Can Democracy Survive the Internet?

Nathaniel Persily in the Journal of Democracy: “…The actual story of the 2016 digital campaign is, of course, quite different, and we are only beginning to come to grips with what it might mean for campaigns going forward. Whereas the stories of the last two campaigns focused on the use of new tools, most of the 2016 story revolves around the online explosion of campaign-relevant communication from all corners of cyberspace. Fake news, social-media bots (automated accounts that can exist on all types of platforms), and propaganda from inside and outside the United States—alongside revolutionary uses of new media by the winning campaign—combined to upset established paradigms of how to run for president.

Indeed, the 2016 campaign broke down all the established distinctions that observers had used to describe campaigns: between insiders and outsiders, earned media and advertising, media and nonmedia, legacy media and new media, news and entertainment, and even foreign and domestic sources of campaign communication. How does one characterize a campaign, for example, in which the chief strategist is also the chairman of a media website (Breitbart) that is the campaign’s chief promoter and whose articles the candidate retweets to tens of millions of his followers, with those tweets then picked up and rebroadcast on cable-television news channels, including one (RT, formerly known as Russia Today) that is funded by a foreign government?

The 2016 election represents the latest chapter in the disintegration of the legacy institutions that had set bounds for U.S. politics in the postwar era. It is tempting (and in many ways correct) to view the Donald Trump campaign as unprecedented in its breaking of established norms of politics. Yet this type of campaign could only be successful because established institutions—especially the mainstream media and politicalparty organizations—had already lost most of their power, both in the United States and around the world….(More)”