Democracy on the edge

More fragile than we thought, liberal democracy seems to be under attack from many sides. Are these death throes – or growing pains? Vanessa Baird explores.

A mural featuring a pro-Trump protester, self-styled QAnon ‘shaman’ Jacob Chansley, appeared in Tunbridge Wells, UK, a few days after the storming of the US Congress in Washington on 6 January. KARWAI TANG/WIREIMAGE/GETTY

A friend’s mother has disappeared down a conspiracy theory ‘rabbit hole’. She fears she will lose her family as they, one by one, submit themselves to the vaccine against Covid-19, a covert vehicle for a microchip which will take over their minds.

There is no arguing with her. What she believes will happen is the stuff of nightmares but is backed up by what she’s seeing online on her mobile phone. She sends my friend the proof. YouTube video links. Several times a day. There is so much supporting evidence. So much information. How can it not be true? Her Facebook friends believe her. They don’t think she’s crazy. Why won’t her family listen? Why are they letting themselves be led over a precipice? It’s unbearable.

This is a domestic crisis from the North of England. But it points to a worldwide phenomenon, a ‘reality rift’, a fragmenting of discourse into totally distinct ‘information universes’ occurring in families and communities from Brazil to India, France to the Philippines. And perhaps most dramatically in the United States.

As I write, 64 per cent of the 74 million people who voted for Donald Trump are reported to still believe his assertion, against all evidence and after 50 failed lawsuits, that he won the 2020 presidential election. That Joe Biden, with his 81 million votes, the electoral college and majorities in both Senate and Congress, ‘stole’ it.

Even Republican congress members, 147 of them, just hours after the deadly storming of Congress by a Trump-pumped-up mob, were sticking to the storyline and refusing to certify election results. Days later, angry and aggrieved supporters would be sharing information that actually the assault on the Capitol was orchestrated by the ‘deep state, the FBI and CIA’.

Democracy is all about diversity, differing opinions and perspectives. But there has to be a shared common ground based in reality, in broad terms, for it to function. Without some degree of shared truth, how are we to talk to each other? How is democracy to survive?

What’s alarming today is that even in democracies where leaders can be held to account, being caught out lying in high office is rarely punished. We don’t seem to care

Lying in high places

In her first meeting with the media as the new White House press secretary, Jen Psaki promised to bring ‘transparency and truth’ back to the briefing room.

Those two words encapsulated what’s urgently needed to repair an information environment that has become so toxified with lies that democracy is being suffocated.

Psaki’s promise was in marked contrast to Kellyanne Conway’s infamous use of the words ‘alternative fact’ four years earlier as the then Counsellor to President Trump defended the lie that her boss’s inauguration crowd had been the biggest ever.

By the end of his term in office, according to The Washington Post, Trump had uttered 30,375 untruths, an average of 21 a day.

Trump is not the first or the last lying politician, just the most prodigious. The UK’s Boris Johnson struggles to keep up (though his most famous lie – that the UK had been sending the EU £350 ($480) million a week – was plastered all over a big red bus during the Brexit campaign); China’s President Xi Jinping is giving plenty of barefaced lies in relation to the Uyghurs (‘they are just being educated’); Vladimir Putin is so well trained in the KGB school of disinformation and flat denial (‘we don’t poison our opponents’) that his lying is utterly effortless. While Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro seems to almost enjoy blaming the Amazon’s raging fires (to clear the way for cattle ranching) on ‘foreigners and environmentalists’.

But what’s alarming today is that even in multiparty, relatively mature democracies where leaders can be held to account, being caught out lying in high office is rarely punished. We don’t seem to care.

But we should. Lies, disinformation and misinformation are essential parts of the would-be autocrat’s toolkit. They prepare the ground for worse. Hannah Arendt, in her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, described how the German people were primed in the 1920s and 1930s for what was to follow.

‘In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world, the masses had reached a point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true… Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyway.’

Every year PR firm Edelman publishes a report on the state of trust around the world. The latest one, released in January, declared a state of ‘information bankruptcy’, which seems odd when you think of the quantity of information flying around the internet.

But across the 27 countries surveyed, trust in all information sources (search engines, traditional media, owned media, social media) was at a record low. Belief that that ‘societal leaders can be trusted to do what is right’ had also declined further, with government leaders coming bottom.

Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg is the target of this protest in London amid rising public anger at the activities of the hugely profitable digital companies and their lack of accountability. VICTORIA JONES/PA IMAGES

Digital dictatorships

Journalism and traditional mass media fare badly in such surveys, but the information source that people least trust and think most damaging to democracy is social media.

How things have changed. Ten years ago, in the heyday of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, Twitter was seen as a godsend, enabling grassroots pro-democracy activists to communicate with each other and the outside world in real time. Social media could offer some protection against immediate violent clampdown, it was felt. And to be fair, it still has something of this function today. Think of recent pro-democracy protests in Nigeria, Thailand, Hong Kong and Russia. It was thanks to social media that Black Lives Matter was mobilized across the world after the killing of George Floyd and in the midst of a pandemic. When authorities shut down the internet or block social media, as happened recently during the internal conflict in Ethiopia and the elections in Uganda, and is currently happening in Myanmar, it’s almost impossible to verify what’s going on. Universal access to digital tech and platforms is a must; for human rights and for democracy.

But the malign effects of digital technology are becoming ever more apparent. Most public and government concern has been around harmful content: the high-speed proliferation of hate-fuelled extremism, racism, sexism, disablism and other forms of online violence via unmoderated, unaccountable digital platforms. Efforts have been made to get the digital companies to take down the most extreme forms of online harm. Similar efforts are made to get them to remove false or misleading content, so-called ‘fake news’.

But the problems are much deeper and more systemic than that, as Shoshana Zuboff details in her exhaustive analysis of surveillance capitalism, which she describes as ‘a coup from above: an overthrow of the people’s sovereignty’.

It’s all to do with the business models pioneered in recent years by massive companies like Facebook and Google, based on surveillance, data mining and targeted advertising.

The research organization Ranking Digital Rights concludes that these business models have ‘driven the distortion of our information environment in ways that are bad for us individually and potentially catastrophic for democracy’.

It goes on: ‘Between algorithmically induced filter bubbles, disinformation campaigns foreign and domestic, and political polarization exacerbated by targeted advertising, our digital quasi-public sphere has become harder to navigate and more harmful to the democratic process each year.’

The trouble is that fakery, anger, echo-chambers, conspiracy theories and socially polarizing content get far more hits and so make much more money for the digital platforms than reliable factual information. This ‘bad stuff’ is intrinsic to their success as massively profitable quasi-monopolies.

And for all their recent pious words about defending democracy as they finally de-platformed Trump after the Capitol riot, Facebook and Twitter have played a key role in amplifying his lies and profited from doing so.

There are other ways in which the tech companies threaten our democratic and human rights, honing surveillance technology and services that they can sell around the world to governments, repressive or not. Developments in the fields of biometrics and neuroscience offer opportunities to ‘hack the human’, in the words of Yuval Noah Harari. ‘Democracy was always under threat but we are facing a threat to democracy that was never there before. Tech now enables the creation of completely new totalitarian regimes, digital dictatorships. For the first time in history, it’s possible to monitor the people all the time.’

Digital tech companies must be regulated; they have too many tentacles too deep into too many aspects of all our lives to be allowed the exceptional freedom they have been granted up to now. There is a growing consensus around this; the ‘how’ is the tricky bit. The European Commission is said to be furthest down the line in developing a regulatory framework. Two proposals, for a Digital Services Act and a Digital Markets Act, published last December, outline systemic rules for large online platforms, including some accountability, meaningful transparency and fines for breaches of up to 10 per cent of company revenue. This may not be nearly enough, and the companies are likely to fight it tooth and nail, but it’s a start.

Citizens’ assemblies are beginning to kick ass where it matters

Conspiracies and neoliberalism

Conspiracy theories flourish online – making money for both the platforms and conspiracy entrepreneurs such as Britain’s David Icke, the US radio host Alex Jones and those behind QAnon.

Many theories are so silly – Icke’s ‘the world is run by an elite of shape-shifting reptilians’ – it’s hard to think of them as political. But follow their implications and a great many turn out to have a political function. Often they have an antisemitic root as well. According to philosopher Quassim Cassam, conspiracy theories are ‘first and foremost forms of political propaganda. They are political gambits whose real function is to promote a political agenda.’

So, an Alex Jones favourite, ‘the massacre of 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary school was a false-flag operation in which no-one died’, though staggeringly cruel to the families of victims, serves the gun lobby. ‘George Floyd is alive’ is an attack on Black Lives Matter.

People are attracted to conspiracist ways of thinking for a variety of reasons. Social psychologists have found that people who are anxious or depressed, feel alienated, or have suffered a traumatic loss of some kind (such as divorce, bereavement or unemployment) seem more likely to be sucked in. The conspiracies give them something. In the case of the far-right QAnon conspiracy (‘Donald Trump has been sent to save the US from a cabalistic elite of paedophiles, financiers and the deep state’) it’s ‘drops’, little bits of secret information, drip-fed to create anticipation, from a source supposedly close to the centre of power. Followers can feel superior to the ‘sheepies’ who read mainstream news. QAnon has also managed to reach into the ‘alternative’ wellness, anti-vaccine and yoga communities.

There have always been conspiracy theories and some of them turn out to be true. Even the more outlandish ones (like QAnon’s) may contain grains of truth, in that they are surreal and distorted concoctions drawn from real events and cover-ups.

For example, pharmaceutical companies have behaved unethically in their pursuit of profit; the opioid addiction scandal was covered up for years while the billionaire Sackler family made their fortunes; financier Jeffrey Epstein was a paedophile who trafficked underaged girls for his elite friends; the bankers responsible for the 2008 financial crisis were let off while ordinary folk lost their homes and their public services; and much of the mainstream media is owned and funded by billionaires whose bidding it does. And let’s not forget Bush and Blair’s big lie about weapons of mass destruction. Or neoliberalism’s even bigger lie that globalization is good for all, and the market is wise and giving.

White supremacists and far-right militias gather and clash with leftist anti-racist counterprotesters in Stone Mountain, Georgia, US. JENNI GIRTMANN/ ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION/TNS/ SIPA USA/PA IMAGES

Hopeful and fearful

The orange man has left the White House and many of his most racist, sexist, xenophobic, climate-trashing executive orders have been reversed by his gentler successor.

Liberals and progressives across the world can exhale a sigh of relief and dare to hope – especially in countries like Brazil, Hungary, India, Poland, the Philippines and Britain, whose rightwing leaders cosied up to Trump.

From Los Angeles, Ndindi Kitonga, a Black Lives Matter activist, comments: ‘The Biden administration gives us an opportunity. We can breathe, we can think together. We can come back to an understanding of truth and facts together. There is hope there.’

But she adds: ‘We are still afraid. Afraid for our lives. I see Confederate [white supremacist] flags here in LA. In the past months we have been counter-protested all the time by people with guns.’

The challenges for the new administration are massive, not least in getting to grips with an appallingly mishandled pandemic and the world’s highest Covid-19 death toll.

Then there is the small matter of many millions of Trump voters who like their guns and believe the government is illegitimate. Surveys of Trump voters in 2016 showed a preponderance of white men over 40 with low levels of education and income, many living in the South or the post-industrial rustbelt.

The global trend, which is reflected also in the US and Europe, is that far-right terrorism is on the rise

It’s not the whole story though. There are many who do not fit the ‘poor whites’ narrative – including small business owners and some large ones too, like the Group of Growth billionaires who funded Republicans trying to overturn the 2020 election result.

The new administration will need to curtail the insidious power of the latter while enacting strong health and job creation policies that also address the needs of the rural and rustbelt ‘losers’ in the game of globalization, the ‘forgotten men and women’ Trump so successfully mobilized to his own ends. If it fails, the consequences could be dire. Aggrieved ex-Trumpers could move even further to the Right, becoming more violently fascist. The global trend, which is reflected also in the US and Europe, is that far-right terrorism is on the rise, with a 250-per-cent increase in attacks in 2020 over the previous year. The threat they pose far exceeds that from Islamic extremism.

The Philippines-born academic and activist Walden Bello experienced the authoritarian coups both in his own country in 1972, and as a student in Chile in 1973. He thinks the US has entered a ‘Weimar era’, as in 1920s Germany, in which democratic elections are increasingly delegitimized and street violence becomes the norm. What happened in the Capitol was not unusual, he told Democracy Now. ‘Rightwing groups, when they begin to lose electorally, when they begin to see that their opponents are gaining the upper hand in terms of being able to win elections … they resort to the streets and to violence in order to stop that process.’ And he warned: ‘Do not overestimate the strength of American political institutions, because Trump has shown over the last four years how he could easily violate so many US traditions, and we have not seen the end of that.’

Those suddenly fragile-looking institutions of representative democracy need defending. But the suit-and-tie brigade are just as much of a threat to democracy as the armed, Confederate flag-flying, red-cap wearing, horn-headed mob. Bosses from giant US corporations made a big show of saying that in the interests of democracy they would no longer be donating funds to the members of Congress who objected to certifying Biden’s win.

Academic and former US secretary of labor Robert Reich is not impressed: ‘For years, big corporations have been assaulting democracy with big money, drowning out the voices and needs of ordinary Americans and fuelling much of the anger and cynicism that opened the door to Trump in the first place. Their assault hasn’t been as dramatic as the Trump thugs who stormed the Capitol, and it’s entirely legal – although more damaging over the long term.’

Somos Tribu is one of the many self-ruling solidarity and mutual support networks that emerged during the pandemic. This group provides food and aid to people in the Madrid neighbourhood of Vallecas whose needs the government is unable to meet. JUAN CARLOS ROJAS/ PICTURE ALLIANCE/ PA IMAGES

Bigger, better, greener democracy

While researching her book Democracy may not exist but we’ll miss it when it’s gone US activist Astra Taylor was dismayed by the low level of engagement with, or even interest in the survival of, democracy among college students she met. Some admitted they put a far higher value on social mobility and career opportunities than on their democratic rights.

Poor leadership, political cronyism and bungling over coronavirus have increased the appeal of rule by unelected specialists and technocrats. ‘Politicians can’t be trusted. The people cannot be trusted to make wise decisions. Better to leave it to experts, or algorithms.’ As though technocrats were not people with political biases, while algorithms, too, have shown a tendency to simply reinforce existing systemic prejudices and inequalities.

A survey conducted in early 2020 found that ‘discontent with the way democracy is working’ was common across 34 countries. But this may not be as negative as it sounds. Our current system of representative democracy, with elections once every four or five years, encourages only very limited citizen participation.

We are today facing a formidable array of challenges that require a more active and effective citizen engagement: the global pandemic and its massive economic and social fallout; persistent and growing inequality; a truth and information crisis; and the climate emergency.

The drama of the US election focused on high power, on who occupies the top job in the richest country in the world. But it’s worth remembering that it was grassroots mobilization and door-to-door, old-style canvassing that got the Democrat vote out in swing states like Georgia.

‘Grassroots’ also describes the mutual aid groups that have sprung up across the world, to fill the gaps left by the State, often supplying basics like food and disinfectant. Many operate in a non-hierarchical way, beacons of collective self-rule appearing across a disease-darkened globe.

These ideas are being explored at a theoretical level too. In his book Twenty-first Century Socialism, British academic Jeremy Gilbert presents a form of socialism that overcomes its industrial origins to give priority to the environment. It’s geared towards citizens controlling the economy rather than being controlled by it, by empowering workers, citizens and communities.

Doing democracy can be so much more than just periodic elections, civil liberties, legal equality and the like, writes Astra Taylor. It can be extended into work places and schools and housing free from the pressures of speculation. She writes: ‘Democracy, a growing number of people seem to believe, is dying. Against this kneejerk apocalypticism, this loss of faith in liberalism’s prospect, this toxic longing for a whitewashing past and an oligarchical future, belief in democracy as a viable project of collective self-rule is, in itself, a radical act.’ Though under attack, the participatory democrats of Rojava in Northern Syria know all about egalitarian self-rule, as do Zapatista communities still going strong in Chiapas, Mexico.

Also well under way and growing across the world is a quietly transformative and radical initiative to shape public policy while tackling polarization – the movement for citizens’ assemblies.

‘Citizens’ assemblies have been a bit of a nerdy topic so far, but they are starting to kick ass where it matters and may be about to hit the mainstream,’ says Laura Sullivan of WeMove Europe. In Ireland they have been hugely successful in unlocking controversial and polarized debates on abortion, gay marriage and climate change, leading to personal rethinks, referendums and changes in law. Imagine how different the UK debate on whether to leave the EU might have been had such an exploratory and deliberative democratic process been used.

Citizens’ assemblies are being used across the world. The most ambitious so far will be the Global Citizens’ Assembly that will take place ahead of the COP26 Climate Summit in November.

Democracy may be on the edge – but that’s also an edge of possibility.

Action and INFO

The topic is vast, the aspects covered in this issue limited, but there are many ways to take action on democracy:

• Education, political and media literacy • Fact-checking and challenging untruths

• Digital access, rights and regulation

• Privacy, surveillance and human rights

• Integrity, transparency and anticorruption

• Media independence and diversity

• Democracy innovation, expansion, participation and equality

• Detoxifying political polarization

Taking it further…


Access Now: Defends digital rights around the world and fights for human rights in a digital age.

Institute for Strategic Dialogue: Excellent data-driven research on hate, disinformation and extremism from this ‘think and do’ tank.

Data Justice Lab: Focus on data literacy tools, datafication and social justice.

Electronic Frontier Foundation: Defending digital privacy, free speech and innovation for 30 years.

Privacy International: Promotes the human right to privacy throughout the world.

OpenSecrets – Center for Responsive Politics Washington-based; exposes corporate lobbying and money in politics.

Spinwatch: Cutting-edge investigations into PR and government in the UK and Europe.

Centre for Public Integrity: Australian democracy watchdog.

Hope Not Hate: Uses research, education, public and community engagement to challenge mistrust, racism and other prejudices in the UK.

Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa (CAFCA): Go-to, all-round democracy watchdog for Aotearoa /New Zealand.

Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives: Source of progressive policy ideas, rooted in social justice and environmental sustainability. New Democracy Evidence-based policy research project. Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance Leading Australia-based alternatives research centre with international connections.

Global Assembly on COP-26: Pioneering global climate citizens’ assembly for 2021 and beyond.


There are over 100 outfits in the world, many accredited by the International Factchecking Network. They include: (global, run by AFP), (US), (UK), (India), (Australia, run by RMIT and ABC).


Democracy Now!: Daily, global, independent news hour, US-based.

Open Democracy: Independent UK-based website that seeks to encourage democratic debate across the world.

Bellingcat: Investigative journalism website that specializes in fact-checking and open-source intelligence.

Byline: Annual media festival, monthly newspaper and new TV station, all concentrating on ‘what the papers don’t say’.

Media Democracy Festival: Independent media gig organized each year by the UK’s Coalition for Media Reform.

The Tyee: Good source of weekly Canadian news on democratic struggles.