Political leaderships across the world are turning authoritarian, the global liberal order is under threat and fascist tendencies are not only rising but are being celebrated. The political ecosystems are being fuelled by well-designed and pre-mediated ecosystems of the internet and social media.
The strength of political parties and leaders is now derived much more from the eco-chambers of social media where an atmosphere of fear is deliberately created by both paid and unpaid trolls whose primary job is to insulate the regimes in power from any kind of criticism. This phenomenon is particularly harmful for democracies where protests, criticisms, debate and counter-arguments used to be an integral part of the system.
In democracies, people tend to be more argumentative and have many complaints regarding the system as compared to an authoritarian regime where an artificial atmosphere of calm is created to project an “all is well” image to the outside world. On the face of it, democracies would seem noisy and chaotic, but that is in itself a testimony to the success of democracy. This is a fundamental concept of political science which used to be taught to students to make them understand why, despite seeming chaotic and turbulent, democracy is preferable to any other system of governance.
However, with the advent of social media, information flow (which has surely increased in quantity) has become largely one-dimensional. The trolls, who are referred as ‘information warriors,’ work constantly to attack any information, facts, figures or arguments that are not politically convenient to the political regime, while also spreading half-truths and fake news to suit their own interests and those of their political masters. To a naïve person, this may seem like s/he is in a minority, perhaps even the odd one speaking out against the majority opinion.
Making a person feel like s/he is in a minority and thus creating a sense of fear in his/her heart is the story of the demise of democratic values and the rise of the fascist order. The ‘fan culture’ and the ‘fan following’ of a political party or a leader leads to the loss of ‘citizenship’. The right to question those in power, who rule on your behalf, is increasingly being challenged by large sections of trolls who despite being citizens themselves have wilfully surrendered their own right to question.
This is exactly what any person in power wants. A huge fan following, a favourable atmosphere on social media, a pliable mass media that not only understands the intentions of the regime but feels honoured to act like its attack dog. This phenomenon has been historically true. The rise of Hitler in Nazi Germany is a classic example of all these traits in society. Hitler showcased himself as a messiah of the masses who rose to power by discrediting an opposition which was indeed weak, corrupt and under whose tenure German economy tanked. But despite all these shortcomings, it was a democratic regime that people criticized and looked towards Hitler as their natural choice who would make Germany great again.
Hitler was a democratically elected leader. The Nazi party under his leadership grew by leaps and bounds to a point where it became the only party in the German parliament, winning all the seats. Being the supreme leader and democratically elected, all he did was accepted as being for the good of Nordic German Aryans and for making Germany a great power by capturing and establishing control over many other countries. The German media sang praises of him day in and day out under the influence of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister. Those that he accused of supporting Germany’s enemies -- the Jews -- were socially boycotted and criminally charged. Hitler hated communists, liberals, socialists and was a hero of the youth who saw him as their idol. For them, he was the best thing that happened to Germany after a long, long time.
The rest is history. Everyone knows how Nazi Germany ended and what costs the world, and Germany, had to pay for appeasing such a regime. This chapter in history also displays the nature and character of mass media. A large section of media behaves very ‘liberally’ when it comes to covering ‘authoritarian regimes’ while the same media behaves ‘authoritatively’ while dealing with a ‘democratic’ and liberal government. That’s the nature of the beast that is the media. William Randolph Hearst once said, “news is something that somebody wants suppressed, all the rest is advertising.” This is the first lesson that is taught (or at least used to be taught) in journalism schools.
As we are heading towards the end of the second decade of 21st century, it seems that this decade was a lost cause internationally. The 90s and the 2000s were the golden decades of the rise of the global liberal order. This decade has been a story of deep regression across societies where the level of public discourse has plunged. ‘Liberal’, ‘secular’, ‘socialist’, ‘democratic’ and ‘modern values’ have become cuss words.
This decade will be remembered for the birth and the rise of abusive, fanatic and threatening trolls within media, social media and in politics. Social media has given disproportionate voice to thugs and bigots: a bunch of anti-social elements that used to exist on the fringes earlier have been mainstreamed. In such times, democracies become fragile and give way to the rise of fascism. It is now that civil society becomes extremely crucial to raise its voice and educate people against the harms of an authoritarian regime and to make them understand why democracy and its ideals must be protected at all costs – for their own good.
(The writer is Senior Research Fellow, School of International Studies, JNU)