‘The nature of our epoch is multiplicity and indeterminacy. It can rest only on das Gleitende [the slipping], and is aware that what other generations believed to be firm, is in fact, das Gleitende.” Hugo von Hofmannsthal 1905
When Austrian poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote those words he was describing an acute awareness that the world of the early 20th century, as far as western society imagined it to be, was sliding away. “Everything fell into parts,” he wrote, “the parts again into more parts, and nothing allowed itself to be encompassed by one idea.” Fragmentation of the world, as the poet saw it, was occurring through language. Nationhood could not be held together if the cultural glue failed to bond. Nine years after von Hofmannsthal’s perceptive thoughts the world slipped into the darkness of the Great War, and emerged on the other side shattered beyond recognition. The political landscape, and the planet, had changed forever.
Our modern political system is undergoing a similar “slippage”, this time through digital technology. Western society is built on a transparent democratic foundation that, like a glacier, has moved slowly, even imperceptibly, since the end of the Second World War, up a mountain of problems through the force of political process. As it progressed it carved out new areas in civil rights, gender equality, sexual freedom, and an expectation for a good and comfortable life. But that political foundation on which are modern dreams and beliefs are built has been slowly sliding downhill in the last ten years. And the speed of that “slippage” has increased, particularly with the proliferation of digital technology. An infinite amount of digital elements, from social media to fake news to photo shopped images, has created an unstable bed of digital fragments which have acted like high-tech pebbles underneath our political glacier. This has caused democracy to slide backwards faster each year and further away from effective governance.
Harnessing the power of emerging technology has been an important part of the political process: radio in the 1930s and 40s, television in the 50s and 60s, and, as Barack Obama and Donald Trump have shown, the internet and social media in the 21st century. These digital tools allow politicians to communicate directly with “the people” quickly and accurately, and can also identify those who are politically undecided. It allows political parties to raise funds and recruit volunteers, to mobilize constituents to rally in favour of certain policies, or even gather to protest against maneuvers of the opposition.
Vyacheslav Polonsk, a network scientist at the University of Oxford, found overwhelming evidence that digital technology influenced the 2016 Brexit vote in the UK. Data analyzed showed that an aggressive on-line campaign by “Leavers” out-muscled “Remainers” by 7-1 on Twitter and 2-1 on Instagram. The photogenic Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continually posed for “selfies” with his supporters in the run-up to the election in 2015, particularly among young people. And that was just one part of his aggressive on-line strategy that mobilized voters. Voter turnout was over 68% in the Canadian election the highest in twenty years. In the 18-24 age group those that cast their ballots increased to 67% (up from 55% in 2011). The youthful and handsome Justin Trudeau achieved a landslide victory.
But digital technology cuts both ways. It allows lies, smears, half-truths, and technological manipulation to weaken the political process. It’s a disruptive force. Social media has empowered the individual. Every twitter broadcasts a viewpoint. Every political orientated Instagram picture magnifies the subject. Every politically orientated Facebook posting or web site has some form of influence over its constituency. There is a social media page for everything from Tea Party adherents to flat-earth society members; from pro-choice advocates to pantsuit nation party members. Each of these digital sites acts as a banner under which believers can rally, organize, and influence the democratic process. Postings continually reinforce the political view espoused by its administrators. The “friends” who are members of that site share a common belief; it may be extreme racism or socialist ideals. Anyone who disagrees with the political stance of that individual is “unfriended”. This produces an isolationist view within that particular class. The reality of this group is continually reinforced by stories, anecdotes, and possibly even lies about their political views. And the facts and opinions that are espoused on those sites do not even have to be true to have an influence on political thoughts, as we have seen with the 2016 US election. There is a famous saying: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” The relevance of that saying is more accurate now in this instant digital age than ever before.
Those lies can be dressed up to appear like a legitimate story giving the “facts” credibility, so-called fake news. The distribution of those lies grows exponentially when they are shared by members of that constituency undermining not just the leaders and members of opposing parties, but the whole political process. In the 2016 US election the “Pizzagate” story spread like a virus across the Internet. According to the news item a number of pizza restaurants in Washington, D.C. were at the center of a pedophile ring which catered to members of the Democratic Party. The unsubstantiated fact originated from a single twitter posting by an extreme right wing supporter. The lie was then magnified not only by other individuals who posted it on their various social media sites, but by legitimate news outlets more concerned with reporting the conspiracy than checking the facts. One Republican supporter, believing the story to be true, visited one of the restaurants with a rifle to conduct his own “investigation”. He was later arrested. The genesis of the story appeared to come from “clues” buried in emails sent by a member of the Democratic Party. These emails had been hacked and copies then released by Wikileaks. It was a deliberate attempt to derail Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and the Truth be damned.
Akin to fake news are fake photos, fake videos, and manipulated sound bites. The old adage that if you see something – or hear it – it must be true, no longer holds water. Images of politicians in compromising positions can be photo shopped. Computer generated videos can be created which appear to show dark truths, and the quality of those videos is such that even experts have a hard time distinguishing real from fake (as the video of an eagle snatching a baby created by Montreal animators demonstrated.) Audio recordings edited together by modern digital technology, available to anybody on-line, can create a montage of compromising sound bites.
With the ubiquitous nature of cell phones and their ability to instantly capture and globally distribute images sometimes no manipulation is required to undermine a politician. A citizen was able to capture video footage of Hillary Clinton appearing to partially faint before being supported by staff members as she returned to her vehicle, even though she was flanked and shielded by security guards. Those few seconds of video footage reinforced her political rivals accusation that she was not healthy enough to govern. The ability to control “the message” is key to governing, but with the potential that every citizen can instantly capture and distribute any deviation from that message, whether it be an off the cuff remark, or an image, undermines the party platform.
No computer or on-line component is safe. Hackers can breach every security wall, or insiders can steal computer files as Wikileaks has shown. This prevents political leaders from operating in confidentiality. Government secrets are exposed for all to see; whether it’s clandestine operations such as bugging the offices of foreign leaders, or the revelation that potentially every email can be read and phone call can be monitored. The Wikileaks release of the emails from the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta not only helped start the fake news item about Pizzagate, but also showed that the DNC were actively sabotaging Bernie Sanders campaign to achieve leadership of the Democratic Party in favour of Hillary Clinton. And, of course, the unsubstantiated belief that Russian hackers aided Trump’s victory hangs around his presidency like a bad smell. Potentially, election results could be determined not by the country or area that voting is taking place but by an outside force. With no paper back-up vote there is no way to check or re-count.
But the political system is not about representing the people or even ideas, that’s merely a front – it’s about winning. And like the “dark arts” of modern soccer players who feign injury or con the ref into thinking a foul has occurred, leaders do whatever they can to gain an advantage.
Donald Trump gained victory because of his unorthodox use of social media. His scatter gun approach to politics – firing outrageous statements and potential policies at once in a multitude of directions – allowed him to hit at least one target audience with every blast. Whether his extreme views were true or not were irrelevant, for his message was magnified on social media spreading quicker than influenza by both sets of supporters. Those that agreed with his thoughts took solace in the fact that a political leader was giving voice to their politically incorrect beliefs, and those that disagreed with his messages posted his outrageous policies. Either way the Trump brand was continually being referenced. He could have spent hours on a well-crafted and clever press release, but a single outrageous tweet, composed in seconds, gained him greater exposure. That strategy of tweeting consistently, “shooting from the lip”, has become the earmark of his presidency.
As an understanding of these powerful digital tools has increased, it has exposed the democratic system to abuse, manipulation and vulnerability. There is the potential that democracy will eventually slip leaving a void for a new digitally controlled political path and an extreme form of governance: tyranny.
Digital technology allows a ruthless leader to govern more effectively. The internet can be regulated, censorship can be implemented, snooping devices can catch any anti-government thought, cell phones and modern televisions can be switched to act as microphones eavesdropping on conversations, government sanctioned fake news (formerly known as propaganda) will be distributed instantly and continually, CCTV footage with video recognition technology will allow for the surveillance of any individual deemed a threat to the government, all of these combined will wipe out freedom of speech, freedom of movement, and possibly freedom of thought. The world of Big Brother, as envisioned by author George Orwell in 1984, is upon us.
Democracy is under attack in this digital age. The political advantages of modern technology are outweighed by the disruptive elements that can be created by manipulators. But should a leader emerge who uses the technology to control thoughts and information, then it will allow for greater control of the populace and make it easier govern, albeit with a cyber fist. But that would be fascism. We are in an era of das Gleitende.