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The 2016 U.S. Election: Can Democracy Survive the Internet?

This article explores the story of the 2016 digital campaign for the U.S. presidency with respect to the online explosion of campaign-relevant communication from various areas of cyber space. Persily analyses the use of fake news, social-media boys and propaganda from within and outside the country. He seeks to explain that there is a disintegration of the legacy institutions in American politics that is arising from populist nationalism that has been exacerbated by the Internet. The article evaluates the importance of social media in Trump’s victory of the U.S. election. For a candidate that is new in the field of politics, he was able to navigate social media landscape to set news agenda. He appealed to internet forces driven by ideological affinity, financial profits and geopolitical agenda. However, his victory is also attributed to the prevalence of fake news that created barriers for people to make educated political decisions. Persily sheds light on Russian strategies to undermine the election by using social media platforms to influence public opinion. Persily explains that the same digital tools that were perceived to enhance democracy by increasing citizen engagement are now posing threats to the very idea of democracy. With virality (speed at which information is disseminated), anonymity and lack of accountability, and its unprecedented ability to deliver targeted information, the Internet can be used as an anti-establishment force. Following the 2016 elections, several internet platforms changed their policies and acknowledged the shortcomings of the communications environment. However, the fact is that these platforms are the new intermediary institution for world politics today. With online and offline deterioration in democratic values, technology will likely strengthen sociological forces threatening democracy. Keywords: fake news, propaganda, hacking, “trolls”, “cyborgs”, social-media bots, anonymity, digital age, global technological wave, technology facilitated disruption.
Nathaniel Persily
Journal of Democracy
Domains-Issue Area: 
Industry Focus: 
Information & Telecommunication
Internet & Cyberspace
United States