Digital Bonapartism, Russia, and America in 2016

American democracy is entering uncharted and treacherous territory. Fabricated news to discredit political opponents, use of social media to manipulate the public discourse, and political hacking have been around for a long time in many parts of the world.

In light of raging debates about fake news, hacking, and other types of online manipulation in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and what to do about it, I’ve decided to make freely available a few excerpts from a key section of the book titled “Control 2.0.”

From Chapter 3: Networked Authoritarianism (mainly about China) see Western Fantasies vs. Reality

From Chapter 4: Variants and Permutations, see Divide and Conquer and Digital Bonapartism. Here is how I explain the concept of “digital bonapartism:”

In the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Karl Marx coined the term “bonapartism” to describe political leadership by a populist demagogue who seeks to legitimize himself with democratic rhetoric and trappings. The term was inspired by Napoleon Bonaparte’s rule after the French Revolution: usurpation of popular revolution by military officers, strong nationalist messages, populist rhetoric about reform and equality, and elections lacking strong alternatives. Today, after having thrown off communism, Russia is pioneering a new digital-age version of bonapartism: conservative-nationalist rule unchallenged by viable political opposition despite the formal existence of multiparty parliamentary and presidential elections, which are effectively populist plebiscites, and manipulation of public opinion through the control—both direct and indirect—of digital networks and platforms.

The final paragraph of that excerpt – and of the “Control 2.0” section, concludes:

It remains to be seen whether a more genuine form of democracy, in which dissenters’ rights are protected from extrajudicial threats and vigilante violence, will emerge from Russia’s digital bonapartism. In the meantime, a new model has emerged that can be replicated elsewhere: government leaders use the Internet to carry out a much more direct and populist discourse with citizens in ways that were not possible before the Internet, thus bridging an emotional and psychological gap between rulers and ruled, and building greater public sympathy for the leaders as people. The Internet serves as a “focus group” and early-warning system for the government, alerting policy makers when certain policies just are not working or need modification to prevent unrest. More negatively, pro government bloggers and journalists are encouraged to mount slur campaigns to discredit reformists and activists who pose serious challenges to the regime’s credibility. Anonymous threats against activists who cross the line also help. A full-ranging public discourse about the nation’s political future is thus constrained and stunted, and the status quo power arrangements are more easily maintained. This dynamic begs an uncomfortable question: To what extent are the world’s oldest, most established democracies vulnerable to digital bonapartism?

(Emphasis added to the final sentence.)

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