Chaotic Pluralism

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Helen Margetts:

"Politics is a lot messier in the social media era than it used to be – whether something takes off and succeeds in gaining critical mass is far more random than it appears to be from a casual glance, where we see only those that succeed.

In Political Turbulence, we wanted to identify the model of democracy that best encapsulates politics intertwined with social media. The dynamics we observed seem to be leading us to a model of “chaotic pluralism”, characterized by diversity and heterogeneity – similar to early pluralist models – but also by non-linearity and high interconnectivity, making liberal democracies far more disorganized, unstable and unpredictable than the architects of pluralist political thought ever envisaged.

Within chaotic pluralism, there is an urgent need for redesigning democratic institutions that can accommodate new forms of political engagement, and respond to the discontent, inequalities and feelings of exclusion – even anger and alienation – that are at the root of the new populism. We should be using social media to listen to (rather than merely talk at) the expression of these public sentiments, and not just at election time.

Many political institutions – for example, the British Labour Party, the US Republican Party, and the first-past-the-post electoral system shared by both countries – are in crisis, precisely because they have become so far removed from the concerns and needs of citizens. Redesign will need to include social media platforms themselves, which have rapidly become established as institutions of democracy and will be at the heart of any democratic revival.

As these platforms finally start to admit to being media companies (rather than tech companies), we will need to demand human intervention and transparency over algorithms that determine trending news; factchecking (where Google took the lead); algorithms that detect fake news; and possibly even “public interest” bots to counteract the rise of computational propaganda.

Meanwhile, the only thing we can really predict with certainty is that unpredictable things will happen and that social media will be part of our political future.

Discussing the echoes of the 1930s in today’s politics, the Wall Street Journal points out how Roosevelt managed to steer between the extremes of left and right because he knew that “public sentiments of anger and alienation aren’t to be belittled or dismissed, for their causes can be legitimate and their consequences powerful”. The path through populism and polarization may involve using the opportunity that social media presents to listen, understand and respond to these sentiments." (