What Happens When Social Media Replaces (Real) Democratic Participation and Self-Governance?
It happens every day. I check my Twitter feed, and it’s an endless, throbbing, pulsing ocean of outrage. “Wow, what a pathetic excuse for a President!” “This is tyranny!” “IMPEACH NOW!!111” I’m sure you know the score.
Here’s what occurs to me more and more: “What if even half of these people, instead of sending these missives on social media, picked up the phone, and said the very same thing to their representatives? Aren’t these things different? Why don’t they? And what happens when they don’t?”
Forgive me. Hold on while I dust off my spurs and get off my high horse. I’ve been guilty of all the above, in spades, for years. And for that very reason, I want to ask: what happens when the hard work of citizenship — direct, one-one-one contact with public democratic institutions, which is what self-governance really is — becomes, instead, dopamine democracy? Something more like widening circles of outrage, fury, fans, trolls, followers, mockery, taunts, insults, on the private ground of capitalism, ads, profit? The average American, after all, spends more time online than they do with their family — and way more than they do engaging directly with democratic institutions.
(Now, of course, you can level the objection at me that “but we can do both!” Perhaps, perhaps. But are we? We’ll get to that.)
Let me begin at the beginning. Social media is a catastrophic failure — probably the greatest failure of the last decade. It is a failure psychologically — it makes us sadder, dumber, lonelier, meaner, angrier. It is a failure sociologically — we follow and like our own tribes, not just politically, left and right, but ethnically, racially, and so inequities on social media are worse than in the real world. And for those reasons, it is a failure economically: every second that we invest in it, enriching some for contributing precisely less than nothing to real prosperity, is a waste of human potential, a pure loss, just like putting a tiny reactor pumping out nuclear waste in every pocket.
But the most unexamined failure yet of social media is political. It’s become clear, of course, that social media corrodes democracy by giving tyrants and autocrats the very tools — propaganda, disinformation, misinformation, masquerading as “advertising”, neo-espionage by hostile agents, even bots, pretending to be citizens — to subvert it. Yet I think there is a deeper failure still — one that we do not yet see precisely because, like air pollution, it is as invisible as it is pervasive.
Social media is asymmetrical. You can break your democracy by spending all your time on it— but you probably can’t fix one that way. All the tweets and status updates in the world won’t rewrite a constitution to include a right to healthcare, force a tyrant to resign, or expand a society’s notion of what politics really is, can be, or should be — precisely because it distracts and disempowers us from genuinely engaging with the difficult work of self-governance and citizenship.
There’s a key difference, after all, between democratic engagement, and what happens on social media— one is direct, unmediated contact with our governing institutions, and the other is mediated by bots, trolls, propaganda, controlled and shaped to enrich a tiny number of companies, optimized for advertisers — not citizens. Citizenship, if it’s anything at all, is an obligation and a responsibility to have this direct contact, regularly, to participate this way in the governance of a society, not just “tweeting someone’s account”, which is precisely the opposite of direct contact and self-governance. In that way, citizenship is something greater and truer than bitching and whining digitally a little harder every day.
Do you think I overstate the case? Am I being a little cruel? Let us examine it. You might say: “You are wrong! Social media swings elections!” But even that much is not true — 70 to 80 percent of Americans want working healthcare, education, pensions, and so on, but something approaching 100 percent of their democratically elected representatives do not. It’s a stunning collapse of democracy — a total inversion and perversion. So while social media might help clever, smooth, likeable politicians win elections — and the flipside of that is that it helps vengeful, bitter demagogues, do so, too — it does not help translate political wins into democratic gains: it doesn’t aid the will of the people be expressed any better, sharper, or clearer.
So by dopamine democracy, I mean something like: social media is creating the tempting, self-gratifying illusion that we are participating harder, daily, in self-governance — when in fact, we are doing no such thing: only by, in hard terms, participating less in direct contact with our governing institutions, eroding democracy from within, while the tyrant corrodes it from without. The question, then, is why we flock to social media instead of really participating in democracy, all the while happily confusing the two, supposing our job as citizens is done. Here’s what I think.
Social media is far cheaper than genuinely, directly, regularly participating in democracy, and fulfilling our obligations as citizens. In fact, it is artificially cheap — but I will come back to that. Now, those obligations are difficult to discharge at the best of times — and the sad fact is that a generation of anti-democratic tactics has made raise the costs of citizenship still higher. Still, one can always try to pick up the phone, pay a visit, call a journalist, direct one’s energies in genuinely democratically productive and beneficial ways. That there appears to be a tradeoff, not a reinforcing effect between social media and democracy, reveals something troubling.
Social media has a hidden cost — a political one, that is proving ruinous: it creates the illusion of self-governance and citizenship, without the reality. It’s one of the easiest things in human history to use, but one of the least beneficial things in human history to use, too, especially politically. We can tap out an angry tweet or missive in a few seconds. Hit send. Watch it echo and bounce around in cyberspace. Set our jaws in satisfaction as our outrage, anger, unhappiness, is validated, seen, amplified, like by like, follow by follow. And perhaps, this way, we think: “I have done something positive for society. My work as a citizen is done.” Thus, we don’t engage directly with governing institutions as much as we do tweet and status update and so on, precisely because engagement is much harder, socially, economically, culturally, than tapping out a few sentences on your iPhone. Democracy is a nuisance, a bother, a pain, hardly a pleasure and a delight — but the price it demands of us, as the founding fathers told us, is eternal vigilance.
So what happens when we replace genuine democratic engagement — direct contact with democratic institutions — with social media updates, on territory owned and controlled and shaped by private companies, who don’t give appear to give a damn about the health of societies, economies, people, or those very democracies?
It isn’t just that trolls rise to the top of such systems, inevitably. There’s a deeper problem. The tweet or status update’s only real net effect is to disempower one as a citizen, preventing one from political engagement, direct contact with democratic institutions, while creating the illusion of it. But the problem is that now one has gained the psychic satisfaction that one has done one’s job for democracy, so the real thing work is now unnecessary. One can breathe easy for a while, one’s anxieties of decline and failure allayed, by sending the tweet or update. One can even feel triumphant: “Wow! My message got a thousand likes! A hundred thousand! See how powerful I am!” But the truth is that a million likes are not worth one single phone call, much less one single scolding visit to a recalcitrant leader, nor are they ever likely to be, precisely because social media is not a direct governing institution of democracy.
So less than nothing is accomplished by dopamine democracy: disempowered addicts to the rush of digital pleasure, who suppose that they are empowered citizens — but are only shouting into a void of self-governance. Democracy crumbles day by day this way, because, instead of genuine democratic engagement with governing institutions, we are only really trading displeasure for little hits of validation and affirmation. So we win psychic battles for pleasure, or at least relief, but lose the war for a functioning society. Do you see how toxic the mental trap is?
Dopamine democracy, in just this way, by creating the false impression of democratic engagement, the hard work of self-governance, prevents us from the real thing. Direct participation in democratic institutions, whether talking to our representative, judges, leaders, and so on, in person, on the phone, or so on — in ways where our voices are better heard, because now we are engaging in authentic one-on-one actions of institutional self-governance, and so they count, in very real ways.
It prevents also prevents unofficial forms of democratic engagement, like real-world protests, which count, sometimes even more, when they reach critical mass — but that critical mass, if it happens online, probably won’t happen offline, unless there is a plan, first, for both. I often note, with astonishment, that most weekends in Paris or London, I’m lucky to get across town, because someone somewhere is always protesting — not just “those people”, activists and so on, but students, doctors, lawyers. But New York and Washington? Protests are things that, in America, like eclipses, happen only every now and then. Is it a coincidence, then, that the most wired, social media addicted, society in the rich world is also the least democratically healthy one?
Let me sum up all the above. The more that I reflect on it, the more I think that social media has created a dopamine democracy: the illusion of real democratic engagement, fuelled by little hits and rushes of validation and affirmation, that let us feel as if we are empowered citizens, discharging our responsibilites, exercising our rights, fulfilling our obligations — to have direct, ongoing, one-on-one contact with our governing institutions, which is what self-governance really is. When we mistake dopamine democracy for the real thing, we have only really become something like ghosts, pretending at being self-governing.
In this way, social media not a substitute for a democracy — though we appear to simply have assumed that it is. It is an opposite, not even a substitute — it is eroding our capacity to be citizens, who check the depredations and despoliations of ruinous governments. It has a hidden cost, which is to hypnotize us with outrage, instead of encouraging us to participate well in democracy, thus disincentivizing and disempowering us politically. Democracy is a process, a way, , and social media is a kind of perfect hyper-real counterfeit of it: it lets us think we’re participating in democracy, the act of self-governance, at the precise moment that we are not.
A democracy is only ever as healthy as the citizens who will participate in it — directly, consistently, fearlessly, even a little recklessly, despite the nuisance and bother and sometimes, danger, that it is. The greatest problem of social media yet is that by creating something like a parallel, make-believe fantasyland we suppose is democracy, but is only really the exact counterfeit and illusion of it, we grow ever more distracted and diverted from being the very citizens that we need to be: those ever more capable of self-governance, by way of ongoing, direct, public engagement with our governing institutions.
Democracies need citizens, not audiences — and surely not audiences of audiences, which is what we have become, pretending to be self-governing, but only really helping sell ads. Social media is creating tourists of democracy, not participants in it, who are something like unwitting, but willing, accomplices to their own regression into neo-serfdom.