Olav S. Melin: Countervailing force to democracy
Close to 80 per cent of Finns think that internet trolls, the spreading of propaganda on the internet and fake news are a serious threat to Finnish democracy.
Most Finns (78 per cent) trust traditional media channels, such as newspapers, radio and television and only 3 per cent trust social media more. Young people aged between 18 and 24 tend to support social media to a certain extent. Most young people (79 per cent) have faith in traditional media, while a relatively small minority (21 per cent) rely on Twitter, blogs and Facebook.
These are the findings of an extensive survey, “Finland now”, carried out by the market research company Taloustutkimus and commissioned by the Magma think tank as part of Magma’s “Finland 100” centenary project.
The answers given to the question “Does Finnish democracy work well?” raise a number of questions. Only 16 per cent of respondents fully agreed that it “works well”, while 53 per cent believe it only “works to some extent”. Significantly, as many as 80 per cent partially agree or partially disagree with the claim that Finnish democracy “works well”.
A seed of discontent lies in the findings, which prompted me to consider the underlying reasons.
I’ll now attempt to outline one of them.
Where has constructive debate got to? I see less and less faith in democracy in political discourse. It’s easy to observe that opinions are becoming more divided and it is ever harder to find genuine dialogue.
Blogging politicians who tweet and host their own Facebook pages are considered very progressive. But there is the risk that such ‘loudspeaker’ political monologue might replace political debate. In today’s digital world, there is hardly any room for a slow political pace, which is valuable for a thriving democracy. People want immediate feedback. This means that swift decisions in public rhetoric are valued more than slow ones. Similarly, unambiguous messages break through more easily than complex issues. For this reason, the digital revolution – commonly seen as a democratic movement – can be regarded as a countervailing force to democracy.
Today’s political debate is characterised by an ‘obligation to be present’, brought on by digitalisation. This is what Byung-Chul Han, a Korean-born cultural theorist has observed. He also believes that politics become breathless and short-sighted if everything is immediately made public. Total transparency impresses a stamp of “the here and now” on political dialogue, rendering slow and long-term planning impossible. This means politics operate on the terms dictated by the digital world.
By choosing “America first” as his slogan, Donald Trump is claiming the right of the mightier. The slogan has not generated much enthusiasm in Europe, least of all in Germany. Germans better than anyone else can remember what slogans of this kind can lead to, even if Trump’s intentions might be altogether different.
In the light of such slogans, Finland’s centenary theme, Together, stands for something totally different: it symbolises the bringing together of different opinions both in day-to-day life and in times of emergency.
Olav S. Melin is head of public and media relations at the Magma think tank. Formerly editor-in-chief at various newspapers in Finland and Sweden, he currently keeps a column in the Swedish-language newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet.