Election '18

American Democracy is In Peril — And It's Not Because of 'Bots'

The absence of meaningful checks and balances is a defining feature of our political time.

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The better angels of American democracy are not doing so well in 2018.

The president’s latest “Make America Great Again” rally showed civil discourse is an endangered species in the Trump era. As the Washington Post reported, Trump “mixed the greatest hits from his racist and xenophobic campaign for the White House with some flecks of new material,” more than suggesting that vilifications, distortions and lies will keep following wherever the nation’s most powerful politician goes.

Meanwhile, as Trump nominated Judge Brett Kavanaugh as a replacement for retiring associate Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, legal analysts have noted that the right to vote—how the vast majority of citizens participate in our political system—is also constitutionally frail. Voting rights were never a First Amendment priority for Kennedy or for the court’s current right-wing majority. Apparently, the same holds true for Kavanaugh.

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“For Kennedy, freedom comes first and democracy second, and… the purpose of democracy is to preserve and promote personal liberty,” wrote Edward Foley, Ohio State University Moritz College of Law election and constitutional scholar, in a revealing analysis that highlighted that the right’s embrace of “freedom” and “liberty,” or political self-expression, was their top constitutional priority—not ensuring equality of participation.

There’s even more evidence that the absence of restraint, or of meaningful checks and balances, is a defining feature of our political time. There’s an authoritarian dominating the presidency’s bully pulpit. There are accountability-averse election rulings from the Supreme Court, where the right to segregate voters to fabricate popular vote majorities (gerrymandering) or to erode an opponent's base (partisan voter purges) was upheld.

Meanwhile, efforts to force disclosure of who is behind online propaganda, which might serve those on the receiving ends of such missives, pale by comparison. The responses to Russian meddling in the 2016 election are loophole-laden and won’t unmask the latest mud throwers. And while 2018’s contests have been relatively quiet on the propaganda front, there have been some new deceptions targeting Trump’s opponents—raising the question of what will follow as the fall campaign heats up.

Those deceptions concern so-called bots, short for robotic computer programs, which have a history of impersonating people to jack up traffic and spread messages on Twitter. This month saw two bot-led efforts that some investigators said appeared to be products of Russian intelligence to help their favorite American president.

The first put out decoy hashtags surrounding protests of Trump’s immigrant family separation policies—typos intended to interfere with organizers of nationwide protests. The second hyped a purported trend of Democrats leaving the party, because they don’t like the fact that some Democrats are publicly shaming Trump’s top aides. Needless to say, this example sounds like exactly what right-wing media would fabricate and blare, suggesting that Democrats—not Trump or his policies—are who's rude and disruptive. 

Where these seemingly disparate trends leave 2018’s midterm election voters is an open question. Bots, which aren’t exactly new, also aren’t the most effective way to motivate political behavior, said Colin Delany, an online messaging consultant and publisher of epolitics.com. Likely voters this fall can expect to be targeted by direct mail, radio and TV ads, pre-roll video, social media ads, social media posts by friends and family—all of which makes these bot examples appear as drops in a political messaging bucket. 

What’s clear is voters will be largely on their own to decode whatever political messages are hurled their way—in an era where those sending the most incendiary or irresponsible communiqués have constitutional cover (thank you, Supreme Court) to say whatever they want, spend unlimited sums to spread those messages, and not tell recipients (the public) who is behind the screeds or who’s bankrolling them. Led by a president who revels in bullying and mockery, this landscape suggests that our politics will get uglier. 

Where are the checks and balances? Our framers created a constitutional system that is supposed to be based on restraining the inevitable excesses of human nature, right? The short answer is the effective restraints are few and far between.

The Federal Election Commission held hearings this month on what disclosure should be required for the thin slice of online ads they have authority to regulate—so-called express advocacy that explicitly endorses or rejects candidates. The panel is tied in partisan knots, as has been the case for years. It won’t adopt anything before the November election—another political triumph for those trumpeting “freedom” and “liberty.”

Meanwhile, Facebook and Twitter are taking some steps to disclose how paid political ads on their platforms are being marketed. Facebook has required buyers to identify themselves and give a U.S. address. It also is posting where ads have been placed, how much is spent and creating an ad archive. Twitter is deleting accounts created to impersonate people—those used by bots to fabricate virality. But both platforms can still be easily be gamed. Ad buyers seeking to remain anonymous, but launch political attacks, can do so by hiding behind opaque names or pages or groups without revealing their funders or larger agenda.

In other words, the electioneering sphere—as deregulated by Supreme Court rulings authored by Kennedy (such as Citizens United)—is filled with constitutional protections for those who want to throw the first political punches or send the most scurrilous messages—especially online. Voting rights, and assisting voters by disclosing potentially revealing information, barely registers as a First Amendment concern in today’s right-wing judiciary.

“At this point, the only way we can try bringing it back down to earth is making sure that the recipients of those messages understand that it is paid for by somebody as an ad, as opposed to news or a statement of fact or something like that,” said Craig Holman, Public Citizen’s government affairs lobbyist. “The Federal Election Commission is not going to go there. Facebook is talking big talk about it, but we’re in real trouble if we’re allowing corporate America to take care of the problem of disclosure surrounding electioneering messages.” 

Meanwhile, the online communication revolution marches on. Increasing numbers of digital devices grab our attention. Ever-deepening user profiles help political advertisers to more precisely target swing voters in swing districts. And human nature, being human nature, is drawn to what confirms personal biases or is conspiratorial. That contributes creating so-called filter bubbles, or like-minded echo chambers, on social media, and increasingly polarized politics. 

“We are all susceptible to information that is something that we want to believe,” Delany said. “It’s really a sociologist’s question of whether we’re going to be smarter about this or not… Wait until fake video comes out. Somebody’s going to start a war. It’s going to get people killed.”

But not all online communication works or is equally effective, he added. Political messages on social media are less likely to spark responses than emails or texts, Delany said. And Facebook, despite all the ways that Russia—and Trump’s 2016 campaign—effectively used it to spread hyper-partisan propaganda—is less sensational than local television news (“if it bleeds it leads”), or the intentionally inflammatory messages scrolling across the bottom of Fox News broadcasts, he said.

But these caveats don’t mean cyberspace isn’t offering new pathways for political thugs. As the 2016 primaries wrap up, there are signs that this fall will be another open season for willing provocateurs. And it will be up to individuals to sift through the political noise, because American political culture and government is an era of disappearing restraint.

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

 

Steven Rosenfeld is a senior writing fellow of the Independent Media Institute, where he covers national political issues. He is the author of several books on elections, most recently Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (March 2018, Hot Books).