A New Citizen is Emerging. Will it Strengthen or Kill Democracy?
The week of October 7, I woke up each morning to discover that my native country, Chile, was devolving further into chaos. A paragon of economic success and political stability in South America, Chile seemed an unlikely place for a four percent raise in metro fares to spark nationwide protests now involving more than one million people.
The same could be said for at least 15 other countries that have been blindsided by anti-government protests. They have struck both democratic and autocratic states and many somewhere in between. Journalists have attributed these outbursts to economic inequality, corruption, demographics, polarization, and rising authoritarianism. These explanations don’t capture why the protests are so widespread and explosive, nor what they mean for civic life.
In the 1960s, protests were easier to explain. Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. mobilized activists behind basic values and tangible objectives. No one wondered what anti-Vietnam War activists wanted and why.
Today, it is less clear what protesters want and how and whether they’ll achieve it. However, it is clear that they organize through mobile and social technologies ranging from Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to encrypted messenger apps like WhatsApp and Telegram. Protestors have even turned to Tinder, Pokémon Go, and Apple AirDrop to spread their messages.
I believe these protests reflect the emergence of the New Citizen, a new type of political actor. These individuals are leaderless and self-directed. They are upset and angry. They are not attached to a political party, organized movement, or advocacy organization. They feel that the political establishment doesn’t represent their interests or actively undermines them. Their action is connective rather than collective.
Will New Citizens strengthen governments by holding elected officials to a higher standard of accountability and responsiveness? And, will governments learn how to communicate and negotiate with them?
Or, will New Citizens destroy governments by pushing for systemic change faster than it can be enacted?
Wildfires of Discontent
The protests start with a seemingly minor event. A new tax on WhatsApp in Lebanon, a hike in metro fares in Chile, and long prison sentences for Catalonian independence activists sparked society-quaking demonstrations. A law allowing criminal suspects to be extradited from Hong Kong to mainland China did it there. The jump from complaint to conflagration happens with the speed and unpredictability of a wildfire.
In most cases, New Citizens form leaderless, fluid networks of individuals. They do not have defined goals. They just don’t believe that they can achieve justice through the establishment. They are bonded more by discontent than by a clear vision for their society.
In some countries, New Citizens express raw, combustible public opinion. They lack what public opinion researcher Dan Yankelovich termed “public judgement,” a position formed by soberly contemplating issues, reviewing factual information, and considering multiple perspectives.
In the UK, public opinion led a majority of citizens to vote for leaving the EU in a 2016 referendum. The consequences of Brexit only became clear after they voted. Had public judgement developed, the result might have been different.
In Chile, where protesters have put “capitalism on trial,” as Mary Anastasia O’Grady opined in The Wall Street Journal, public opinion has a good chance of evolving into public judgment about how to fix or replace neoliberal capitalism.
In Hong Kong, protestors mobilized without an exit strategy. As one organizer put it, “The chance of success is almost zero, but we still need to do this.”
Will public judgement form in these movements? Or, is something short-circuiting careful deliberation?
A Multiverse of Truth
The protesters have legitimate grievances. They want politicians to keep and fulfill promises made decades if not centuries ago. Many have suffered indignities, violence, and repression. That said, New Citizens live in a multiverse of realities that thwart progress towards public judgement.
People today can be better informed than at any prior time in history. The web connects us to a wealth of good journalism, scholarly knowledge, and trustworthy sources. Simultaneously, it inundates us with “news” that is real, fake, and often in between. This misinformation is seductive. As one study found, lies reach more people than do truths on Twitter.
Jaded by the lack of consensus on basic facts, the New Citizen grows to distrust practically all mainstream sources. This is not a fringe sentiment. A recent poll by the Associated Press found that 47 percent of Americans find it difficult to know if information is true or not. 58 percent feel like they get conflicting information from different sources.
Mistrust can create indifference towards the news. Or, it can lead people to informal, peer-to-peer information networks on social media, messenger apps, and propagandistic media sites. These become breeding grounds for fake news, which manipulates public opinion and hinders public judgment. They encourage readers to spread their views but not question them.
A decade ago, protesters in the Arab Spring spread their message through Facebook and Twitter. Today, New Citizens are far more likely to shape public opinion through Telegram, WhatsApp, and video games. They prefer to be on the giving end rather than the receiving end of information. Individually, few have large audiences. Collectively though, these influencers can spread true or false stories about how the political establishment is betraying the people.
New Citizens are talented communicators. They may share a hashtag, but they write their own catchy memes and funny banners rather than sharing one tagline. The stories they tell are personal and emotive. In Chile, for instance, one of the most viral pieces of content is a video about a very elderly man who still has to work and can barely make a living.
After months or years of soaking in this propaganda, New Citizens become combustible. One spark can send millions into action. Self-directed, New Citizens do not wait for membership organizations to call the shots. Rather, New Citizens connect and mobilize informally through the same social media and messenger apps they use to distribute information.
The protesters are hard to characterize because they are more individual than collective. As footage from the Chilean protests shows, demonstrators don’t carry the same posters, share the same slogans, or call for the same changes. They don’t give governments an obvious way to respond.
Once the protests begin, they don’t seem to formalize or find leadership. Even so, they can mobilize on a whim, day after day, thanks to ubiquitous smartphone ownership and connectivity. If a government blocks or monitors that connectivity, it only reinforces the protester’s grievances. And there are workarounds. Protesters in Hong Kong have turned to apps like Bridgefy, a Bluetooth mesh network app that facilitates instant messaging without an internet connection. There is no simple way for governments to counter the influencers.
So far, many in the press have flamed public opinion with reactive reporting that fails to support public judgment. Most articles have click-worthy headlines about casualties, fires, and property damage, all of which are better for ad revenue than nuanced, careful reporting. Truthfully, we don’t know yet accurately the full extent of the police and military violence nor the scale of property damage. However, we can see how this buzz-hungry coverage caters to a free-for-all of cherry-picked information that fuels yet more anger.
In democratic countries, fake news sites, bots, and foreign actors harness dire news to whip up yet more discontent. They can amplify real news to reinforce the sense of chaos or construct fake news modeled closely on real events. Meanwhile, authoritarian governments restrict news flow and attempt to control the truth through state media and anti-protest propaganda. Their narratives come easily. As U.S. politicians and celebrities voice support for the protesters in Hong Kong, they fuel Beijing’s claims that the protests were organized by foreign actors.
Because New Citizens get information through social connections and recommendation technologies that create echo chambers, they are unlikely to doubt new information that matches what they already believe. Plus, anyone with a smartphone can take video footage on the front lines to create a viral (and perhaps misleading) story about the events. So, as the protests become more physical and intense, various actors with their own agendas can use seeds of the truth to sow even more chaos and anger. Under those conditions, public opinion is unlikely to mature into public judgement.
A Test for the Establishment
Democracy sets high expectations. In Chile, after a month of demonstrations involving millions of citizens, lawmakers agreed to hold a referendum on the constitution. If public opinion advances to public judgment in the interim, everyday Chileans will have an opportunity to shape the new constitution. But that won’t be enough.
Chilean New Citizens know that many years would pass before a new constitution had an impact on daily life. Protests continue because the government hasn’t committed to changes that people want and need, like reforms to the pension system. In the past, marches have had little effect on legislation, but now, protesters refuse to let up until lawmakers act. If their needs go unmet, protesters may destroy the very government they are depending on for social and economic support. Their all-or-none mentality threatens Chilean democracy.
In autocracies, the protests are likely to trigger violence and repression without achieving results. In Hong Kong, where autocratic China has begun to impose its authority on a democratic government, New Citizens are in severe danger. Historically, protests against autocracies either lead to their collapse or, far more often, to a brutal crackdown.
Make no mistake: the establishment is being tested throughout the world. Can it meet protestors halfway, even before they can articulate the change they seek? Or, will the establishment open the way for populists and demagogues to take control?
An Evolution in Civic Life
The stability of national governments is threatened. They must evolve. The anger and unrest expressed by New Citizens will not go quietly. Our technologies and informational environment will continue to fuel the chaos until civic life adapts.
Should we fear the New Global Citizens? What, if anything, can establishment politicians do in response to their kaleidoscopic diversity of grievances and demands?
First and foremost, lawmakers must tighten the loop between the citizenry’s demands and the establishment’s response. The local mayor who meets with everyday citizens is a better model than representatives and senators who, given a camera, seem to speak to no one in particular. Citizens must feel that they are heard and respected and that the interaction with a candidate will not end on election day. Elected officials must expect that citizens will hold them accountable and without effective channels of civic participation in public policy individual frustration is a time bomb waiting to explode. Here is where technology can play a key role, instead of using it as a megaphone, use it as a walkie talkie with back and forth with constituents.
Second, politicians must pay attention to our youth. While university students have been the leaders of most social justice movements, today high school students are taking the lead. We have seen it in Honk Kong, Santiago, Lebanon, and Parkland. These youth are digital and fearless and use online organizing tactics for on-the-ground mobilization. In the past we used to think of youth “as the future” but youth want to be heard now. At COP 25 in Madrid the 16 year old activist Greta Thunberg said: “People are underestimating the force of angry kids. They’re angry and frustrated.” Youth in Honk Kong or Santiago have stated that the violence and destruction of property are justified by the mission. Last year Emma Gonzalez, leader of March for Our Lives made a call to arms to other youth to: “Fight for your lives before it’s someone else’s job.” The role of fostering “public judgement” is especially important now that youth are taking the lead.
Third, governments need to be clear like water in their differentiation of responses to protesters and to criminals. Bad actors (criminals, anarchists, extremists) are extremely effective in using protesters as shields and in creating chaos. Governments and police who do not differentiate will only make more good citizens angry with a “one size fits all” response from police that is or come across as complete disregard of human rights. Governments have the responsibility to train the armed forces on how to differentiate.
Fourth, in the long term, democracies cannot withstand unrelenting misinformation, polarization, and blind anger. Evolved news and education could go a long way towards helping citizens develop public opinion into public judgment. Fake news cannot be fought through regulation without censoring free speech. Individuals have to be intellectually armed against misinformation. The media in all forms has a key role in fostering public judgement and is stumbling in their reaction of these new social movements.
Fifth, we must empower a new generation of leaders who understand the New Citizen and work to transform their movements from a destructive, headless mass into a cohesive, focused whole. It is too much to ask that each generation produces its own Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, or Gandhi?
The New Citizen is driving unprecedented activism and change in civic life. Vocal, digital, angry, and unpredictable, the New Citizens will either strengthen democracy or kill it. The window for the establishment to decide which is closing.
(This piece was published in December in other channels)