To read the diary of Gustave de Beaumont, the traveling companion of Alexis de Tocqueville, is to understand just how primitive the American wilderness once seemed to visiting Frenchmen. In a single month, December 1831, Tocqueville and Beaumont were on a steamship that crashed; rode a stagecoach that broke an axle; and took shelter in a cabin—one of them bedridden from an unidentified illness—while the nearest doctor was a two-day hike away. Yet they kept meeting people whose resourcefulness they admired, and they kept collecting the observations that eventually led Tocqueville to write Democracy in America—the classic account of the ordering principles, behaviors, and institutions that made democracy function within this sprawling country.
Tocqueville’s interest in American institutions reflected more than mere curiosity: In his native France, a revolution launched with similarly high ideals about equality and democracy had ended badly. His parents had nearly been guillotined during the wave of violence that followed the momentous events of 1789. By contrast, American democracy worked—and he wanted to understand why.
Famously, he found many of the answers in state, local, and even neighborhood institutions. He wrote approvingly of American federalism, which “permits the Union to enjoy the power of a great republic and the security of a small one.” He liked the traditions of local democracy too, the “township institutions” that “give the people the taste for freedom and the art of being free.” Despite the vast empty spaces of their country, Americans met one another, made decisions together, carried out projects together. Americans were good at democracy because they practiced democracy. They formed what he called “associations,” the myriad organizations that we now call “civil society,” and they did so everywhere:
Not only do [Americans] have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools … Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.
Tocqueville reckoned that the true success of democracy in America rested not on the grand ideals expressed on public monuments or even in the language of the Constitution, but in these habits and practices. In France, philosophes in grand salons discussed abstract principles of democracy, yet ordinary Frenchmen had no special links to one another. By contrast, Americans worked together: “As soon as several of the inhabitants of the United States have conceived a sentiment or an idea that they want to produce in the world, they seek each other out; and when they have found each other, they unite.”
In the nearly two centuries that have passed since Tocqueville wrote these words, many of those institutions and habits have deteriorated or disappeared. Most Americans no longer have much experience of “township” democracy. Some no longer have much experience of associations, in the Tocquevillian sense, either. Twenty-five years ago, the political scientist Robert Putnam was already describing the decline of what he called “social capital” in the U.S.: the disappearance of clubs and committees, community and solidarity. As internet platforms allow Americans to experience the world through a lonely, personalized lens, this problem has morphed into something altogether different.
With the wholesale transfer of so much entertainment, social interaction, education, commerce, and politics from the real world to the virtual world—a process recently accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic—many Americans have come to live in a nightmarish inversion of the Tocquevillian dream, a new sort of wilderness. Many modern Americans now seek camaraderie online, in a world defined not by friendship but by anomie and alienation. Instead of participating in civic organizations that give them a sense of community as well as practical experience in tolerance and consensus- building, Americans join internet mobs, in which they are submerged in the logic of the crowd, clicking Like or Share and then moving on. Instead of entering a real-life public square, they drift anonymously into digital spaces where they rarely meet opponents; when they do, it is only to vilify them.
Conversation in this new American public sphere is governed not by established customs and traditions in service of democracy but by rules set by a few for-profit companies in service of their needs and revenues. Instead of the procedural regulations that guide a real-life town meeting, conversation is ruled by algorithms that are designed to capture attention, harvest data, and sell advertising. The voices of the angriest, most emotional, most divisive—and often the most duplicitous—participants are amplified. Reasonable, rational, and nuanced voices are much harder to hear; radicalization spreads quickly. Americans feel powerless because they are.
In this new wilderness, democracy is becoming impossible. If one half of the country can’t hear the other, then Americans can no longer have shared institutions, apolitical courts, a professional civil service, or a bipartisan foreign policy. We can’t compromise. We can’t make collective decisions—we can’t even agree on what we’re deciding. No wonder millions of Americans refuse to accept the results of the most recent presidential election, despite the verdicts of state electoral committees, elected Republican officials, courts, and Congress. We no longer are the America Tocqueville admired, but have become the enfeebled democracy he feared, a place where each person, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if a family still remains for him, one can at least say that he no longer has a native country.
The world’s autocracies have long understood the possibilities afforded by the tools tech companies have created, and have made use of them. China’s leaders have built an internet based on censorship, intimidation, entertainment, and surveillance; Iran bans Western websites; Russian security services have the legal right to obtain personal data from Kremlin-friendly social-media platforms, while Kremlin-friendly troll farms swamp the world with disinformation. Autocrats, both aspiring and actual, manipulate algorithms and use fake accounts to distort, harass, and spread “alternative facts.” The United States has no real answer to these challenges, and no wonder: We don’t have an internet based on our democratic values of openness, accountability, and respect for human rights. An online system-controlled by a tiny number of secretive companies in Silicon Valley is not democratic but rather oligopolistic, even oligarchic.
And yet even as America’s national conversation reaches new levels of vitriol, we could be close to a turning point. Even as our polity deteriorates, an internet that promotes democratic values instead of destroying them—that makes conversation better instead of worse— lies within our grasp. Once upon a time, digital idealists were dreamers. In 1996, John Perry Barlow, a lyricist for the Grateful Dead and an early internet utopian, predicted that a new dawn of democracy was about to break: “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind,” he declared, a place where “the dreams of Jefferson, Washington, Mill, Madison,DeToqueville [sic], and Brandeis … must now be born anew.”
Those ideas sound quaint—as outdated as that other 1990s idea, the inevitability of liberal democracy. Yet they don’t have to. A new generation of internet activists, lawyers, designers, regulators, and philosophers is offering us that vision, but now grounded in modern technology, legal scholarship, and social science. They want to resurrect the habits and customs that Tocqueville admired, to bring them online, not only in America but all across the democratic world.
HOW SOCIAL MEDIA MADE THE WORLD CRAZIER
In the surreal interregnum that followed the 2020 election, the price of America’s refusal to reform its internet suddenly became very high. Then-President Donald Trump and his supporters pushed out an entirely false narrative of electoral fraud. Those claims were reinforced on extreme-right television channels, then repeated and amplified in cyberspace, creating an alternative reality inhabited by millions of people where Trump had indeed won. QAnon—a conspiracy theory that had burst out of the subterranean internet and flooded onto platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram, convincing millions that political elites are a cabal of globalist pedophiles—spilled into the real world and helped inspire the mobs that stormed the Capitol. Twitter made the extraordinary decision to ban the U.S. president for encouraging violence; the amount of election disinformation in circulation immediately dropped.
An internet that promotes democratic values instead of destroying them—that makes conversation better instead of worse—lies within our grasp.
Could these platforms have done more? As a matter of fact, Facebook keeps careful tabs on the toxicity of American discourse. Long before the election, the company, which conducts frequent, secret tests on its News Feed algorithm, had begun to play with different ways to promote more reliable information. Among other things, it created a new ranking system, designed to demote spurious, hyperpartisan sources and to boost “authoritative news content.” Shortly after Election Day, the ranking system was given greater weight in the platform’s algorithm, resulting in a purportedly “nicer News Feed”— one more grounded in reality. The change was part of a series of “break-glass measures” that the company announced would be put in place in periods of “heightened tension.” Then, a few weeks later, it was undone. After the Capitol insurrection, on January 6, the change was restored, in advance of Joe Biden’s inauguration. A Facebook spokesperson would not explain to us exactly when or why the company made those decisions, how it defines “height-ened tension,” or how many of the other “break-glass measures” are still in place. Its published description of the ranking system does not explain how its metrics for reliable news are weighted, and of course there is no outside oversight of the Facebook employees who are making decisions about them. Nor will Facebook reveal anything about the impact of this change. Did conversation on the site become calmer? Did the flow of disinformation cease or slow down as a result? We don’t know.
The very fact that this kind of shift is possible points to a brutal truth: Facebook can make its site “nicer,” not just after an election but all the time. It can do more to encourage civil conversation, discourage disinformation, and reveal its own thinking about these things. But it doesn’t, because Facebook’s interests are not necessarily the same as the interests of the American public, or any democratic public. Although the company does have policies designed to fight disinformation, and although it has been willing to make adjustments to improve discourse, it is a for-profit organization that wants users to stay on Facebook as long as possible and keep coming back. Sometimes that goal may lead the company in a “nicer” direction, but not always, especially if users stay on the site to connect to fellow extremists, or to hear their prejudices reinforced. Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google who now leads the Center for Humane Technology, put it more bluntly. “News feeds on Facebook or Twitter operate on a business model of commodifying the attention of billions of people per day,” he told us. “They have led to narrower and crazier views of the world.”
Not that Facebook bears sole responsibility. Hyper- partisanship and conspiracy thinking predate social media, and message manipulation is as old as politics. But the current design of the internet makes it easier than ever to target vulnerable audiences with propaganda, and gives conspiracy thinking more prominence.
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