Par Lola BRETON
There was a time when democracy thrived ; a time when it was a goal to achieve by all means. Wars and rebellions were fought to implement it, to break away from authoritarian rule and to insure its stability. That time has faded. By means of disinformation, manipulation, state interference and cyber superiority over reality, the beginning of the 21st century has taken a toll on democracy. Yet, most still believe democracy is the best system there is. Its disappearance is unlikely, its mutation is already in motion.
As technology gets perfected every day, and as fake tries hard to resemble what could be true, thinkers, scholars, artists, etc. imagine what might happen to the democratic rule if we were to keep on believing what we are stumbling across online. Lies becoming truths, mistrust becoming the new normal, abstention becoming a new voice, etc. There is what we fear, what we hope for and what will happen by 2050. The three may not be completely disconnected…
Shifting towards… other forms of democracy
A core idea needs to be debunked. By 2050, democracy will not have disappeared. Stéphane Hugon, sociologist and associate director of Eranos, is rather optimistic about its survival : “The people are still eager to participate in public life ; they are simply doing so in new diverse ways. There is a shift of democratic processes, but no disappearance”. To Hossein Derakhshan, writer and research affiliate at the MIT Media Lab, “democracy is not binary. Existing or not is not the right question to wonder about. Rather, we must think of the harm being done to democratic processes, especially when the citizens are not well-informed.”
“Democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” Winston Churchill once said. Today, it is a matter of information if fear of seeing democracy die, emerged. More precisely, it seems to be about “information disorder”, as Hossein Derakhshan and Claire Wardle defined in their 2017 Council of Europe report. Instead of talking about “fake news” – a term which, although trendy, became very much loaded with President Trump’s use, and doesn’t cover all the implications bad information actually has – they chose to dissect the phenomenon that is shaking up the trust societies used to have for the media and political representatives. Derakhshan and Wardle’s report pointed out three kinds of bad information (mis-, dis-, and mal-information) according to their level of falseness and intent to harm. It showed that bad information comes from diverse agents (state organizations, non-state organizations and the public) with diverse goals and targets. Still, “the amplification of bad information, manufactured by the platforms is the most pressing concern nowadays, according to Hossein Derakhshan. There has always been more or less truthful information delivered by the agents we have now identified, but it is the way they spread and transform in the process that is new.”
Re-building trust in state and non-state actors
People need to regain trust in the system. Otherwise, democracy as it was imagined at its beginnings will not survive. Even though it might look like a tremendous amount of effort to put in to get there, Hossein Derakhshan does not think we are doomed. In his ongoing research, the Iranian Canadian writer develops the tackling techniques that must be implemented to stop the virality of bad information. It shows that, contrary to what has been done so far, fact-checking is not always sufficient to restore trust and erase the effects of the spread. “Non-state organizations are key actors in the bad information process because they are the vector through which it is most effective to spread it. However, states, on the one hand, are difficult targets because of their complicated structures. The public, on the other hand, is an easy target, but it is very hard to protect because there are too many sensitivities at play and the degree to which the bad information actually affects each human is different”, Hossein Derakhshan explains. Non-state actors are key, then, to tackle the spread of bad information. Behind the term, hide technology companies, media organizations and funding bodies ; each holding a set of recommendations from the 2017 report on information disorder to restore trust.
In fact, platforms, web and data hosts are being slowly forced to transform and apply those recommendations. A call for transparency had emerged after the Brexit referendum, the elections that followed and the numerous scandals that affected social media in their aftermath. One way to regulate technology companies would be to enforce a kind of separation between the user data, the algorithms and the platform’s code. If hardware companies could not implement their own algorithms, it would bring much more competition among them, and they would, thus, feel compelled to more transparency. “It is essential that the platforms become more accountable and transparent about what they do, at least to the authorities”, Hossein Derakhshan points out.
As for the media organizations, they are expected to change, for their own good and the people’s. The “fourth power” has been under pressure for a while and needs to renew its ways to ensure the safety of democracy. James W. Carey, American communication theorist, said: “Without the institutions of democracy, journalists are reduced to propagandists or entertainers.” Their survival is, thus, at stake. For Hossein Derakhshan, “the future of journalism lies on non-fiction literature, long format audio, such as podcasts, and video documentaries”. To gain their credibility back, and be more transparent, journalists have gathered and signed the International Declaration on Information and Democracy in November 2018 with the impulse of Reporters without Borders (RSF) It reinforces the idea that the role of journalism is to be a “trusted third party” for societies. The Journalism Trust Initiative, from RSF as well, is slowly working towards a system of certification for media organizations to rebuild trust through integrity. Stéphane Hugon tends towards the same line of thought. To him, “societies may want to shift towards literary democracy instead of holding on to rational democracy”
The future of democracy will rise from its past…
Literature is not the only perspective democracy will adopt in the next few years, or decades. What we are heading for is a comeback to the roots of democracy. From Athens and its large assemblies on the Parthenon, modern democracy will take the core principle of participation. The people have expressed their will to be more active in the decisions taken for them. Whether in France with the RIC, put on the table by the “Yellow Jackets” movement, and the extension of the RIP for citizens to have a say, or in the UK with a call for a second referendum on Brexit, for some representation just is not enough anymore. Beware, though. Back in Ancient Greece, only citizens could have an opinion. Citizens were rich men and the concept excluded foreigners. Plus, participation and pure people-based decision making can only thrive with equal access to education for all.
That is another step back in time Hossein Derakhshan is convinced societies should take, for the sake of democracy. “We are currently in an era of ‘post-enlightenment’. Rationality has eroded as the centrality of our societies”, he believes. “There is no other way to tackle it but going back to the mechanisms of Enlightenment. The public needs to be re-educated, especially to critical thinking. It is a part to play in schools, but also at home, in the companies, in associations, etc. And, there again, non-state actors, such as the media, the platforms and celebrities will play a tremendous role, working in partnership with the states to convey valuable information.” Since inequal access to wealth leads to an inequal access to education and to inequal access to information, the work to be conducted is not only located on the bad information side.
For Stéphane Hugon, finally, societies are heading towards a comeback to a “rural solidarity”-based societies. “In the 1950s, people mostly lived outside cities and relied heavily on each other in their everyday lives. Then, they had to move to the cities, and it isolated them from others. Today, they want to go back to this roots and a feeling of belonging.” When the shift back happens, it will rely on neighborhoods. However, if people feel attached to the places they live in and the individuals they live with – if the attachment is territorial only – could we call the system a democracy ?
… and from imagination ?
Democracy will linger as long as there is a means for people to express themselves. “The more we express ourselves, the calmer humanity is”, Stéphane Hugon believes. To find their way back to expression, citizens must go back to the arts and to dreaming of something different. “If the so-called ‘fake news’ are fooling everyone these days, it is mostly because humanity is bored. People need to go back to imaging stories and poetry to make sense of their experiences and get connected to others. It is all about re-connecting with the arts ; any kind of art as long as it reintroduces fantasy into people’s lives.”
No one’s vision, however, could give a glimpse of what the electoral process may look like in the next decades. Stéphane Hugon wonders about how it will turn out : “What is sure is that delegating power has always been a problem for human beings. It still is ; so, we cannot know if voting to elect representatives will keep on being one of the core principles of modern democracy.”