When I was eighteen, I believed that everything that was wrong with the world was the fault of The Establishment. My belief in democracy had vanished with the shooting of President Kennedy, and all politicians and law enforcers were corrupt fascists in my eyes (and, of course, in the eyes of all my friends). Naively, it seemed to me that this was only an American problem, and I left the US to settle in Europe, thinking that things would be very different here.
As a young adult, working to save the inner cities from being destroyed by commerce, my beliefs were still marked by ‘Power to the People.’ Citizen participation was the only way to save the old neighbourhoods. I went back to college to study community work. My fellow members of the social-democratic party laughed at the utopian-socialist views expressed in my thesis on urban renewal. But, step-by-step, the old neighbourhoods were renovated instead of bulldozed and that felt as if things were evolving in the right direction.
Gradually, working within city governments, I started understanding the intricacies of the political process and how difficult it is to wield the delicate balance of power. During my law studies my thesis was on how to grant city council, a democratically elected body, more influence in governing cities. I was often shocked by popular resistance to what seemed to be perfectly good measures, but was always convinced that if people were informed properly, they would make wise choices.
In the meantime, I started discovering the world of computers and internet. As an ‘early adapter’ I saw the potential of the internet to give all people a voice, provide everyone with the information they need, independent of power structures and conventions. The World Wide Web, with social media at its hub, connecting people and information everywhere. What an opportunity for emancipation and empowerment!
So what happened?
Well-informed historians and columnists like Heather Cox Richardson and Anne Appelbaum have provided clear analyses of the rise of ultra-right conservatism and authoritarianism in the 21st century. And plenty has been documented about the way using advertising to finance social media has corrupted the channels. Through the use of algorithms to present people with the information they seem to interested in, social media has created echo chambers.
But what distresses me the most is the realization that the majority of people are not interested in staying out of the echo chambers. People only hear what they want to hear. It’s easy enough to investigate and collect all the facts. The algorithms themselves aren’t a bad thing, it’s a way of helping people sort through the overload of information available. But if you are lazy and only go for the information being handed to you on a platter and parroted by your friends, you will never know if it’s the truth.
Part of this is the tendency towards group-think. Reaching an independent conclusion about an issue isn’t an attractive option if all you care about is what your friends think of you. And this herd-tendency in all of us is enforced by the fact that very few schools encourage children to think for themselves from an early age on.
I must stress that this is not only an American problem. Anyone studying the developments in Europe, Asia, Africa, or South America will find parallels
And then, on the 6th day of 2021 (which so many people had hoped would be a welcome break from 2020), the implicit violence on social media truly broke loose in a right-wing insurrection in the Washington DC Capitol. Yes, there had been demonstrations and riots leading up to last year’s elections. But never such a clear-cut intentional violation of constitutional, democratic values. The sort of political violence we are accustomed to seeing in the so-called ‘new democracies,’ not in the US.
Eventually the rioters were driven off and the winner of the Presidential election was confirmed. Democracy prevailed, but for how long? When will we be free of the craziness? When will the human race reach adulthood? In time to turn back climate change? In time to prevent nature from being overrun by economic interests? I’m not the optimist I used to be.