“Defending Democracy in an era of digital disruption” was the title of the 20th edition of the Alexis de Tocqueville Annual Lecture (from IEP-UCP) that took place last Thursday at the Catholic University in Lisbon. The theme could hardly be more current. And the speaker could hardly be more suited to the topic: Christopher Walker is vice president of National Endowment for Democracy, based in Washington, DC – one of the most influential institutions dedicated to the democratic cause in the world.
It is not possible in this space to reproduce the dense argument presented by Chris Walker. But some steps in your talk may be highlighted. Basically, Chris Walker warned us that the liberal-democratic hope in the so-called “internet revolution” must be deeply re-evaluated – above all, though not exclusively, due to the capacity of manipulation and control of the so-called “social networks” by authoritarian regimes, especially Russia, China and Iran.
But, before that, it is important to have an idea of the gigantic digital revolution underway. I limit myself here to mention just a few of the countless data provided by Chris Walker.
He began by recalling that Facebook, as it is known today, was only launched in 2005, as was YouTube. In 2006, Twitter appeared. And although Google was launched earlier (in 1999), it actually “took off” only in the mid-2000s. However, the results are incredible:
Data for 2019 indicate that 53.6% of the world population used the internet last year. Every day, about 2.26 billion people use a Facebook service (including Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp). YouTube users in 88 countries follow 4 billion videos per day and download 60 hours of new videos per minute.
Although the growth in the number of Facebook users has slowed recently in the US and parts of Europe, it continues to grow in India, Indonesia and the Philippines. In Africa, internet use has grown from 19 million people in 2005 to 294 million in 2020. In China, more than 800 million people use the internet. The Chinese application WeChat currently has 1.15 billion users on a global scale.
However, this incredible growth in digital media has been accompanied by the decline of classic media. In the case of the USA, to cite just one example, circulation of the daily press dropped from around 60 million in the 1980s to 28 million in 2018. As for the advertising revenues of printed newspapers, it fell from about 50 billion dollars in 2005 to 18 billion in 2017.
At the same time, authoritarian regimes, especially in Russia, China and Iran, have invested huge amounts in centrally controlled digital systems – which, on the one hand, emit counter-information and propaganda, and, on the other hand, police space and digital decentralized communications.
In conclusion, Christopher Walker said:
“We cannot put the clock back or ignore the complex challenges to democracy that emerge in the digital age. We also cannot close the genius of social networks in the bottle again. But we can, however, work to modify the behavior of the genius and offer better incentives for decent behavior in the digital context. Basically, this would have to include greater checks and balances ("checks and balances"), and greater accountability ("accountability") by those who provide information in the contemporary context ".
I should perhaps add that I fully subscribe to Chris Walker's concerns, especially regarding the manipulation of digital space by anti-Western autocratic regimes, especially Russia, China and Iran. But I have a less pessimistic look at the impact of social networks in the West demo-liberal.
First of all, because I hardly go to them. Secondly, and fundamentally, because I believe (to some extent) in Adam Smith's classic “invisible hand”: left in peace and freedom by centralized state bureaucracies, individuals and families in decentralized interaction under the law tend to generate mechanisms of self-correction. One of them, for example, could be the re-emergence of “classic reading clubs and non-users of social networks”. Other spontaneous clubs that may soon emerge will be “clubs that are politically incorrect against wearing tennis shoes (outside of tennis clubs)”, or “clubs that are politically incorrect in favor of restoring free speech in universities”. These are two particularly sharp themes for today's Oxford woke students.
In short, I believe that the “invisible hand” still works. Last Tuesday, for example, Mr Sandinistas. Sanders had an unpleasant surprise in America (which I predicted, in the chronicle of last week, only for November). And, as I recalled in the same chronicle, Mr. Corbyn received a beautiful lesson from voters in the most recent British elections. In other words: “Keep Calm and Carry On”.