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Can Social Media Undermine Democracy?

Facebook and Twitter are transforming politics around the world, but to what effect? They helped dissidents drive dictators from power in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Will they also foster democracy in newly liberated nations?
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Facebook and Twitter are transforming politics around the world, but to what effect? They helped dissidents drive dictators from power in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. No doubt they will continue to help subvert despotic regimes. Will they also foster democracy in newly liberated nations? Will they increase the leverage of activists pressing democratic governments to be more responsive to citizens' needs? Or will they be balkanizing forces, empowering competing constituencies and making it harder for old democracies to function and new democracies to take root?

Since the Arab Spring, protesters have used communications technology to organize massive demonstrations against government policies in Spain, Greece, Israel and India. Their targets were not dictators but elected officials they saw as corrupt or indifferent to the interests of most people in those countries. Some observers regard these events as signs of a new, more enlightened era of global politics. Indeed, it is tempting to agree with a recent Forbes cover story on the power of social media that the "world is becoming more democratic and reflective of the will of ordinary people." Unfortunately, there is good reason to be skeptical.

For one thing, the road from the ouster of an autocrat to a stable democracy is long and treacherous, and many revolutions have resulted in regimes as oppressive as the ones overthrown. The French Revolution, of course, is a dramatic case in point. Notable examples from the twentieth century include the insurrections that brought down Russia's Czar Nicholas II and the Shah of Iran. The participants in the recent Facebook-assisted revolutions in North Africa have been ideologically diverse, including religious fundamentalists opposed to the creation of secular democracies. In the struggles to reshape those political systems, it is anything but certain the democrats will prevail.

Moreover, the effectiveness of social media as political weapons has been due to their ability to marshal the support of large numbers of people for specific goals, such as toppling a tyrant or electing a candidate. (Although the technology-aided Occupy Wall Street protests are spreading to other cities, tapping a wellspring of anger at "corporate greed," their lack of clear objectives clouds their likely "success.") It remains to be seen how social media can be used to enlist popular support for policies vital to a nation's common good but which would impose costs on politically powerful segments of the population.

In a democracy, social media not only enable advocates of a political agenda to organize like-minded voters more quickly and efficiently, but they also allow these people to form an ongoing bloc actively pursuing that agenda. Utilizing online tools, this group can easily and cheaply promote its cause to potential recruits. The larger it becomes and the more money it raises for lobbying and electing candidates pledged to its agenda, the greater its ability to influence elections and policy-making.

This bloc can exert its power continually -- not just during campaigns -- by carefully monitoring the votes and other political activities of the candidates they back and immediately relaying that information (with commentary) to their members. Its leaders can make sure "their" elected officials are fully aware of this oversight and that those representatives will be "held accountable" if they deviate from their campaign promises. Consequently, apart from their personal allegiance to the bloc's priorities, these politicians are strongly incentivized to avoid voting for any bills that conflict with the group's agenda. Hence, politically, it is in their interest not to engage in the legislative deal-making that has been integral to democratic government for over two hundred years.

What I have been describing is obviously exemplified in the Tea Party and the members of Congress associated with it. But why think corporations, unions, and other special-interest groups will not learn from the Tea Party's example and adopt similar tactics in advancing their own political agendas? My worry is that the Tea Party's uncompromising approach to lawmaking will become a template for countless other groups determined to influence the democratic process.

We could be on the verge of the "Tea-Partyization" of politics, with legislatures filled with partisans tightly controlled by narrowly focused constituencies. Recalling that "Tea Party" representatives were willing to risk government shutdowns and default rather than yield at all on the bloc's "principles," we have to shudder at the prospect that many other "tea parties" -- across the ideological and demographic spectra -- will emulate the current one. This would render democratic legislatures even more dysfunctional than they are now, paralyzed by chronic deadlock.

As for budding democracies -- like those in Iraq and Afghanistan -- it is hard enough now for their legislative assemblies to overcome sectarian rivalries and act in the national interest. I fear that the factionalism that threatens their survival will only be exacerbated by the growing political use of technology in those societies.

It is a grim irony: The electronic empowerment of citizens may dangerously weaken democratic governments.

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