Reviews | Social media destroys democracy. We need stronger online gatekeepers.

Cue the predictable indignation of the right. The author of a book on “virtuous signaling” – a real teacher, no less – tweeted“If you want a vision of the future, imagine @MaxBoot dabbing a human face, forever. Keep your totalitarian “guardianship” to yourself. Florida Governor’s press secretary Ron DeSantis (right) suggested my feelings were Stalinist and wrote: “Max Boot and the Bezos Post are not good for society. It’s time to save them! Others argued that I revealed my hatred of democracy because I was born in the Soviet Union.

In truth, I am upset about the lack of information keepers, precisely because my family is from the USSR. I know how precious freedom is – and how much it can be lost. There is nothing more corrosive to the health of a free society than the nonstop broadcast of conspiracy theories, lies and incitement to outrage from social media, talk radio, podcasts and right-wing television “news”.

Freedom House reports that democracy has been in decline around the world for 15 years – the same period that saw the rise of social media. In her best-selling new book “How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them,” political scientist Barbara F. Walter says that’s no coincidence. Social media, she writes, has become “the vehicle that propels outsiders with autocratic impulses into power, riding a wave of popular support.” Examples include Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Narendra Modi in India, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil – and, of course, Donald Trump.

All of these demagogues are masters of a medium whose algorithms are designed to give users the content they crave. “It turns out,” Walter notes, “what people love most is fear over calm, lies over truth, outrage over empathy.” This explains why Breitbart is most popular on Facebook than the New York Times and why Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire is more popular than the BBC.

This, in turn, explains why so many Americans believe the FBI orchestrated the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol, that Trump won the 2020 election, and that coronavirus vaccines are useless or even harmful. It also explains why last year a crowd of QAnon believers gathered in Dallas waiting for John F. Kennedy Jr. to come back from the dead. Social media is full of useful and accurate information, but what most users really react to is fear, lies and flakiness.

It’s not clear to me that democracy can survive so much misinformation, and yet Republicans are bashing Big Tech because they’re so angry that Trump and a few other political arsonists have been banned from major social media sites. . The GOP position seems to be that there should be no gatekeepers, other than those algorithms that fuel collective outrage.

It is a deeply destructive and deeply anti-conservative position. While populists embrace the crowd, conservatives fear it. This is one of the reasons the Founders have included in our political system as many checks on the will of the voters.

In 1788, defending the selection of senators by the state legislatures, Alexander Hamilton asserted: “It is an indisputable truth that the body of the people in every country … possesses neither the discernment nor the stability necessary for systematic government. To deny that they are frequently led into the grossest errors by misinformation and passion would be a flattery which their own common sense must despise.

The only thing Hamilton got wrong was his half-over-clever suggestion that ordinary people would realize their need for elite advice. Modern America is full of people who think that “doing your own research” on vaccines is better than listening to scientists and doctors.

We better figure out how to reduce the torrent of lies pouring out on social media, talk radio, podcasts and cable networks before we drown in misinformation. Companies from Spotify to Fox Corp. through Meta, Facebook’s parent company, need to stop peddling misinformation just because it’s profitable and popular. And if they refuse to do their civic duty, we must find a way to regulate content online, while respecting the First Amendment, just as the Federal Communications Commission did with its “Fairness Doctrine” at the broadcast era.

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