Democracy in Britain has evolved slowly away from autocracy since the House of Commons first started meeting in 1341. It would take another 347 years before the Monarchy lost its absolute power in 1688, and another 240 years before women could vote on the same terms as men in 1928.
But now, nearly 100 years on, democracy seems to be heading sharply in the opposite direction. The internet is surely incompatible with the system of government we take such pride in, and it is surely an inevitability that a more autocratic system of government will unravel over the next decade, or two, or three.
The internet is incompatible with democracy because for democracy to exist there needs to be appreciation for debate, and there needs to be some acknowledgement of undeniable truths (aka facts) in order to have these debates. These facts cannot be deemed ‘alternative’ by anyone who doesn’t want to believe them.
The internet kills truth – and debate with it.
On the internet I can find evidence to support any lie I want, because if needs be, I can create the evidence myself by putting it on the internet, where anyone can see it. It doesn’t have to be true, but it can become true if others believe it is. As a result, conspiracy theories and demagogues are thriving. Like Michael Gove expertly observed in the build-up to the EU referendum, the British public has “had enough of experts”.
Politicians are now saying things that are completely false – and being elected. These politicians, though elected democratically, act increasingly autocratic. Trump is a prime example, and whether it be this week or in four years, we know he won’t go quietly. He will not allow democracy to defeat him, despite it being the system that elected him.
Now you might argue that facts have always been contested, and it is actually because of this that democracy is important – to debate what’s right/wrong/, true/false, and be in some sort of control of this process. But in making any truth deniable, the internet also kills debate…and mass use of social media kills it even more.
Since the mass growth of the smartphone in the early 2010s (why do we even call them phones? Making calls is a minor function of the computers in our pockets), the state of election campaigns in democratic countries has deteriorated rapidly, to the point this year where Trump and Biden have not even debated. Rarely is anyone open to the idea that their view could be wrong. For politicians seeking election, to be open to the idea that you might be wrong is even seen as weakness.
Conflicts will always grow until there is a solution, and a solution can only ever be reached through one of two approaches: by persuasive debate, or forceful coercion. ‘Alternative facts’ and our addiction to screens has killed the former, so we are left with the latter. Peaceful protests are going to get less and less peaceful. We’re already seeing this here and even more so in the US, but we’re only at the start of what will be described soon as civil war.
With persuasive debate killed as a resolution to conflict, anyone who is willing to listen to the opinion of someone else and be open to the fact their view could be wrong, is going to have no interest in going into politics. Instead, a void will be left for egomaniac, authoritarian, autocratic men (somehow, women are far less likely to exhibit any of these three traits) to be elected into leadership positions. Their campaigns will centre around restoring law and order to the increasingly violent protests, and eventually those who challenge them will be oppressed. There are plenty more Trumps to come.
We are running out of time to democratically respect and challenge those who hold different opinions to us and accept that different opinions are OK and necessary for democracy to function. Soon it’ll be too late, and liberal democracy will be a thing of the past.
Convince me otherwise.