Given the extremes, “we need stronger digital and political education”

Jen Schradie, researcher at Sciences Po Paris The illusion of digital democracy. Is the internet right? (Quanto, 472 pages, 24.50 euros) on March 23. Between two courses at Sciences Po, this American sociologist sheds light on her research to both question the utopia of digital democracy and moderate an unnecessarily dystopian vision of all the ills of the internet.

Jen Schradie, researcher at Sciences Po Paris.

Has the internet betrayed its democratic promise?

The increase in authoritarian excesses in the use of digital tools is raising concerns. Since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, followed by unprecedented communication from the president on Twitter throughout his tenure, cases have multiplied: Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil is omnipotent online, Narendra Modi in India has been slain by a “WhatsApp election” driven “… These exponents of the nationalist extreme right know very well how to use the power of new means of communication to assert themselves by inciting hatred towards others. Right on the antipodes of the Internet’s early humanistic promises, born out of the computer world on the West Coast of the United States in the 1970s, and a leftist counterculture.

The digital then embodied an ideal of participation and horizontality, social justice, free access to information that guaranteed the independence of citizens … still used it when surfing on these values. Since then, however, left-wing movements have lost significant ground to the populist and extremist right. The trend reversal is as spectacular as it is worrying.

So has digital gone right?

It certainly has no political color per se, but its use is optimized by resources more widely used by the right today. Thus, in contrast to the initial collaborative utopia, the Internet benefits much more from the very hierarchical structures of right-wing movements, heirs to a culture of pyramid organization that know how to orchestrate communication and mobilize the energy of their members. Another advantage: greater financial resources worldwide, which make it possible to support and professionalize digital activities.

Ensuring surveillance, animating websites, blogs and feeding accounts with frequently renewed content requires significant human and financial resources from which the left does not benefit to the same extent.

How does the internet benefit even more from the extreme right?

The advances of the National Rally or Reconquest!, which collectively account for almost 30% of voting intentions in the polls, suggest that the justification for digital technology favors the extremes. The digital and media success of these political actors is based not only on organizational efficiency but also on the balance between the ultra-short format of the posts and their simplistic way of communicating, which stirs up fear, hatred, jealousy, etc. Fueled by the same emotions, Internet users are there to keep clicking, liking, and spreading the leaders’ ideas. And the further to the right they are, the more active they are on the Internet, which has been quantified.

Of course, one can contradict this analysis by saying that anti-racist movements like Black Lives Matter were also able to use digital “grammar” with strong messages, leading to traffic spikes on the networks. But in general, the left’s actions and digital initiatives are too scattered, while algorithms reward focus and brevity of messages.

This should lead us to identify the real risk to democracy: not the Internet itself, more or less well used, but the dangerous human organizations operating behind it. Trump and Zemmour may disappear from the political landscape, far-right nationalist movements will still be there as they were before them. This does not exclude the joint responsibility of GAFA as the origin of the algorithms that promote the visibility of executives. But the enemy is far behind the web.

What can be done to restore democratic security in the digital world?

Under pressure from users, the big Internet players are starting to set up moderation tools. While France was also a pioneer in putting security measures in place, current laws are proving ill-suited to the nature and power of digital tools. In the context of a presidential election campaign, for example, it would be necessary to enforce equal visibility between the candidates on the major platforms, following the example of the speaking time regulation on television.

But it is far more important to be vigilant towards these organizations on the ground, to curb anti-democratic excesses and to rely on improved digital and political education.

Conference on Counterpowers and the Spiral of the Worst

In his latest book (identity fraudActes Sud, 28 p., 10 euros), Alain Chouraqui, founding president of the Camp des Milles Foundation – Memory and Education, distinguishes three constitutive cogs “a resilient walk to the worst”. On a floor of “Prejudice, racism and social tensions” danger of surfacing “Identity Extremism”leading “From Democracy to Authoritarian Rule” then to “Expansion of persecution and threats against everyone”. This mechanism, which the Milles camp explains to the many visitors to the site through the history of the Shoah, will be the focus of the conference organized on March 17, 2022 from 12:30 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. at the Ecole supérieure de Lille Journalism , and his The world is a partner (admission free). Its title: “The opposing powers in the face of the spiral of the worst: thinking the unthinkable”. Alain Chouraqui and his guests – researchers, journalists, diplomats and judges – will analyze how “This mechanism is at work today in the aggression against the Ukrainian people and democracy,” but also why “It is also threatened by these identity passions in our democracies” that endanger civil peace.

This article is the result of a partnership with the Camp des Milles Memorial.

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