Mass protests seems to be breaking out all over the place. The root causes of these protests have many local reasons, but there are common themes, such as inequality, corruption, incompetent governments, rural-urban migration, demography, anger, social media and demand for change.
But underlying all these protests is the growing polarisation of societies, increasingly manifested in violent forms. Why is polarisation growing and how can deeply polarised societies heal?
Two Carnegie Endowment for International Peace scholars, Thomas Carothers and Andrew O’Donohue, have just published Democracy Divided: Global Challenge of Political Polarisation that examines these vexing questions. In a study of Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Poland, Turkey and the US, they attribute populism to the rise of decisive leaders who push nationalism, demonise opponents and stir up issues that further divide societies. But “amplifying the effect of these divisive figures is the technologically fuelled disruption of the media industry, especially the rise of social media”.
The authors think that the US polarisation is particularly deep and sharp because it combines what they call the “iron triangle” of ethnicity, ideology and religion. This is more common around the world in different forms. Increasingly bipartisan politics remove the bonding power of centrist or moderate forces because there is increasingly unrestrained bids for power. Too often, this creates gridlock in the legislature, diluting public trust in its efficacy and pushing decision-making increasingly to the executive. In more and more elections, from Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Donald Trump, the public vote for charismatic leaders who win elections at the expense of polarising society.
Forty years ago, most societies would have 60 per cent of people in the centrist or moderate group, with 20 per cent each on the left or right side of political or social views. Today’s polarisation has shifted 40 per cent each to the left or right, with 20 per cent only in the middle, which may swing either way depending on the mood of the moment.
Polarisation by generational divide is a knowledge and experience issue. Having more experience of the consequences of social disorder, the older generation tends to prefer the status quo. Lacking that experienceand knowledge, the young generation wants change now and some are willing to be violent to make dramatic changes.
Hence, truth or real information lies at the core of all social order, particularly democracy. Disrupters have discovered that you can turbo-charge social polarisation through technology by disseminating bad or fake information. The underlying public discontent with globalisation, loss of jobs, fear of migration, social inequality, incompetent or corrupt governance is the dry prairie that needs only the spark of fake or false information to set ablaze.
In 2017, the Council of Europe’s Information Disorder Report classified the malaise into three categories: misinformation, when false information is shared, but no harm is meant; disinformation, when false information is knowingly shared to cause harm; and mal-information, when genuine information is shared to cause harm, often by moving private information into the public sphere (trolling or doxing).
Information disorder is very disruptive, because bad information with ill intentions can be produced and pushed at minimal costs with very high returns.
The world is therefore suffering from Severe Information Disorder Syndrome (SIDS), a viral attack not dissimilar to the 2003 Hong Kong SARS or severe acute respiratory syndrome. Freedom of information on the internet has generated fake news that are targeted towards vulnerable groups, such as schoolchildren, through computational amplification (AI manipulation of online views), filter bubbles and echo chambers that reinforce prejudices; eroding trust in evidence, institutions and truth.
It is bad enough that criminals, terrorists and fundamentalists are using social media to promote crime and discontent. It is worse when governments are involved in geo-political rivalry and use social media to disrupt each other, such as Cold War dissemination campaigns. Information viral attacks against each other create such fears that there is already talk of the Splinternet – balkanisation of the internet through national firewalls.
As Carothers and O’Donohue recognise, what makes SIDS intractable is that severe polarisation damages all institutions essential to democracy, such as the police or judiciary. Polarisation poisons everyday interactions and relationships, dividing families, fellow workers and civil society, contributing to spikes in hate crimes and political violence. Worse, once society is deeply divided, it is very difficult to heal.
Governments cannot respond to divided societies in the speed and clarity which the public expects, precisely because there are no simple answers that can be agreed by a divided society. Worse, freedom of information guarantees that neither government, judiciary nor legislatures know how to stop fake news, because they are so difficult and costly to prove and punish.
In short, as long as fake news and echo chambers exist, there is currently no good way to counter the effects of SIDS. Even Google is not immune to internal attacks on its own biases and echo chambers. If these global tech platforms have hidden algorithms that perpetuate hate and polarisation, what can governments do about this? French President Macron, after the Yellow Vest protests,proposed last year a Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, supported by 75 countries and companies like Microsoft and Huawei. Unfortunately, key players like the US, China, India, Brazil and Russia have not signed on.
We are therefore still far away from addressing SIDS viral attacks. Information viral outbreaks require not only cyberspace hygiene (public health prevention), but also global cooperation in regulation of Big Tech platforms and clear rules of the cyberspace game. As long as the world is globally and locally polarised, expect more mass protests through vicious SIDS outbreaks.
Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective. The views expressed are solely his own.