The rioting that has ensued after the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police offers significant insight into the state of an increasingly digital democracy. These events should be carefully analyzed and understood. There is no single, unique idea or sentiment that fuels these flames. It is our responsibility to understand why many believe that the usual protocols of discussion and change are inadequate, and use this knowledge to inform decisions on the path toward a more just society.
A democratic society is a society that upholds the rule of public opinion under the assumption that by granting its citizens freedom of thought, the policies of governance will continually reform with the discovery of truth and redefinition of justice. It is important to note the relationship between truth and justice: Justice presupposes truth. A society that does not truthfully conceive of where it stands, nor where it may go, cannot know the way to justice.
As long as public opinion drives societal decision-making and truth drives public opinion, society will progress toward justice. The immensity of resources that politicians invest in campaigns, that businesses invest in advertising, and that foreign states invest in influencing public discussion demonstrates that public opinion remains largely foundational in the decision-making process of democracy. However, the notion that public opinion is driven by truth has perhaps for a long time been questionable. The growth of a digital infrastructure of communication has further cast doubt upon the rational origins of public opinion and now demands confrontation.
A society that values the truth of ideas and values must discuss each in a system that propagates ideas and values on the merit of truth above all else. After all, public opinion can only be influenced by those ideas and values which are presented to it by their propagation. As the general public increasingly obtains information online, we must confront the question: Are these new digital systems of discussion, or information propagation, conducive to the presentation of true ideas and values to the public eye?
Before attempting to answer this question, we should address the importance of true information in the creation of both ideas and values. It is well accepted that ideas, or factual statements, must be founded on true information, and it is arguable that many values can be held to this same standard. Values often presuppose a certain fact about the world. For example, a community that values gun-ownership supposes that the community is safest when each of its constituents owns a gun. The question of whether a community is safer with or without guns is a matter of fact, and thus can be proven or disproven with true information. Of course, there are more fundamental values at play which perhaps cannot be proven or disproven by facts, such as the value of safety itself. However, the point is that there are many values which are subject to questioning, and thus ideas and values alike must be supported by true information.
With this relationship in mind, we return to the question of whether the current digital medium of discussion supports the propagation of true ideas and values. Many studies have shown that this is certainly not the case. It is not truth of content that most strongly provokes the propagation of information online, but the elicitation of uncertainty, fear, and anger. False news stories spread more rapidly online than true news stories. Rumors are more actively shared on social media than their later corrections, and therefore blatantly false inventions can steer public conversation. Evidently, the floatation of ideas and values to the public eye is not driven by the truth of their foundations.
It is not only the system of discussion that should be inspected, but the tendencies of the individuals that partake in discussion. Studies illustrate the irrational means by which individuals come to accept beliefs and cling to them: Biases such as selective exposure, confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and naive realism inhibit the individual’s ability to reason with an abundance of information. Social and emotional dynamics play a more significant role than the discussion of facts in changing an individual’s mind. Status-seeking and identity projection largely motivate individual behavior of sharing stories online. Thus, the acquisition and propagation of beliefs among individuals is largely irrational, and this tendency must be accounted for, rather than emboldened, by the system in which public ideas and values are discussed.
If justice is sought, then truth is sought; and if truth is sought, then the means by which the public discusses ideas and values must be reformed to accommodate for irrational tendencies at the systematic and individual level. Though a solution may not be clear, the investment of resources and complete transparency of the relevant institutions is necessary for its uncovering. The private companies that mediate the discovery and propagation of ideas and values—media conglomerates, social media companies, search engines—must be completely transparent about the systems of discussion they produce, i.e., the dynamics, created by their platforms, which cause certain ideas and values to float to attention while others remain out of the public eye. As long as these systems embolden the irrational tendencies of individuals, they are harmful to the democratic pursuit of true ideas and values. Additionally, the individuals which create and propagate information within these systems should be reminded frequently of their natural, irrational tendencies, so that they may expend the necessary effort to curtail them. Ideas and values should not be propagated by individuals on the basis of the reactions they elicit, but the truth of the information they are built upon.
As long as public opinion drives the decision-making of democracy, the discussion of ideas and values must be systematized such that truth drives public opinion. Today, public discussion is organized by a digital system that promotes the creation and propagation of content that elicits certain irrational reactions; a system of discussion in which the human capacity for reason suffers.
A society that values justice presupposes the value of truth. When public opinion is not steered by the truth, democracy is not steered by justice.