A scholar Asks, ‘Can Democracy Survive The Internet?’


Publish Date:
April 22, 2017
  • Batz, Dan
The Washington Post
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In more innocent times, the rise of the Internet was seen by many people as a boon to democracy. Disruptive, yes, but the Web broadened the flow of information, introduced new voices into the political debates, empowered citizens and even provided a powerful fundraising tool for some lesser-known candidates such as Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders.

Now, in what are clearly less innocent times, the Internet is viewed as a far less benign force. It can be a haven for spreading fake news and rewarding the harshest and most divisive of political rhetoric. It is a medium, for all its benefits, that has dark corners populated by anonymous actors (some not even real people) whose influence appears to be growing but not easily measured.

Nathaniel Persily, a law professor at Stanford University, is among the many — academics, political practitioners, journalists, law enforcement officials and others — who are attempting to understand better the consequences of conducting campaigns and governance here and around the world in the Internet age. He has written about this in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Democracy in an article with a title that sums up his concerns: “Can Democracy Survive the Internet?”

The provocative title isn’t simply the result of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, though that is obviously a front-and-center issue. “I think it’s the shiny object that everyone understandably pays attention to right now, but the problem is bigger than that,” Persily said during an interview a few days ago.

The FBI and congressional committees are investigating if anyone associated with President Trump’s campaign was in collusion with the Russians, and how future campaigns can be protected from such meddling. But as Persily rightly notes, foreign attempts to interfere with what should be a sovereign enterprise, such as a presidential election, are only one factor to be examined.

Even without the Russians, the campaign of 2016 highlighted the degree to which elections are carried out on terrain far different from when television and traditional print organizations were the dominant media. Persily argues that the 2016 campaign broke down previously established rules and distinctions “between insiders and outsiders, earned media and advertising, media and non-media, legacy media and new media, news and entertainment and even foreign and domestic sources of campaign communication.”

“That’s what Donald Trump realized that a lot of us didn’t,” Persily said. “That it was more important to swamp the communication environment than it was to advocate for a particular belief or fight for the truth of a particular story,” Persily said.

Persily also notes that the fear of dark money and “shady outsiders” running television commercials “seems quaint when compared to networks of thousands of bots of uncertain geographic origin creating automated messages designed to malign candidates and misinform voters.”

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