Puppets and Politics

(by Deputy Head Girl, Hannah)  This blog has been at the back of my mind for some time but when I finally came to write it I suddenly realised that I am attempting to take a thought-provoking angle on two subjects which, quite frankly, people are starting to have heard enough of: politics and personal statements. In the UVI house, the talk of this half of term has been all about university applications and personal statements whilst every time I glance over the news there seems to be another heated development in the political sphere. Nevertheless, I would like to take this opportunity to talk a little bit about the behemoth we term the internet, and more specifically its impact on the practice of politics. This was a central focus of my personal statement and something which I hope to demonstrate is fascinating and evermore relevant.

In the past our system of representative democracy in the United Kingdom, whilst evidently not perfect, has largely been accepted as theoretically one of the best systems of organisation of political power. We, as the electorate, delegate power to politicians and trust them to take decisions that are in both our own and also our country’s best interests. It would be ludicrous and incredibly wasteful of our time to be involved in every decision that is taken as a collective. However, the past decade has seen the rise of anti-establishment sentiment and an absence of faith in our politicians. The financial crisis in 2008 left many people feeling distrustful and resentful of ‘the elite’, whose interests they saw as diametrically opposed to their own, and a huge sense of unfairness and lack of political representation emerged. Today this is clearly at the root of the rises in extreme populist parties in Europe and Donald Trump in America: purposely posed against the existing system, they represent something different which gives people hope and excitement. This is not rocket science; it was a main subject of Theresa May’s speech to the Conservative Party a few weeks ago.

But it gets interesting when the internet, and more specifically social media, is added to this. The internet has seen a more direct form of democracy emerge and has changed the practice of politics in a potentially harmful way. Social media sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, have had a two-fold impact. On the one hand, they have given politicians a greater awareness of the sentiments of the public. This should be a good thing, increasing their accountability and making policies more representative of the demands of the people. On the other hand, social media sites have given the electorate a sense that they are able to influence policies more directly. This has empowered people, increased the influence interest groups are able to exert and decreased the standing of politicians in the eyes of the public as they are bypassed (how many of the current cabinet members can you confidently say you are informed of or respect? I feel if asked this same question even 20 years ago people would answer very differently).

On the surface, these issues hardly seem ground-breaking, let alone ‘potentially harmful’. However, they must be analysed in light of the consideration that the electorate are no less ‘rationally ignorant’ than they were without the internet. The theory of ‘rational ignorance’ originated from Public Choice Theorists who aimed to apply economic understanding of humans and decision-making to the political sphere. It is the idea that the electorate do not seek to inform themselves as much as they could on issues on which they are voting. This is because of two, arguably logical reasons. First, the public are aware that of the issues on which they are voting, even if indirectly through a general election, only a very small proportion of the total costs or benefits will accrue to them. Secondly, the public are aware that any single elector’s choice is unlikely to make a difference to the overall outcome. This observation of voter behaviour not only leads electors to often rely on relatively unimportant but emotionally-charged information or habits when voting, but also means that politicians are more likely to be selective about what information they purposely publicise ahead of a vote. Evidence for this can be seen in the lead up to the EU referendum. How much do you know about the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)? I would be willing to bet that your knowledge is unlikely to justify the fact that the CAP accounts for 40% of the EU budget. I simply want to point out that in fact it is quite rational that you do not have a wealth of knowledge about the CAP; we should trust our politicians to persuade us of its importance, or some may feel lack thereof, instead of having to do the work ourselves.

Combining the impact of the internet on the electorate and consequential behaviour of politicians, and the theory of voter ‘rational ignorance’, it is clear that the effects of the internet seem less positive. People are no more informed on public policies than they were 20 years ago, when we were prepared to delegate much more power to politicians, yet through social media they are having a much greater influence on policies. Not only this, but often the people having a greater influence are those few with very strong views on an issue who are able to conjure up an image of mass support through ‘shares’ and ‘likes’ amongst other methods of garnering support on social media. This has potential impacts including drawing political parties to extremities that are unrepresentative of the vast majority of the population, making policies more susceptible to short-term sentiment and arguably weakening our current system of representative democracy.

Finally, the internet has seen a huge polarisation of opinion. This is another issue that has multiple effects. ‘Cookies’ have hugely increased firms’ power over individuals and, arguably, instead of serving to enhance the experience we get from ‘social’ media, they serve to entrench our current views. Take, for example, Facebook which uses algorithms to generate the content of your news feed through marking what posts you and your friends whom you are most associated with on the site ‘like’, ‘comment’ and ‘share’. As we tend to be attracted to people with similar political views to ourselves, this has the effect of generating news feeds which, by and large, suit the existing views of the user (clever, as who really likes to see content we don’t agree with?). However, for the same reason I would argue against banning certain speakers at universities, I would argue that diversity of opinion is fundamental to society and education. How are we to form balanced, well-considered views if all we ever see suits what we already think? Opinion has been driven to extremes as people interact less and less with the views of the ‘enemy’, be it ‘the elite’ or the ‘Trotskyists’. The other effect of this polarisation of opinion is on the media itself. Media companies have an increased tendency to portray politics as another form of entertainment, vying for the most outrageous information in order to boost their viewer or reader numbers. Prime examples of this are seen in the US election; indeed, one of the candidates even used to have his own reality TV show. This exacerbates not only the hostility felt towards many politicians today, but also the lack of trust we have in them. Yet again I come back to the rise in extreme parties in many countries today as a prime exemplification of this.

It seems, therefore, that the impact of the internet on politics goes far deeper than a first glance would permit thinking about. Our once praised form of representative democracy is rapidly shifting shape, being drawn out to the extremes of the political spectrum and being destroyed from the inside as some of the uninformed public, driven into a frenzy through social media, exert a disproportionate influence on politicians. As Napoleon Bonaparte once prophesied, ‘the politics of the future will be the art of stirring the masses’. This has only got more relevant. I am not writing to propose that we should wind back the clock and remove the internet — outside politics, it is clear the positive effects of the internet far outweigh the negative ones — but instead I propose proper consideration and education of the hugely important issues caused by the internet in the political sphere. Mrs May seems to be a fellow activist in this area, already stepping back from social media and towards the traditional role of a politician: a member of the people who is entrusted by the people to make decisions for the people, not a puppet.