To free or not to free? The challenges in Postmodern Totalitarianism. A review

4 mins read

By Alejandra Lucia Figueredo Rodríquez

Once hailed as a great force for human empowerment and liberation, social media and related digital tools have rapidly come to be regarded as a major threat to democratic stability and human freedom.” 

― Larry Diamond,  in “The Threat of Postmodern Totalitarianism”

This phrase opens Larry Diamond’s article “The Threat of Postmodern Totalitarianism” (2019), questioning the impact of social media and technology on democracy and human freedom. This inquiry reflects the nuanced debate that tangles around data and information technologies, particularly Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems, as well as the spectrum between optimism and pessimism that surrounds the development, use, and instrumentalisation of these tools.

The conception of digital tools was rooted in the idea that they could allow significant interaction among people and the free flow of information, contributing to public debates and deliberation processes. Hence, introducing these multiple tools in democratic countries contrasted the behaviour of authoritarian governments and their strict control and censorship over civic movements and independent media that demanded accountability and liberties. However, these tools’ adaptability to different agendas and exposure to “malign actors” have led to destructive uses of the internet restraining its democratising potential, thus leading to what Diamond fears and names as “postmodern totalitarianism”. 

Among the challenges digital tools present to democracy, there are trade-offs between freedom, polarisation, and privacy. On the one hand, Diamond emphasises the dilemma between the business model of social media companies and democracy, as they are “based on deep and relentless surveillance of consumers’ personal data to target advertisements”. The main strategies of this business model involve (1) the manipulation of options and choices, using algorithms that reproduce echo chambers; (2) the introduction of intermittent variable rewards to keep people’s attention and increase the adds’ revenues for the company; and (3) addictive engagement through the flow of “shocking, infuriating, controversial, hilarious, or emotive [content]”. 

I find this debate around the social media business model and its challenges relevant, as this surveillance capitalism – coined by the sociologist Shoshana Zuboff – alienates the users by determining their fate through the laws of supply and demand and crafted advertisement that induces particular behaviours. Naturally, it presents a significant challenge to autonomy and freedom, which directly affects liberal democracy, despite the minor adjustments introduced by these companies to limit these challenges by removing content that promotes misinformation, violence, or hate (the internet has long-term memory). 

On the other hand, Diamond also stresses the spread of false information and its political outcomes and access to private data. As polarisation seems a bigger online than an offline phenomenon, “truth and civility” are victims of information warfare and the lack of editorial filters that allow the circulation of false information and hate discourses. 

Moreover, governments are interested in accessing the collected user data to identify threats to national security -however, it is defined-. Diamond exemplifies it in the case of the Chinese Social Credit System, which scores citizens’ trustworthiness. The state then tracks individuals’ behaviour by their digital footprint in search of indications of “political and social reliability” and support for the Chinese regime. The revolution of digital technologies, including AI systems based on the ability of machines to learn from data, generalise it and make decisions, presents an “Orwellian” scenario in which the state gets control of citizen’s daily life. Thus, freedom becomes an illusion: postmodern authoritarianism. 

The scope of internet penetration -a fundamental pre-condition for the use and development of social media and AI- in countries is another significant example of the emergence of postmodern authoritarianism. Sovereign states can control access to the internet. Depending on the levels of pervasiveness or increased availability of the internet (who can access it?), the nature of the information that flows through its channels (are all types of content allowed?) and the type of network connection (is it mobile, broadband or wireless? And to whose needs is it suitable for?), it could either expand political, social and economic freedom, or it could be subject to the “sinister goals” of autocratic regimes censoring, influencing public opinion, tracking members of the opposition, or simply limiting connectivity in general.

Diamond presents indeed a thought-provoking and analytical overview of the different scenarios experienced due to the digital revolution. The introduction of critical challenges faced by democracy unveils the exposure and vulnerability to the manipulation and trade-offs from social media and AI, as they accompany the resurgence of global authoritarianism. However, I would add to Diamond’s piece that, as with any technological innovation, the design and data of social media and AI bear the risk of being intentionally or unintentionally biased. This dependency on the algorithm may reproduce structural biases and marginalisation by deepening the gap in education and value systems, and mainstreaming only the voices of certain groups and keeping invisible others -e.g. The hatred campaigns that have driven ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar or the promotion of disinformation and terror by “patriotic trolls” through social media in other democracies.

I disagree, however, with the emphasis of these challenges on authoritarian scenarios. Indeed, there is a visible link between authoritarian governments, coercive and co-optation strategies, and the different uses of AI’s development and social media. Nonetheless, as a tool, it could be used by a wide range of regime types, from non-democratic to liberal democracies, as different political actors benefit from technology in different ways. Thus, Diamond oversees democracies’ ability to implement these tools also for non-democratic purposes, even if they face more restrictions on information privacy and the protection of individual liberties. These apparent deviations in democratic behaviour respond to political strategies that also contribute to polarisation and conflict in offline scenarios, derived from populist agendas that atomise liberal democracy.

Such attempts became evident during the 2016 presidential elections in the US, using psychological profiles by Cambridge Analytica to modify voters’ behaviour through false information and fake news online favouring the Republican party. And once again, during the 2020 presidential elections, Trump’s campaign widespread misinformation against his opponent and a so-called “voter fraud” in social media. Hence, I would argue that democracy challenges rely not only on external non-liberal regimes but also within democracies.

Finally, I consider that Diamond oversees the potential opportunities of digital tools for democracy. In particular, the current situation generated by the COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique chance for democracies to use digital innovations to support institutions and promote citizen engagement. Beyond the exceptional threat of the current health crisis, its effects on social, economic and political life have accelerated the pace of expected transformation towards digital democracy. 

Digital tools can enhance accessibility, diversity, and inclusion, eventually involving neglected population groups in discussions and deliberation processes that might enrich the democratic debate and address alternative solutions to current population needs. Policy-makers and rulers should not be at odds with technological changes that drive social change. Understanding these tools and promoting democratic values and principles in the regulations and uses presents a window of opportunity to strengthen liberal democracies.

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