The Broad hosted a lively panel on the topic of political polarisation this week, and for those that could not attend I would thoroughly recommend watching the action unfold on the publication’s Facebook page. The panel clearly elucidated the perils of polarisation and the threat it poses to liberal democracy. A topic that went underdeveloped during the panel, however, was the vulnerability of contemporary polarisation to hijacking and manipulation.
Political polarisation is nothing new, this comes as no surprise given its effectiveness at mobilising the electorate. It has, however, historically been an organic process of domestic politics. Therefore, whilst dangerous, it has been containable – limited to regulated print media and cable news. A few decades ago the only way for a foreign agent to polarise the US electorate would be to stand on the corner of Capitol Hill handing out pamphlets and radical newspapers. Thus polarisation was largely a contained domestic process with any attempts at foreign influence being restricted to the fringes of the political spectrum.
We live in very different times. With internet penetration rates in excess of 90% across North America and Europe. You no longer need a delegation; indeed, you no longer need to leave your couch to action dangerous polarisation. Whilst panelist Peter Hitchens strongly refuted the claim that certain election or referendum results could be attributed to the role of the internet and social media, facts suggest otherwise. The Cambridge Analytica scandal has revealed the complete absence of safeguards from the manipulation of news and media. To gain access to the attention of over 90% of the US electorate is now possible for anyone with an internet connection. What one does with that attention is largely up to their discretion.
This leaves us in a catch-22 situation. We do not want to live in a surveillance state where our freedoms are encroached on by expansive apparatus monitoring everything we say and do. Yet this very premise of a liberal democracy leaves us increasingly vulnerable to foreign intervention and political hijacking in the age of internet freedom. It is impossible to completely control the manipulation of political polarisation online. Even if we wanted to, it is simply too large to effectively police without foregoing liberal values. As the demographic swings across the globe towards those born with access to the internet, this will pose an increasing threat to the legitimacy of democratic elections and referenda the world over. It raises the question, can elections bring more ill than good in a time when polarised echo chambers can be so easily hijacked and manipulated to democratically bring about foreign-induced policy change?