In today’s internet age, democracy can sometimes be its own worst enemy. Just look at the huge role social media is playing on how democratic societies exercise democracy. Social media can be a boon in budding and aspiring democracies. But its huge power has hurt rather than helped democracy in mature democratic societies.
Democracy gives each and every citizen a voice. Before the internet age, this voice was exercised, to a large degree, in a sensible and restrained way. There was no social media through which news, real or fake, could spread round the world in a split second. People mostly relied on newspapers, television, and radio to form opinions. Media outlets used their power to influence public opinion responsibly and with restraint. The aim was to inform rather than brainwash.
Opinion polls in the 1960s and 1970s named the late CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite America’s most trusted man. He never abused his power to influence the American public. Instead, he guided Americans to make their own informed opinions about the country and its politics. That helped strengthen the country’s democracy.
Cronkite had long passed away. Is there a most trusted man in America now? Of course not. A recent Pew Research opinion poll showed only 13 percent of Americans believe the media is doing a very good job in fairly covering political issues. A Gallup poll last year found only 32 percent of Americans have a great deal of trust in the media, the lowest percentage in polling history. Another Gallop poll last month found only 18 percent of Americans approve of the way the US Congress is doing its job.
Many experts blame President Donald Trump for this mistrust of the media and Congress. He has divided the American public as never before with his addicted use of the social media platform Twitter to attack political enemies and accuse the mainstream media of fake news.
His Twitter posts have so brainwashed his voter base that fellow Americans now see each other as enemies, rocking the foundations of the country’s democracy. Last week, Rex Tillerson, who Trump fired as secretary of state, made a veiled attack against his former boss by warning in a speech that American democracy would enter its twilight years if leaders hid the truth and people accepted alternative realities.
Without social media, it would have been virtually impossible to brainwash people into believing alternative realities. Trump’s overall approval rating since he took office last year is only 39 percent. But almost all of his loyal supporters, mostly whites, blue-collar workers, and Christian fundamentalists, believe the alternative reality he promotes on Twitter.
We have now entered a world where America, with its democracy weakened by self-inflicted blows, is competing to retain its global dominance against a resurging and self-confident China, an authoritarian state ruled by a strongman intent on making his country the world’s dominant power. It’s a battle to win global hearts and minds by pitching democracy, free speech, and civil liberties against Xi Jinping’s redefined socialism with Chinese characters.
In Xi’s China, you are allowed to make money, travel, buy luxury items, and live a relatively free life. But you cannot elect your leaders, criticize the Communist Party, express independent political opinions, and you must accept a censored media and internet. Censors will instantly delete any social media postings critical of the government.
In America, you are allowed to make money, travel, buy luxury items, and live a totally free life. But you can also elect your leaders, criticize the president, publicly express your political opinions, and enjoy total media and internet freedom.
Which system arms its country better against the other can be seen through the trade war between the US and China. In Xi’s China, the state-controlled traditional media is ordered to shape public opinion into believing America is totally at fault on the trade war. The state uses the censored social media to whip up nationalism. Foreign traditional and social media which give the other side of the story are blocked. In the tit-for-tat trade tariffs, Chinese industries hurt by tariffs are not allowed to air their grievances.
I read one article in a state-controlled outlet which blasted Trump for being immoral and asked how he got elected. Well, the people elected him. Would the same media outlet be allowed to ask why Xi can make himself leader for life and if that is good for the country?
In Trump’s America, traditional and social media are free to criticize him for the trade war, and they do so fiercely. Industries hurt by it are free to criticize Trump’s tariffs, and they do so. Politicians and social media are free to call him a moron and mock him for paying a porn star for sex. The FBI is allowed to investigate his alleged Russia links.
These extensive freedoms have weakened Trump’s hand in fighting the trade war. Even his own top officials are fighting each other over how to confront China. That’s why I say democracy can sometimes be its own enemy. China’s socialism with Chinese characters makes it imperative for the country to unite against the US in the trade war.
Indeed, Xi reportedly told the British ambassador to China that the Communist Party had the levers to fare better in the trade war. Other mainland officials have said America’s democracy will force it to blink first. If Trump does blink first, then democracy would indeed enter its twilight years, to be replaced by Xi’s brand of socialism.
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