NYT Op-Ed Claims Internet ‘Threatens Democracy’ by Bypassing the Establishment Class

© AFP/File Kena Betancur
© AFP/File Kena Betancur

The New York Times has published an article from opinion columnist and academic Thomas B. Edsall blaming the Internet for the collapse of establishment authority.

Arguing that the Internet “threatens Democracy,” Edsall openly concedes that he believes the freedom unleashed by the Internet to be a threat to the establishment; to its norms and language codes.

As the forces of reaction outpace movements predicated on the ideal of progress, and as traditional norms of political competition are tossed aside, it’s clear that the internet and social media have succeeded in doing what many feared and some hoped they would. They have disrupted and destroyed institutional constraints on what can be said, when and where it can be said and who can say it.

This is a rare moment of honesty from a mainstream commentator: up until now, the panicked, clumsy attempts to roll back freedom of speech on the web have advanced in disguise. Campaigns to reintroduce the language codes in the anarchic realm of the web have been concealed behind seemingly neutral concerns about “online harassment,” “trolling,” and “abuse.” Edsall, by contrast, doesn’t obfuscate. He straightforwardly admits that it’s really free speech on the web that concerns him. Good for him!

The article quotes academics with similar concerns about the Internet’s power to undermine the establishment.

The use of digital technology in the 2016 election “represents the latest chapter in the disintegration of legacy institutions that had set bounds for American politics in the postwar era,” Nathaniel Persily, a law professor at Stanford, writes in a forthcoming paper, “Can American Democracy Survive the Internet?”

According to Persily, the Trump campaign was “totally unprecedented in its breaking of established norms of politics.”

He argues that this type of campaign is only successful in a context in which certain established institutions — particularly, the mainstream media and political party organizations — have lost most of their power, both in the United States and around the world.

In other words, Persily believes that the Internet is damaging the power of elite institutions like The New York Times. No longer, we are told, can they “set bounds” on us. And this is bad. 

According to another researcher quoted in the article, even political parties might become obsolete.

In a phone interview, Issacharoff cited the emergence of internet­ based methods of communication as a major contributing factor in the deterioration of political parties.

“Technology has overtaken one of the basic functions you needed political parties for in the past, communication with voters,” he said. “Social media has changed all of that, candidates now have direct access through email, blogs and Twitter,” along with Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and other platforms.

So, to sum up: The Internet has removed “constraints on what can be said.” It has meant that the mainstream media and party establishments have “lost most of their power.” Legacy institutions can no longer “set bounds” on us.

And this is all bad! And scary! And a threat to democracy! 

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