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Why journalism isn’t saving democracy — but still can

Democracy thrives when we have somewhere to meet and discover each other, to argue and find shared purpose: a coffeehouse, a pub, a newspaper.

By: /
20 November, 2020
A Coffee House, Constantinople by Amadeo Preziosi. Photo by © Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

During the Cold War, between arrests for distributing “harmful literature,” such as books by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Vladimir Nabokov, Soviet poet Igor Pomerantsev would rise at dawn and, clutching a shortwave radio in hand, climb table and chairs to find the best reception in the Kyiv apartment his family shared with his wife’s parents. There, Mr. Pomerantsev would steer the radio’s dial “in an acoustic slalom between transmissions of East German pop and Soviet military bands,” his son, Peter, later wrote, until, through crackle and static, he heard the words he was looking for: “This is London” or “This is Washington.”

I’ve never met Mr. Pomerantsev, but he seems familiar all the same. The Pomerantsevs fled the Soviet Union in the late 1970s and reached London, where Mr. Pomerantsev worked at BBC World Service – the source, while he was in the Soviet Union, of the assuring “This is London” introduction to newscasts, and an organization that took as holy its ethos of impartiality, fairness and accuracy.

Some two decades later, I, too, got a job at BBC World Service, then located in Bush House on the Strand. Amid the wrought-iron bannisters and chipped concrete stairs, I worked alongside a collection of Cold War refugees, Hungarians and Czechs and Poles, several of whom, like Mr. Pomerantsev, fled communism and sought to speak truth back to their home countries on the radio. They were joined by more recently arrived Afghans, Pakistanis and others, also broadcasting unfiltered news back home. They were members of an international tribe of journalists and, on some level, had become British, too. The young Kenyan who gave me a welcoming tour of the building pointed down a hall and told me told me, with the crisp mannerisms of an upper-class Englishman: “Through there is the pub. You know, in case you’d like to get pissed.”

Dictatorships have long been hostile toward BBC World Service, along with other outfits such as Radio Free Europe – or any fact-based news organization with global reach. The KGB jammed the BBC and Radio Free Europe. The Romanian secret service bombed the latter’s headquarters in 1981. What they feared and tried to silence was straight news and balanced analysis.

This is the sort of journalism that was once most worrying to despotism and the most encouraging of democratization. Government abuses were exposed. Citizens could judge what alternatives they might pursue based on accurate information. The challenges faced by those hoping to access, or produce, such journalism were mostly about logistics: making news available, breaking firewalls, circumventing censors.

This is no longer enough. Russian journalists still mysteriously fall to their deaths from high windows. They are beaten up. A police state’s old habits die hard. And it’s worse elsewhere. But the censorship in Russia today is nothing like it was a couple of generations ago. Lack of information is not the same problem. Anyone with an Internet connection or a smartphone can read almost anything they want. Fearful poets don’t listen to Radio Free Europe secretly at dawn, one ear tuned to a knock on the door. Moscow has changed its tactics. The Kremlin has defanged unflattering journalism not just by suppressing it — although that happens — but by delegitimizing it, by swamping it with other narratives. These methods are replicated elsewhere, including in democratic countries, and perhaps most worryingly in the United States by President Donald Trump, who decries critical coverage as fake news and freely offers competing versions of events detached from reality. In the hands of such manipulators, disinformation is used to shape public narratives and sap truthful reportage of credibility.

This has consequences. There are many reasons for democracy’s global decline these past two decades, including financial crises, a lack of leadership from the U.S., and the apparent rise of China and Russia as authoritarian models that promise wealth and power without accountability.

But among these factors must also be included the weakening of journalism as a democratizing force. Outlets everywhere have lost trust, readers and viewers, and their once-crucial ability to nurture the cultural norms on which democracy depends. Halting the decline of democracy depends in large part on reversing this trend.

“News outlets have lost their once-crucial ability to nurture the cultural norms on which democracy depends. Halting the decline of democracy depends on reversing this trend.”

    * * *

In February 2014I was reporting from Kyiv, now the capital of an independent Ukraine. Revolution boiled around me. Demonstrators had forced the ouster of the Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych. In retaliation, Russian President Vladimir Putin was secretly planning to attack the Ukrainian territory of Crimea.

But, at that moment, it seemed as though protesters had defeated Russia in the very city where KGB agents had once shadowed Mr. Pomerantsev. Kyiv was jubilant. It was a challenge to find dissenting voices, but I did. A woman in a shopping mall shop said protesters were not voicing the will of most Ukrainians. In fact, she said, they weren’t even voicing their own. They had been drugged, she told me. I didn’t think much of her comments. She seemed prone to conspiracies and a little unbalanced. I thanked her and closed my notebook.

And then Russia launched its invasion of Crimea. It didn’t call it an invasion, at least not at first. I was in the Crimean capital of Simferopol hours after so-called Little Green Men — soldiers without insignia — stormed its parliament. Milling about outside were many more Ukrainians supportive of Russia. And here, again, I heard that protesters in Kyiv had had their tea drugged to make them revolt. The story was now more elaborate. One woman told me some boys from Crimea had gone to Kyiv and come back sick. The drugs were found in their blood by doctors at the local hospital. This time I did what I should have done in Kyiv and asked the women where she was getting this information. She told me on Russian language television.

It wasn’t true. And it was only one of dozens of untruths that came out of Russian media at the time, starting with the most obvious: that Russian troops hadn’t invaded Ukraine. Other stories alleged that rightists in Kyiv were coming to slaughter ethnic Russians in Crimea or that a child had been crucified by Ukrainian forces. These lies were broadcast at the same time Ukrainians, and Russians for that matter, could read truthful accounts of the same events. Moscow wasn’t the jamming the BBC or blocking access to the Internet. But Russia’s goal might not have been that its propaganda be believed, necessarily, but that it muddy the waters — or, more fundamentally, demonstrate that waters can never really be clear.

“When Vladimir Putin went on international television during his army’s annexation of Crimea and asserted with a smirk, that there are no Russian soldiers in Crimea when everyone knew there were, and then just as casually later admitted that they had been there, and even publicly awarded medals to the soldiers whom he had earlier said hadn’t been there, he wasn’t so much lying in the sense of trying to replace one reality with another as saying that facts don’t matter,” wrote Peter Pomerantsev in his book This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality.

This is a crucial point, because if the truth is just one version of reality, then simply reporting the news is only a limited threat to someone with his own, more widely accepted version of reality to peddle. It suggests that democratic-minded journalists need to adapt, just as those who want to undermine them have done.

* * *

Not so long ago, it seemed as though technology, in the form of social media, might provide a path forward.

In June 2009, well over a year before the more famous demonstrations of the Arab Spring rocked Tunis, Cairo, Damascus and other Arab capitals, the streets of Tehran were filled with marchers protesting the results of a presidential election that returned the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power. Many Iranians believed the election was rigged. “Where is my vote?” they shouted, and, “Marg bar dictator!” Death to the dictator.

The role supposedly played by the Internet, and specifically the social-media platform Twitter, excited Western journalists and politicians. A Wall Street Journal editorial claimed revolutionaries in Iran used “social-networking technology to do more for regime change in the Islamic Republic than years of sanctions, threats and Geneva-based haggling put together.” A former security adviser to the George W. Bush administration said that Twitter and its founders deserved consideration for a Nobel Peace Prize because, he wrote in a Christian Science Monitor column, “the people of Iran would not have felt empowered and confident enough to stand up for freedom and democracy” without it.

But, as author Evgeny Morozov chronicled in his book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, this almost certainly isn’t true. We don’t know how many people in Iran were on Twitter at the time, but available evidence suggests the numbers were modest. Fewer than 20,000 Twitter accounts were registered in Iran, and some of these may in fact have been located elsewhere. While Iran protests-related content was huge on Twitter, it appears that much of it was authored and spread outside the country.

The Iranian uprising of 2009 did not happen because of Twitter or the Internet. More ominously, and in a harbinger of things to come, after protests were violently supressed, the Iranian government established a cyberteam to scour the Internet looking for signs of dissent and used regime-friendly news sites to solicit the public’s help in identifying the guilty. And yet Twitter remains banned in Iran. Not for everyone, of course. Mr. Ahmadinejad is on it. So is Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the dictator slogan-shouting protesters wanted dead. Clearly those in power feel they have something to fear from social media. Is it possible then, despite the errors in early reports about the 2009 Iranian uprising, that the bigger assumption was correct? Can social media topple dictators and help birth democracy?

* * *

Events in Egypt a year or so after the protests in Tehran suggested that might be the case. In the summer of 2010, a young Egyptian man, Khaled Said, was beaten to death by police. A photograph of his disfigured face outraged those who saw it.

Another young man, Wael Ghonim, an Egyptian Google marketing executive living in Dubai, started a Facebook page, “We are all Khaled Said,” to gather together those angry about Mr. Said’s murder. His goals were not revolutionary until he witnessed the overthrow of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. He then used the Facebook group to urge Egyptians to come out and protest on Tahrir Square on Jan. 25, 2011. Eighteen days later, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak stepped down.

This, unlike in Iran, was an instance in which social media was transformative — as an organizing tool and a dissent accelerant. But, as events since have made painfully clear, overthrowing a dictator is not the same as building a democracy. The secular liberals who gathered on the We are all Khaled Said Facebook page had no answer to the organizational prowess of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood once Mr. Mubarak was gone. What followed his ouster was not the cross-cutting compromise of a pluralistic democracy, but the all-or-nothing intolerance of the Muslim Brotherhood — which was then, in turn, ousted in a military coup. Egypt is today ruled by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a dictator far more ruthless than Mr. Mubarak ever was. Mr. Ghonim, who founded the We are all Khaled Said Facebook page, is in exile. Of all the countries where protests erupted during the Arab Spring, only Tunisia is today democratic.

But even in Tunisia the impact of media on the country’s post-Arab Spring politics is mixed. Mr. Ben Ali was forced out in part because of outrage fuelled by online revelations about his wife’s lavish shopping trips. Like in Egypt, social media proved to be an effective means of mass mobilization. But a 2012 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace study found that Tunisia’s postrevolution media landscape was a “venue for manipulation, intimidation, and bias.”

This is not just a problem in the post-Arab Spring states, or in fragile and faltering democracies elsewhere. Because so much of online news and social media gears itself toward echo chambers that privilege sharply ideological views, they have a polarizing effect on politics in established democracies, too. As democratization scholar Larry Diamond has written, “Truth and civility, two of the most precious requisites for sustainable democracy, quickly become victims of this escalating information warfare, and the culture of democracy — of mutual tolerance, respect and restraint — is severely degraded.”

“Digital and social media are not elixirs that will magically grow democracy if only they are made available to the oppressed subjects of authoritarian regimes. They are tools that can both mobilize democrats and facilitate a dictatorship’s repression of them”

Digital and social media, in other words, are not elixirs that will magically grow democracy if only they are made available to the oppressed subjects of authoritarian regimes. They are tools that can both mobilize democrats and facilitate a dictatorship’s repression of them. What matters more than the platform is the content. And what democracy needs most from journalism is content that reflects a different, and older, approach to public discourse than is typically found on Twitter.

* * *

When it comes to democratization, journalism at its best has served two different but related purposes. The first is to unite people with shared interests, identities, occupations and beliefs. Digital platforms and social media do a pretty good job of this, too. No matter how obscure your interests, you can find a community online. A lot of Kremlin-backed media content similarly reflects the importance of building and strengthening group identity. Programming is full of slickly produced dramas and documentaries about the Soviet Union’s role in the Second World War, or reports about the moral decadence of the West. Foreign news outlets, or local media focusing on state corruption, simply can’t attract the same attention or engender the same sense of belonging.

What you’re less likely to find on social media are those outside your community of people who think the same way you do. Many digital platforms are also narrowly focused. This is problematic for democracy – because the second way media have traditionally furthered democratization is by providing a place where dissimilar people might exchange ideas and arguments and learn about each other. This isn’t about friendship and harmony. By meeting in a common place and having such discussions, citizens implicitly accept the legitimacy of their opponents. No one needs to be persuaded by their adversaries. What matters is the acceptance that one’s adversaries deserve to be heard.

To understand this process, and its effect on political culture, it’s useful to imagine a coffeehouse somewhere in the Ottoman Empire some 400 years ago. Paintings from the era suggest these were convivial places with rug-covered alcoves framed in ornate woodwork, hookah pipes, musical instruments, even fountains. The coffee might have been brewed with cardamom and saffron, the smell of those spices mingling with the hookah smoke and earthier scents wafting in from the street. Not surprisingly, such places drew people out of their homes.

This was new. Prior to the introduction of coffee to Ottoman lands in the early 1500s, socialization was something that took place behind closed doors. Coffee changed that. It opened up the night as a time for socializing, and it lent itself to being drunk in a communal social setting. Coffee houses catered to a more diverse cliental than might typically be found in a private salon. Social barriers were broken down. People who would never normally mix now were together, socializing and talking.

That bothered Ottoman officials. They responded the same way authoritarian governments usually do: with punishments and bans before eventually settling into surveillance. Ottoman authorities were worried about dissent. But what was happening was subtler and more impactful. Coffee houses were building civil society by cultivating a collective identity that had room for differences.

Democracy lives and dies because of cultural norms and practices that are accepted within a society. Foremost among them are compromise, tolerance and an acceptance of the need to engage with people outside our own narrow collective. These values are strengthened when people have somewhere to meet and discover each other, to argue and find shared purpose — an Ottoman coffeehouse, and, when done right, a newspaper. It’s worth noting that in the early 1800s in Britain, newspapers, especially radical ones, were designed to be read aloud in that country’s answer to a coffeehouse: the pub.

Alexis de Tocqueville, a French visitor to the U.S. in the early 19th century, recognized this connection when he considered the new republic’s newspapers. “To suppose that they only serve to protect freedom would be to diminish their importance: they maintain civilization,” he wrote. “If there were no newspapers there would be no common activity.”

There is little desire to create “common activity” in many news outlets and on social media today. The partisan fragmentation of the postrevolutionary Tunisian media landscape is mirrored in the U.S. and elsewhere. Too many of us consume journalism in silos. This weakens democracy or inhibits its chances of taking root. When we deny our ideological others purchase in the public sphere, we erode the cultural values on which democracy is built.

It will not be easy to reverse this trend, because journalism is often as much a symptom as a cause of the polarization that divides especially the U.S., but other Western democracies, too. We try to silence voices we don’t like. We disqualify. We cover our ears and eyes and shout louder. Our common spaces are shrinking.

Ultimately, the type of journalism that has the best shot of weakening authoritarian governments in places such as Russia or Hungary is the same that is needed in established but vulnerable democracies such as the U.S. It is journalism that threads a number of narrow needles. It needs credibility strong enough to withstand disinformation and attacks by hostile actors. This requires high standards and ruthless professionalism. It needs audience buy-in and emotional investment. Readers, viewers and listeners should feel connected to each other. Most importantly, it needs to attract a diverse and oppositional audience. It needs to be a shared public space where we learn to tolerate, understand and, eventually, trust each other.

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