system controlled by a tiny number of secretive companies in Silicon Valley is not democratic but rather oligopolistic, even oligarchic.

And yet even as America’s national conversation reaches new levels of vitriol, we could be close to a turning point. Even as our polity deteriorates, an internet that promotes democratic values instead of destroying them—that makes conversation better instead of worse—lies within our grasp. Once upon a time, digital idealists were dreamers. In 1996, John Perry Barlow, a lyricist for the Grateful Dead and an early internet utopian, predicted that a new dawn of democracy was about to break: “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind,” he declared, a place where “the dreams of Jefferson, Washington, Mill, Madison, DeToqueville [ sic ], and Brandeis … must now be born anew.”

Those ideas sound quaint—as outdated as that other 1990s idea, the inevitability of liberal democracy. Yet they don’t have to. A new generation of internet activists, lawyers, designers, regulators, and philosophers is offering us that vision, but now grounded in modern technology, legal scholarship, and social science. They want to resurrect the habits and customs that Tocqueville admired, to bring them online, not only in America but all across the democratic world.