Democratic Backsliding in the Age of Misinformation

An image of the painting “The Building of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:3-5)” by Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

By María Isabel Puerta Riera

Misinformation Widens the Political Divide

The 2016 presidential election introduced new elements into political campaigns through information technology. The Cambridge Analytica scandal was part of a broader scheme to influence the electorate, particularly among those more vulnerable to misinformation. Of course, the role foreign entities played is still largely under debate. Nonetheless, it appears Russia did use its assets in a broad influence operation to sow distrust in the Democratic Party and its candidate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Most recently, a Putin operative has acknowledged Russia planted false narratives across multiple social media channels as part of a strategy to provoke division among Americans.

Misinformation has widened the current political divide. At the same time, the presence of deep ideological divisions fail to explain why falsehoods and propaganda made greater inroads among conservatives. Perhaps it helps to recognize many conservatives perceive rapid change as a threat. Demographic anxieties combined with long-held Christian nationalist identities to produce deep anti-immigrant sentiments among non-college-educated white Americans. Consequently, both foreign governments and domestic politicians portrayed an electorate divided between patriots and traitors.

From Election Denial to Election Oversight

Inevitably, the 2020 presidential election delivered a clash between a post-truth Trump presidency and the saviors of American democracy. However, the events leading to January 6th proved the system barely survived and even then at a high cost. The Republican Party, from its leadership to its base, continue to call the 2020 election fraudulent despite mountains of evidence from court decisions to audits that all concluded it was a clean and fair process. Indeed, after multiple criminal investigations and civil lawsuits, Donald Trump remains defiant. He is about to announce a third presidential bid. Meanwhile, Trump’s allies have failed to find any significant evidence of fraud from the 2020 election. Moreover, numerous witnesses have testified the former president understood he lost the election. Yet, despite all of this, he continues to push forward the falsehood of an illegitimate electoral process.

Polarization in the United States has gone from ideological debates to disagreements over what is real and fake. In many ways the 2022 midterms served as a dress rehearsal for the 2024 presidential election even thought most Americans are not aware of it. Debates on policy have disappeared. Discussion about party platforms is no longer relevant, because the Republican Party did not even write one for the 2020 election. Instead, the whims of a reality-tv star turned into kingmaker have overwhelmed the country, because his influence continues to dominate the GOP. Still, his influence does not extend to the majority of the electorate. But it is enough to ensure hundreds of election deniers will get elected. Moreover, some will even oversee elections in 2024 in their states.

A Tower of Babel of Facts and Truth

The 2022 midterm elections are merely part of a longer strategy to capture political institutions by circumventing democratic principles. Its architects fabricate narratives to undermine democracy through the incitement of hatred. They desire more political violence similar to what we witnessed on January 6th, 2021. Ultimately, they gamble away democracy, the constitution, and the rule of law. The unrelenting digital unrest creates an alternate reality where immigrants are responsible for increased crime and unemployment remains high despite a 3.7% unemployment rate and close to 11 million job openings. This is far more than a profound detachment from reality. It requires a detachment from rationality.

In this age of misinformation, we participate in a global town square devoid of reality. Instead, we create our own virtual reality. It’s like a Tower of Babel of facts and truth. Every person builds a world to correspond with their own understanding of what is and is not. They depart from reality into their private virtual world. But what they do not realize is their departure is a transfer of power to the architects of the fabricated narratives. Democracy dies in the absence of truth.

María Isabel Puerta Riera is a Political Scientist teaching U. S. Government in Florida interested in U. S. and Latin American Politics. 

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