Lincoln, Churchill, Zuckerberg ― Democracy and Elections in a Digital Age

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“Elections belong to the people.  It’s their decision.  If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters”. Abraham Lincoln’s quote, whether he said it or not, is a great reminder that democracy is a messy business. If there was any question this past year has proven it beyond all doubt. 

Pandemics such as Covid-19 are easier to handle if there is no need for elections and if people’s civil liberties can be curtailed without having to ask those same people for their vote.   Elections like in the US this year would not cost $14 billion if vodka or Moutai-fuelled banquets and party conferences were all it took to select a leader.

“No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise.  Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”, is an actual quote from Winston Churchill.  Democracy and free markets are both necessary conditions for the innovation, progress and prosperity we have achieved.

The outcome of the US elections is a great example of just how messy democracy can be. Victory for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris was significant and historic in terms of the popular vote and decisive, but much narrower in terms of the electoral college.  However, it did not lead to a ‘blue sweep’ delivering control of Congress as had appeared likely before the vote.  

One of the most important aspects of the US elections, however, is not the balance of power in Washington but a broader impact on democracy and free markets.

Going into the elections, it was said that Mark Zuckerberg could end up deciding the result.  It could be argued that has now come true.

This election was a turning point for social media.  The 24-hour news cycle has been replaced by the instantaneous tweet or Facebook post.  A majority of Americans get their news from the big platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, so they play a critical role in shaping political discourse and opinions.   

With great power comes great responsibility and the platforms have taken important steps to create responsible content policies, to moderate content posted on their platforms, to label posts that contain misinformation, defamation, hate speech or incitement to violence, and to ban accounts that repeatedly violate their policies.  

They have accepted the need for change during this election, the biggest, most contested and messiest of the digital age so far.  As we have written in our insight on tech regulation in September this year, regulatory scrutiny will increase but these actions will stand them in good stead overall even though there are no easy solutions and not everyone will agree with each action they take.

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