3 ways to try to save democracy in digital times

7 min.

The role of social media

In January 2021, Twitter permanently banned President Trump’s account. Without a doubt, the role of social media in today’s polarised society is a hot topic of debate. What’s going on? Should we be blaming Facebook and Twitter? Bart Kerremans, political scientist and expert in American affairs at Leuven University, was asked this question during a particularly interesting edition of De Afspraak op Vrijdag, a TV show where guests discuss the week’s political news.

About fiction and reality

When I give guest lectures at London Business School, I begin my talk by showing a 2035 news programme from the real BBC studio. I was allowed to write the script, which is perhaps a little exaggerated. Or so I thought. 

‘A SpaceX spaceship to Mars made a stop on the moon to drop off a drunken passenger. The Maldives have become an underwater theme park. In California, a robot has been elected governor. Mark Zuckerberg has been condemned to 20 years in prison. And the Twitter account of POTUS Trump Jr. has been banned for good.’

It seems that reality can catch up with fiction pretty quickly.

About disrupting democracy

On De Afspraak op Vrijdag, when asked whether social networks have played a significant role in the increasing polarisation of politics, Bart Kerremans answered that he doesn’t “feel at home on social media”. Mr Kerremans is a beacon in choppy waters, but he knows little of the currents under the surface. The answer is: Yes, social media is playing a huge role, especially in America. The key question we should ask is: Are they responsible? There, the answer is: No.

In 2018, I sat backstage for hours with Alexander Nix at the ABN AMRO tennis tournament in Rotterdam. We weren’t going to play tennis against each other; we were both giving a keynote speech on big data and artificial intelligence. Alexander Nix was then still the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, that we know from the 2018 Facebook scandal and the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma. Between the dry run and our actual speech, we had hours of time to chat. It turned into a very unsettling conversation with an intriguing person, who at the time was proud that he had helped Trump win the US presidential election in 2016. I was dragged into his fascinating and remarkably scientific story, but at the same time I noticed that this wasn’t going to end well for democracy. I said to him: “So you disrupted democracy, like Uber disrupted the taxi business”. He confirmed this later that day, on stage, in front of 3,000 astonished Dutch entrepreneurs. For anyone who’s still unsure, it wasn’t Facebook’s algorithms (somewhat the Holy Grail of politics these days) that helped Trump win the election, but the canny use thereof. 

I wrote a few opinion pieces about this in 2018 and included some of these ideas in my book Managers The Day After Tomorrow. I tried to warn people that democracy would not survive if we don’t urgently adapt the system to the world of big data, algorithms, AI and social media. These tools exist, which mean they can be used and abused. The new digital world doesn’t abide by the written and unwritten rules of our old analogue world. Intelligent people, like Alexander Nix, can use these tools for their own benefit. That’s what I wrote.

About winners and losers

During the aforementioned TV programme, Bart De Wever – Belgian politician and leader of the right-wing New Flemish Alliance – rightly referred to the divide between ‘those who think they can win off the back of the challenges of a changing society’ and ‘those who have a lot to lose’, saying that social media has actually given this latter group a voice. He got that right. Sometimes, in all my enthusiasm and my happy little world, I forget what I learned when I managed factories in Zele and Sint Niklaas for nearly 6 years (I was managing director from 2003 to 2009). Our technological gadgets, our clothes, our shoes and our cars are made by real people who exist on a real planet, who truly have a lot to lose and who had no voice. Until now.

To my astonishment, the participants in the debate forgot to mention that on social media you can cunningly fuel that discontent until it becomes an unstoppable cancer, thus creating a nice breeding ground for political parties to benefit from. 

About game rules and citizen wars

In the old world, we had rules that governed the functioning of the ‘democratic game’. Without those rules, that are often ‘undemocratic’ in themselves, democracy would devour itself, as Socrates once said. Freedom of expression, for example, cannot be absolute.

Democracy is a dynamic field of contention between legislative and executive power, the government and the opposition, the composition of the majority and the press.

Over the last 15 years, we have seen how our policy makers consider social media to be a harmless virtual world, if they even see it, where no rules need apply and where anything goes under the pretext of the democratic right to freedom of speech. There, citizen wars go unpunished and we laughingly call them ‘flame wars’ instead of what they actually are: ruthless lynchings. We look on and shrug our shoulders. Until suddenly they ‘trickle over’ into the real world and force us to wake up, like on 6th January 2021 when a group of riled-up, discontented people stormed the Capitol in Washington, D.C. because their great leader asked them to. Every revolution involves a section of the population being provoked and used. That’s not news. But to our dismay, we were suddenly confronted with the lack of boundary between the online and the offline world. We were shown that virtual citizen wars are real. The riot at the Capitol was just a faint precursor, a signal.

About Facebook and algorithms

Are Facebook’s algorithms the cause? Yes. Is Facebook responsible? No. Can Facebook find a solution? Partly. Should we make the algorithms transparent? That’s not the solution. Instead, we need to understand when algorithms are ‘rewarded’. In other words, what is their objective? In Facebook’s case, the answer is simple: build the best marketing network in the world. It’s that straightforward.

Facebook is a formidable marketing machine where users are the product. Thanks to ever more intelligent algorithms, users are grouped into categories to be sold to advertisers. Around 80 million companies have a Facebook page and more than 87% of American marketers use Facebook as a tool. Europe is not far behind.

Advertisers like to detect latent emotions and intensify them for their own purposes, so that they can identify when and how each product will satisfy a particular user’s need. Facebook’s algorithms do all of that for 2.99 billion people worldwide. When people are put together in echo chambers, they feed off and fuel each other’s desires thus making them easier to convert. Political campaigns are centred on intelligent marketing. It’s no surprise politicians quickly found the best marketing machine, the one called Facebook.

The first political campaign to understand the power of social media was Obama’s campaign in 2008, when social media was still very immature. Cambridge Analytica, however, understood Facebook’s algorithms better than anyone else and stepped over to the dark side.

About desire and Stranger Things

Desire is a basic emotion managed by our reptile brain, which as we know if we read Kahneman’s work, often beats our rational thinking brain to the post. What Alexander Nix understood well is that – in addition to desire – fear and anger are dangerous basic emotions from our reptile brain that can also be used to win elections. He knew that Facebook’s algorithms could detect and intensify these emotions, because algorithms are intelligent but also incredibly easy to abuse. The only thing he had to do was to stoke fear and identify an enemy. The fear was ‘losing what had been gained’ and the enemy was ‘the establishment’. Truth was no longer relevant. Only two people need to believe in it for the flywheel to start turning and for the algorithms to get to work. Once the bad seed had been sown, it started to grow and spread like the ‘Upside Down’ in Stranger Things.

Trump concluded his last official speech (for now) with a reference to an imminent race that had only just begun. I fear that he is right. Twitter blocked his account too late, the many-tentacled monster is only now coming to the surface. The hurricane of conspiracy theories surrounding ‘the establishment’ is wreaking havoc on social media like never before.

The problem

Let’s summarise.

We are scared, aggressive and hungry crocodiles who can do our thing when let loose in the digital wild and lawless West of social media. Policy makers are still trying to keep it under control using laws from the old continent from the Middle Ages that don’t suit us and that only make us even more sure of ourselves and more aggressive.

How can we save democracy? How can we stop the imminent citizen wars?

How we won’t save democracy

We won’t be able to save democracy just by developing a vision. Between now and a better future there is too much time and too many offers. Our crocodile brain and social media are standing in the way. We can’t belittle, neglect or blame those who are not happy because that will only intensify fear and aggression. Nor can we determine what fake news is and what it isn’t. That just deepens polarisation. Nor can we attack the algorithms of social media. Polarisation is not Facebook and other social networks’ fault. It is the fault of those who knowingly use social media to stoke fear and anger.

How we may be able to save democracy

So what should we do?

For me there are three ingredients:

First, we urgently need to write the rules of the democratic game in an OMO sapiens world (online merged with offline). Like in the old world, it’s a delicate balance between freedom and guaranteeing freedom by restricting it. The balance between the different forces that make analogous democracy needs to be struck in the new world. Big data and AI can help people to develop augmented intelligence so that we can tackle the complex challenges that we are now facing, like the climate, migration and globalisation.

Secondly, both the right- and left-wing are right. We cannot turn a blind eye to people who feel scared, for whom everything is going too quickly and who risk losing a lot. But we cannot allow those fears to be fuelled in order to win votes.

So I do agree with Bart Kerremans who points to the overwhelming responsibility of politicians to be ethical. We need a behaviour code.

I want to add to this ethical code: Dear politicians, engage in society, be honest and modest, show empathy and a will to forgive. Have your own opinion, but rediscover the power of debate, with the power of a critical press, compromise and healthy curiosity for others.

After all

Dear Mr. Zuckerberg, you’re clearly not at fault for these restless times and for putting our democracy under pressure, but you can save that democracy by using your algorithms to invoke curiosity. Because only curiosity can save us now. And maybe that way you can stay out of prison.