The 2011 Arab Spring was a moment of great hope for the advance of freedom in the Middle East. At the time, the narrative credited social media for making the movement possible, insofar as Twitter, Facebook and blogs permitted citizens to circumvent the state to share ideas and organise. But the result was not a wave of democracy. Autocratic states can also use communications technology to consolidate their power and accomplish their aims. Thus far, only Tunisia, the place that started it all, has moved to a constitutional democracy. Meanwhile, the focus has turned to more pressing matters, including the rise of the Islamic State, the conflict in Yemen, and the Syrian refugee crisis. The calendar is seemingly moving backwards, and spring has turned to winter.
More shocking has been the rise of nationalist sentiments in established liberal democracies, aided by digital technologies. Forty-seven per cent of the ‘remain’ supporters in the UK think social media was decisive in the Brexit vote, and Donald Trump’s narrow presidential victory included the emergence of ‘fake news’ and allegations of Russian hacking. Even techno-optimist Clive Thompson, author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better, concluded that the election of Trump was a time of reckoning for social media.
What does this mean for the future of self-government? If we follow Harold Lasswell in seeing politics as nothing more than ‘who gets what, when, and how’, then politics could have no end.
In fact, population growth, greater connectedness, and environmental challenges could make the coming decades a time of hyperpolitics. If, however, we take David Easton’s more normative definition of politics as ‘the authoritative allocation of values for society’, it is not difficult to see how digital technologies are making politics impossible.
Are digital technologies making politics impossible? It’s a question addressed by political scientist STEVEN MICHELS - who is not optimistic.
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