Does democracy need an overhaul?

By: Lucas Lang

In recent years, the question of democratic reform has cropped up in countries spanning the globe. Over its history, the two thousand-five-hundred-year-old form of governance has changed drastically with many different variations emerging which are unique to cultures and regions. Since the second world war, democracies have generally been associated with stable states. Over the last two decades, however, there has been increasing political upheaval and demand for political change. In Russia, opposition to the government of Vladimir Putin is growing. In Hong Kong, calls for democracy are becoming louder, and the Chinese government is meeting the peoples demands with new restrictions on democracy. Yet, it is not just countries which are largely considered to be authoritarian which are struggling with calls for democratic reform.

In Canada there is growing consensus that democratic reform of the senate and electoral system is necessary. In the United States, the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the continued support for the former president, indicates a voting base that seeks a change in party leadership style and democratic practices. Throughout Europe, there is mounting support for populist parties and preservation of national identity, which further demonstrates that citizens of democratic states are looking for a change in the way democracy is run.

So why is all this happening, how are we to understand it, and how should we respond?

Perhaps a clue can be found in the recent collapse of another form of governance. In the 1960’s, the Soviet Union underwent a period known as the Era of Stagnation. During this era, enthusiasm for socialism encountered a notable decline. Politicians attempting to re-strengthen support for the political system undertook a series of reforms in efforts to “improve socialism”. One of the leaders who led theses efforts was Mikhail Gorbachev, whose efforts to reform the Soviet Union are largely considered to have led to its collapse in 1991. It may be time that we consider that democracy might be having an era of stagnation of its own.

In countries around the world there has been a lack of enthusiasm for democracy. Where once it was considered a privilege and a responsibility to vote and participate in governance, within many states this is no longer true. Many governments find themselves deadlocked with opposing parties and bureaucracy preventing administrations from functioning properly. For many democratic countries both in North America and Europe, lower voter turnouts are not uncommon as citizens have begun to doubt their government’s ability to make changes and carry out their promises. Corruption and partisan politics have further corroded peoples trust in governments. As a result, many countries are seeking reforms to better their state’s democracy.

As governments begin to seek to “improve democracy”, it is crucial to acknowledge that seeking to fixing democracy is no small task. It will absolutely create divisions and most certainly will not provide the outcomes we expect. Within history there are numerous examples of states which began down the path to democracy but ended up becoming something else entirely. Despite the enthusiasm for democracy and the promise shown within Russia after the Soviet Union’s collapse, Vladimir Putin ultimately came to power. After the fall of Kaiser Wilhelm II and Imperial Germany, the Democratic Weimar Republic rose, but Adolf Hitler, and the Nazi’s were eventually elected to lead. There is always a risk with political reform and both those on the left and right will have to walk a careful line and manage their more radical elements for any compromise or progress to endure. Already in Europe, there is also mounting concern for the rising numbers of states which have adopted hybrids of democratic and authoritarian governments, with policies that do not comply with those of typical democratic states.

If democracy has indeed been in a period of stagnation from which it is now emerging, it will be at its most vulnerable. As changes are made, new policies and platforms will be introduced, new forms of democracy will be tested, and old ones broken. While some new and beneficial models of democracy will be made, others, harmful and more destructive will also emerge. Citizens will need to remain vigilant as the future of democracy within their country will be decided by their votes.

The Media and the Rise of Populism

by Sydney Linholm

The media has become unbelievably relevant in politics in the last few years, with many people relying on the media to gain information about politics. With this, we’ve seen a surge in things like “fake news” contributing to this rise in populism and people shifting towards far-right points of view. The article by Des Freedman discusses how the media has become a vessel for this as they have failed to stop the spread of far-right ideas online.

I think that this idea is especially relevant in the United States, which is where we’ve seen both a rise in populist thought during the Trump era and extreme media polarization, with both sides of the spectrum seemingly spreading “fake news” depending on what side you’re on. This ties into last week’s topic of QAnon as well, and this is one of the ways that the connection can be made to Europe: QAnon has used the media attention to gain supporters in Europe, and media reporting on right-wing populist movements such as the Yellow Jackets or anti-lockdown protests has only contributed to media polarization.

The more polarized the media becomes, the more they contribute to the rise of populism. As different media outlets report things according to their political leanings, the information becomes more and more tailored to their audiences and these political leanings (take the example of Fox News and CNN). Eventually, it becomes hard to pinpoint which media outlet’s information is reliable which leads to a growing distrust of the media, which is often seen in populist thought.

Eroding the Fourth Column

This week’s readings, read at an angle, put neoliberalist capitalism at odds with democracy. They aren’t mutually incompatible – they can coexist for years, decades, maybe longer – but slowly, slowly, neoliberalism, should it be allowed to erode the fourth column of independent and fact-driven journalism, primes the population against democracy.

Des Freedman first describes how the neoliberal impulse to extricate the government from the economy leads to informational media communities being treated as any other sector of the economy. The media is not but another sector of the economy, given its role in creating a shared narrative – particularly in a political system where citizens depend on the accuracy of that narrative to then direct their governments.

Ignoring this special political role means the media sector is left to consolidate, with all the power behind those broadcasters pooled in the hands of the unelected directors of those corporations. Rupert Murdoch and the late Roger Ailes are boogeymen of the political left on this issue; while the Washington Post’s Jeff Bezos and CNN are frequent targets of the political right.

That power comes from the ability to effectively elevate or deplatform politicians, should a massive media conglomerate be directed to do so – perhaps even by the politicians themselves, perhaps, engaging in explicit backroom deals like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have all been accused of doing.

But it also comes from the ability to shape the narrative in ways that can be barely perceptible, as Tess Slavíčková and Peter Zvagulis describe. If the media, a key part of the social fabric binding together the nation, insinuates that a certain (usual ethnic, but with potential focus on religious, class, or urban/rural divisions as well) group is the ‘norm’ and that every other demographic is deviant, and presents those groups only in association with indicators of ‘societal decay’, then it contributes to creating a damaging social narrative. Consolidation also suffocates potential dissenting voices, making it harder for the groups Othered by these exclusionary narratives to push back against their depictions or the inappropriate contextualization generated in the name of quick deadlines or engaging narratives running roughshod over the quest for accuracy.

This then leaves the door open to populists ‘say the quiet part loud’, and either serve as firebrands defending these groups shut out from the mainstream media – or as a representative of a ‘silent majority’ angry that these Others are leeching from the social chest.

Neither is good for democracy. And while Freedman concedes that the populists will eventually be integrated into mainstream politics, will eventually lose the novelty and shock appeal that garnered them so much free media attention, this will not happen before they damage the democratic fabric of the society. They might actually sabotage democratic institutions – taking steps from populism towards authoritarianism proper – or they might just inscribe new patterns of hurt into the palimpsestic vocabulary of politics.

Regardless, allowing unbridled neoliberal impulses to recast media companies as just corporations amongst others undermines the fourth column of fact-finding journalism, leaving democracy like a chair with one shortened leg.

Two can Play at that Game.

By: Lucas Lang

The notion of dog whistle, as a signal that only those of a certain political orientation can understand is quite interesting and quite ironic. While memes and social media posts certainly signal specific audiences, evoking certain emotions and sentiments about subjects, do not articles and lectures among academic communities do the same? Underlying the sources this week and under the guise that populism needs to be understood there is an unspoken call that the madness of populism needs to be brought to a halt. Des Freedman’s article for example offers no advice however to how populist media may be able to become more productive and efficient in its contributions to society. Instead, Freedman seeks to identify and propose corrections amongst traditional media of errors that support the spread of populist media’s influence. The main theme that became apparent this week is that all media has biases and motives. As important as it is to recognize that biases and dog whistles, it is also important to hear to them and comprehend the concerns and motivations are for the messages, even if they are as far-fetched and irrational as cultural Marxism. (Which is not to say the dangers and destructive potential of such messages should be ignored.) The European Union’s Digital Services Act and Digital Markets act were also interesting to read about. While creating restrictions for platforms genuinely provides opportunities to reduce illegal activity and restrict harmful behavior online, it is also evident why removing power from platforms to regulate their own users and bestowing it upon the E.U. would be of concern to populist groups.

Corporate Media and Populist Convergence, What Could go Wrong?

Jake Rooke

The authoritarian and populist forces across the world have utilized media and economic structures, largely embedded in neoliberal market fundamentalist practices and/or corrupt state capture in authoritarian states. Freedman (2018) argues that “a cocktail of tabloid values, falling levels of trust in the media and unaccountable tech power (facilitating the spread of hyper-partisan and sometimes ‘fake’ news) is widely seen to be intimately linked to the rise in recent years both of a xenophobic populism and polarised media and political environments”. The political earthquake after the Brexit referendum vote shocked media correspondents, political analysts and the largely ‘Remainer’ elites in Westminster and Brussels. At closer level of analysis, the British tabloid media, such as the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Daily Express had been formulating a Eurosceptic narrative since the early 1990s. As Channel Four News, Jon Snow stated, the British media ‘failed, not only over the [Brexit] Referendum, but perhaps over reporting Europe at all down the 40 years of the UK’s membership’ (Freedman 2018). These Eurosceptic narratives focused on seemingly innocent misinformation such as supposed regulations on the shape bananas, but there was larger narratives that promoted harmful misinformation. These larger narratives largely focused on immigration, and in particular, ‘illegal’ immigration crossing the English Channel from the continent. Tabloid media and Eurosceptic print media, such as the Telegraph wedded to give a sense of legitimacy to the sensationalism. The conservative Eurosceptic media pandered to their base, putting commercial interests fundamentally ahead of journalistic integrity.

With the introduction of market neoliberal policies and ‘soft-touch’ self-regulatory structures, corporate hyper-commercialization enhanced the visibility of far-right politicians that use provocative speech and nativist pleas. These ‘shock’ slogans and campaigns boosted media ratings mainly from citizens that wanted to watch the circus. However the provocative rhetoric was also salient amongst receptive individuals. These individuals are largely either economically disadvantaged, (i.e., ‘left behind’)  as a result of neoliberal policies and/or those that believe their cultural construct is being challenged and changed by a mixture of cosmopolitan elite liberals and/or the ‘invasion’ of ‘others’, (i.e., immigrants). This resulted in an intertwined economic and cultural backlash. Thus, also neoliberal policymakers ‘cement commercial values in, and to minimise regulatory controls on, accumulations of media power is hardly without consequence’ (Freedman 2018).

The scariest aspect of this corporate media and populist convergence is that the government since the 9/11 terror attacks has given government security agencies enhance surveillance capabilities. This includes the Investigatory Powers Act (2017), that provides for unprecedented surveillance and hacking by security services but fails to guarantee sufficient protection for journalists’ sources. Thus, as Freedman (2018) indicates, if a populist far-right government did come to power, they would have the legislative mechanisms to increase their power.

The Digital Age and Populism

Sara Dix

Populism and media go hand in hand. In the modern times, journalism has become incredibly important in spreading populist ideas and “fake news” which can contribute to increasing numbers of people moving to the far-right. Des Freedman’s “Populism and Media Policy Failure” discusses the failures of media to curb the spread of the far-right online. But this also goes well with the EU’s ambitious Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act.

Freedman mentions the argument that Mazzoleni makes in that all neo-populist movements rely on indirect and direct complicity with the mass media as well as politicians who are capable of being “newsmakers” themselves. This is really evident through Donald Trump who made great use of Twitter to express his opinions easily to the public whether he was factually correct or not. The use of Twitter further spread Trump’s ideas that attracted many Americans to believe his Tweets and it wasn’t until the recent attack on the Capital that his Twitter account was banned for inciting the violence.

As for the Digital Services Act, it does include rules and restrictions surrounding the scrutiny of how media platforms work, obligations for large platforms as a way to prevent abuse of their systems, and transparency rules that include online advertising and algorithms used for content recommendations for users. The Act is very comprehensive and intent on maintaining a safer and fair online presence within Europe that represents the values of the EU. While it encompasses so many obligations, it is questionable on how well it will be maintained and who is in control because depending on the Commission, it could vary as the Commission changes its leadership.

Populism and Media 

This week’s sources centered on the role of media and its construction of conditions for populist formulation, in particular now with the global network society. I think this week’s focus ties in really well to some of the themes explored last week regarding online conspiracy theories. The network society and social media platforms have changed messaging completely – from who it comes from to how quickly it spreads. 

As mentioned in Des Freedman’s “Populism and Media Policy Failure”, media failures have contributed to the rise of populism. This has happened as a result of far-right populist politicians and movements securing high levels of visibility thanks to often complicit media outlets and unregulated digital platforms. 

The networked society is different than the legacy media outlets which came before it as it provides a level of interconnectedness that the world has never seen before. Anyone and everyone have access to sharing information online whether it be true or not. Legacy media was much more focused on reputation and providing credible information. Whereas now, big tech companies are more interested in clicks and profit and are not held accountable for the spread of misinformation on their platforms. 

As can be seen with populists like Trump or Le Pen, mass media and online platforms give them a platform that would not have had previously which has allowed them to reach more people. Having this platform where your ideologies can reach thousands in a second, paired with the lack of fact-checking online is a dangerous combination. 

Based on the Digital Services Act, there are steps being taken in order to combat the spreading of false information to manipulate people. However, I can’t help but think that the online world has become so complex and so fast-paced that no legislation would be enough to keep up with it. 

Doing away with Common Sense

While watching the video presentation of Johannes von Moltke, I was struck by the phrase “cast aside common sense and dive far below the surface of empirical reality,” as it so succinctly summarized one of the worst tendencies of the far right.  Being able to critically analyze and dissect what politicians, internet personalities, analysts, and anyone involved in the political realm are saying is such an essential skill, as it allows us as citizens to identify what is factual and what is simply self-serving rhetoric.  However, individuals who buy in to the far-right’s rhetoric and fall victim to this casting away of common sense pose a threat to this traditional pillar of democratic societies. 

Holding politicians and decision makers accountable for the words they use and the actions they commit is a key aspect of maintaining democratic stability, as when a seemingly altruistic politician commits serious moral or legal violations, we can change our opinion of him or her and our party affiliation as we see fit.  However, when even a relatively small section of a population refuses or is incapable of thinking critically, and blindly follows certain individuals, adhering to and believing whatever they say without thought, it degrades the legitimacy of the democratic institutions present in the country.  The fact that so many of these far-right individuals are adopting this outlook because of memes specifically is all the more concerning.

Indirect complicity and the need for an internal overhaul of professionalism within journalism

Michaela Bax-Leaney

Des Freedman touches on an interesting point in his commentary on how failures in media policy have contributed to the rise of populism – the indirect complicity of the mass media. However, I think there is more to it than the few lines Freedman devotes to it, particularly in his discourse about looking forward and ‘resolving’ the issues he identifies in the current mass media systems in place in the U.S. and the U.K.

As Freedman notes, giving populists like Trump and Le Pen airtime, even negative or critical airtime, gives them a platform.  And it is imperative to remember that no one is owed a platform. One may say and believe what they like, but no one is owed influence and amplification. Freedman writes about how “elite” news media was shocked by the results of the 2016 election in the US, and the results of the Brexit referendum, and vowed to shift their coverage, but has that coverage shifted in any meaningful way? Freedman argues, and I would agree that the answer is largely no.

We did witness, in the last vestiges of the Trump administration, cable news outlets opt not to air certain speeches or statements due to the sheer quantity of lies present, but those instances were few and far between. For the most part, as Freedman notes, the revised coverage was reduced to aghast disgust; I found this particularly irksome in coverage of the insurrection at the Capital by CNN. As the hosts watched the events unfold in real time, they could do little more than remark on how shocking, unprecedented, and despicable it all was.

Freedman also takes issue with journalistic notions of objectivity – indeed, journalism itself is undergoing an internal reckoning about objectivity and its roots in white supremacy. Yet I would argue that it goes beyond this; that electoral and political systems are just as much to blame, and in fact they are intrinsically linked with the systemic problems present in mass media.

Freedman references Silvio Waisbord, who himself has dedicated much of his study to reinventing notions of professionalism within journalism, and the pitting of professional journalism (the outlets Freedman primarily references – The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post – all of whom have their practice rooted in strict notions of professionalism including the procedure and ethics that guide how journalism is done) against militant journalism (employed by what he dubs “neo-populist” governments as a way to combat the elitism of professional journalism) (Waisbord 2013).

It is certainly a massive undertaking to reimagine the journalistic enterprise, particularly because what is so key to the success of the function of the journalist is relative freedom from government regulation. Thus, dictating any particular media policy becomes inherently fraught. I think the conversation must shift to a wide-scale recognition of the indirect complicity of news media, and how that coupled with a dire need for democratic reform has led to the massive success of populist outlets (Brieitbart, Rebel News) and the demagogue candidates they endorse.

The Medium Makes the Message and Currently it is Extreme Partisanship and Misinformation

By: Bryce Greer

I am going to break the “rules” slightly by pointing to the recent news this weekend of Fox News being sued for $1.6 billion by Dominion Voting Systems over false election claims. Furthermore, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey admitted his website contributed to Capitol Riots as Congress presses Big Tech CEOs over misinformation on their platforms. These examples continue to highlight the significance of this week’s readings, understanding how both legacy media (seen with Fox) and social media (i.e., Twitter) have come to contribute to the growing partisanship in liberal democracy as well as the rise of populism in recent years.

The medium indeed makes the message, and right now that message is advocating extreme partisanship through mainstream media alongside the growing misinformation allowed by the unopposed Big Tech platforms of social media. Des Freedman’s article this week traces this argument quite well, noting how the rise of populism has come from the populist’s effective use of media to push their rhetoric. Although, Freedman also notes a significant anecdote on the compliancy of prestigious mainstream journalism as another factor in the failures of media. The two examples given on Trump’s winning of the election in 2016 and of Brexit’s acceptance showed how mainstream media’s aghast reception to these events revealed their failure in covering nonpartisan news that reflects all views of citizens.

Freedman’s article as it explains the many failures of media, notably how it has shifted to sensationalist stories that expand polarization and allow an indirect (and oftentimes direct) platform for populists, has therefore brought a centralized media network. This, connected alongside the unopposed Big Tech corporations, has placed information outside the hands of the independent media networks that can return to a nonpartisan approach to journalism. The conclusion Freedman argues, may be seen with the European Commission’s proposal for the Digital Services Act, which attempts to regulate larger platforms like Facebook, Twitter, etc. but also allow for the growth of smaller independent start ups.

The Digital Services Act, however, I am not so sure of its potential success. Referring to Johannes von Moltke’s lecture on how “the Meme is the Message,” I think as much as democracy can try and regulate platforms and media, this does not accurately handle the local contexts. While platforms can certainly give voices to populists in a problematic and explicit way, smaller platforms like 4-chan, which would continue to likely sit under the radar of government, reveal misinformation like von Molke’s examination of cultural Marxism as exemplified through memes. Tess Slavickova’s and Peter Zvagulis’ paper, although a part of legacy media, also reveals how specific word plays and omission of perspectives can account for misinformation, and this is equally applicable to the local context of memes spread through small networks.

Ultimately in the end, then, there is a limit to the actions that can be done to prevent populism from rising, and as much as the platform can be regulated, there will always be a way for misinformation in the local context to be spread on smaller less regulated platforms. Perhaps regulation can prevent mainstream misinformation, and that would be utopian, but I would argue that perhaps we have allowed the Medium’s current message to be unresolved for too long. This compliancy has left us in a precarious and possibly unfixable state.

References:

Tess Slavíčková and Peter Zvagulis. “Monitoring Anti-Minority Rhetoric in the Czech Print Media: A Critical Discourse Analysis.” Journal of Language & Politics, vol. 13, no. 1, Jan. 2014, pp. 152–170

D. Freedman, “Populism and media policy failure” European Journal of Communication 33 (6) (2018): 604-618

Digital Services Act – EU https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_20_2347


Johannes von Moltke, “The Meme is the Message” Freie Universität Berlin lecture https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y7e7lSGlSWs