The Anti-Democratization Of Media

When I look at the chart depicted above, I imagine Vladimir Putin rubbing his hands and muttering to himself, "Eto rabotayet, eto rabotayet."

Or, in English, "It's working, it's working."

The chart is a mashup I created of two produced by Our World In Data.

The main colorful one shows the percentage of the world's population living in a democracy.

The inset overlay shows the percentage of the world's population living with internet access.

It's just a correlation, but if you imagine the way I do, it shows that during the early years of internet access -- you know, the era we dubbed the "democratization of information" -- the percentage of the world's population living in a democracy actually grew to its height (nearly 53% in 2016).

From that point on, it takes a steep dive falling to 29.1% in 2022, the most recent year Our World In Data has published estimates for.



Using media news coverage over the past couple of years as a proxy, I'm going to venture the democratic share of the population has fallen even more precipitously in the past two years.

This chart is an update of a version I mashed up more than three years ago to show the correlation between the rise of internet access and the fall of democracies.

I'm not saying it's a direct correlation, but I believe something changed around 2016. No, not the outcome of the U.S. presidential election (though I think there also is a correlation related to that), but the way anti-democratic actors began utilizing the ubiquity and anonymity of the internet to attack it.

We literally saw how hostile foreign actors utilized the internet to attack democracy by spreading disinformation leading up to and through the 2016 election. In fact, MediaPost recognized Russia's Internet Research Agency with a special "Disruptor of the Year" award in 2017 for its clandestine media tradecraft.

I'm pretty sure they've been refining it ever since. And I'm also pretty sure, they're not alone and that other anti-democratic actors are piling on.

And I wouldn't be surprised to see an even stronger correlation between the rise of digital disinformation and the decline of democracies when we look back a couple of years from now.

Among other things, technology has advanced, including the ability of generative AI platforms to create AI-generated news sites, at least some of which are being used to willfully generate false narratives. According to the most recent tracking by NewsGuard, it identified 702 unreliable AI-generated news and information sites as of Feb. 12. That's up from just 49 when NewsGuard first benchmarked them in May 2023.

Whether it's machine-generated, or human-generated, anti-democratic forces have seized on the hyper-fragmented nature of news and information to wage the greatest info war the civilized world has ever seen. And if the Our World In Data tracking is correct, they are winning.

The problem isn't just that there are new vectors for disseminating disinformation and false narratives.

An equally big factor is that the most legitimate ones -- the ones most people living in democracies used to trust -- have eroded dramatically.

They have eroded in terms of their business models -- especially audience reach and ad-supported and subscription revenue -- and they've eroded in terms of their perceived credibility.

The business model part is a real dilemma, and much of what MediaPost and our peers have covered in recent years has focused on that dilemma for mainstream publishers.

The perceived credibility part, I believe, is due in part to the clandestine info war being perpetrated by hostile foreign actors, as well as some pretty blatant ones promoted by high-profile domestic ones, especially Donald Trump and his MAGA allies.

When people say I just hate Trump, that is only partially true. What I really hate about him is what he's been doing to America. And increasingly, the rest of the world.

He's always been a fan of autocracy, and has promoted autocratic strongmen like Putin and others, but he's recently dialed up the pro-autocracy rhetoric, proclaiming he plans to be a "dictator," at least for one day, and egging Putin on to attack our NATO allies.

Personally, I hope he keeps it up, and doubles or triples down, because I am still idealistic enough to believe that most Americans still believe in democracy. And not just because we were founded on its principles, but because it is the right way for people to live.

I actually understand why credible mainstream media are being easily distracted by and amplifying sideshow issues like Biden's age, memory, etc. -- while virtually ignoring the same issues for Trump. It's the nature of good journalists to be skeptics, ask hard questions and challenge the status quo. Even if the status quo happens to be democratic rule.

But I think they have fallen down on the fair and balanced part of that ledger sheet, and they need to do a better job of challenging a clear and present threat to our democracy.

You know, "When people show you who they are, believe them the first time."

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