By Kate Cray for The Atlantic
Atlantic staff writer Anne Applebaum, an expert on Eastern Europe, has long watched social media’s power with great concern. Yesterday, at Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy, a conference hosted by The Atlantic and the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, she spoke with David Axelrod, the founding director of the Institute of Politics, about the dangers these platforms pose to democracy. They discussed Russia’s disinformation efforts, what makes some conspiracy theories so successful, how institutions can rebuild trust, and more. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.
David Axelrod: Anne, I’ve been reading all your wonderful pieces lately, scary exhortations at times, about where we are right now. You live in Poland, right across the border from Ukraine, and we’ll get to that. But you just wrote a piece called “Why We Should Read Hannah Arendt Now.” I raise that not just because she taught here and we’re very parochial, but because your first line of that very good piece was: “So much of what we imagine to be new is old; so many of the seemingly novel illnesses that afflict modern society are really just resurgent cancers, diagnosed and described long ago.” We heard Maria Ressa speak earlier about part of what is new, but I’d love you to sort it out. In the struggle between autocracy and democracy, what is old and what is new?
Anne Applebaum: When the founders of the United States of America were writing our Constitution, one of the things that they were worried about was demagogues, who might come to power by abusing the trust of the mob. That was more than two centuries ago. When they were having those discussions, most of what they were reading was about the Roman republic, which was a subject of widespread curiosity in colonial America. So what we’re talking about when we speak about autocrats and the appeal of autocrats is extremely old. It is maybe the oldest political idea in humanity.
Axelrod: It was addressed in “Federalist No. 1.”
Applebaum: “Federalist No. 1,” and Alexander Hamilton was reading about Julius Caesar. So many of these questions have been discussed and discussed over and over again. And it’s important to keep remembering that, because some of what is new is technology’s ability to draw out and amplify some of those human emotions and desires. What seems to me to be new is the way that we communicate and the ways in which that communication now amplifies, creates, and uses the desire for autocracy—or the fear and anger that lead people to demand autocracy. Nothing is new about the emotions. What is new is the ability of internet platforms to evoke them and amplify them. For more, click here.