Democracy: Losing Faith

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Winston Churchill once said that ‘Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried’ and for many this feels truer now more than ever. 

The western style of democracy that dominates today (also known as liberal democracy), originated in the city-states of antiquity such as Athens. It was then revived in 17th century England and gradually spread across the western world, leading to many believing the future of humanity lay in liberal democracy.  

This optimism peaked soon after the summer of 1989 when Francis Fukuyama wrote the famous article titled “The End of History”, in which he argued that all of humanity was converging on democracy and in doing so, history had reached its goal. Fukuyama and many others eagerly took to this idea as they saw the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union as the defeat of the last major alternative to liberal democracy.  

However, since the golden era of optimism for democracy things have changed. Many look to the recent results that it has producedelecting Donald Trump and choosing Brexitleading them to despair at the competency of the democratic systemThis has led to a massive loss of faith, shown in a Cambridge University paper which reported a doubling in dissatisfaction from citizens in the UK with the performance of their democracy since the 1990’s as of January 2020 

These mistakes can largely be owed to one of the fundamental pillars of liberal democracy. It counts on the voter being right. However, in the age of the internet, this pillar is looking increasingly shaky.  

In the past, democracy has performed relatively well as most voters had a similar worldview. This was largely due to a select few broadcasters supplying the majority of information for most people in western democratic states. Therefore, they were getting their information from journalists who were researched and qualified in their specialist areasreinforced by editors who further ensured a level of quality and truth. For voters, this meant that they were making their decisions based upon information which was factual and within the mainstream. 

However, with the advent of the internet and social media everyone has the power to be a broadcaster. With just a keyboard and the click of a mouse, users are now able to share their views which have the potential to reach the massesConsequently, voters are increasingly inundated by views which are ill-informed and lacking any journalistic integrity.  

Similarly, as anyone on the internet can be a broadcaster, it gives radical groups and individuals easy access to a platform from where they can reach far more peoplefar more easily. For democracy, this has meant that radical ideas and the people that represent them have ever more power in the political system, as voters are increasingly swayed by these radical views. 

Furthermore with the internet, people have been increasingly fed with information that they want to hear and not what they should hearcaused by algorithms which learn their preferences. This has manifested itself in what some have coined ‘filter bubbles’ where groups with similar interests or views are bundled together and fed information that they are likely to agree with. This leads to voters having a narrower worldview as bubbles are fed with a particular perspective without the balance that mainstream media provides. This narrow worldview is reinforced by voters’ connections on social media agreeing with them due to the filter bubble they are placed in.   

Therefore, filter bubbles aid the spread of fake news and radical viewsThis occurs when algorithms feed filter bubbles fake news or radical views which suit their digital profile, increasing their reach and hold as the information goes unchecked and unchallenged by the users within a filter bubble, due to the way in which it is meant to appeal to their underlying preferences. This also means that people are more likely to believe the misinformation as their connections are also sharing and agreeing with it.  

The public now also fill the editors’ job on the internetThis is because the strength of their interactions decide upon the sources’ relevance to other people and its truththrough mechanisms such as ‘upvotes’ or ‘likes’. Unfortunately, the type of content that triggers strong user interaction is always simple and seeks to appeal to a user’s emotion e.g. foreign refugees being housed in hotels. Therefore, more complex and less emotionally appealing topics don’t reach voters nearly as much anymore, meaning they have much less of a grasp upon complex issues that they will be voting on.  

Worryingly, as the world becomes ever more complex, it heightens the need for the electorate to be better informed of the ever-changing world, in order to make the best decisions possible in a nation’s interest 

However, the internet and social media have meant that the electorate is greatly saturated with poor information, fake news and radical ideas. Furthermore, filter bubbles and algorithms have made peoples world view narrower and less understanding of the complexities of the world around them. This has made the likelihood of voters making the right decision far smallercreating a loss of faith in democracy.