The end of democracy? Maybe it's just evolving

"How democracy ends” sounds like one of those topics you’re supposed to avoid talking about. 

With the advances of digital technology, the proliferation of mis- and dis-information, shifting geopolitical power — is our democratic system under threat? Also, how do you cover all this in an hour conversation?!  

Our latest Future Led event didn’t dwell on nihilistic visions of our politics and society. Instead, it left us wondering how our democracy might evolve. 

Afterwards it got me thinking about that bit in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities when the narrator asks the people building the city of Thekla, “why is construction taking so long?”. The answer: “So that it’s deconstruction cannot begin”. 

Our speakers: 

  • Sarah-Jane Bennett, Director of the Human Rights Unit at Queensland’s Department of Justice & Attorney-General 
  • Susan Forde, Director of the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research, Griffith University 
  • Axel Bruns, Australian Laureate Fellow from QUT's Digital Media Research Centre 
  • Jonathan Richards, Adjunct Research Fellow at UQ's School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry 

The discussion touched on social media, our rights vs responsibilities, the role of journalists and journalism, the myths and narratives of democracy – and much more! Here's some of what was covered by our panel. 

Future Led - Democracy

Left to right: Axel Bruns, Sarah-Jane Bennett, Susan Forde, Jonathan Richards and Liquid's Michael Burke.

Is social media really *that* bad? 

Researchers like Axel have a deep understanding of how people use social media and how the  companies that operate these platforms respond to what’s happening online. 

“If you're talking about how democracy dies, or what the challenges are to democracy, that is one of those very big challenges: that these [social media platforms] are not neutral players, they’re not simply platforms,” he said. 

“They have agency, they set the rules, they shape the content, they shape the communication, they shape who gets access to speak and who doesn’t. And all of these aspects have a very direct implication for how we all participate in democracy.  

“Because that, as a platform, is so central to how we speak publicly, engage publicly — and privately for that matter.” 

Of course, the rise of social media has coincided with a disintegration of public trust in our older  institutions, such as politics and the news media.  

“Everyone is recognising there is a real crisis of trust at the moment,” Susan said. “We have to ask why that crisis of trust has occurred.  

“It is a lot to do with polarisation and those sorts of things that are feeding into it. For example, we know that people trust media that reinforces their world view. In the old days that was OK because there was only a certain amount of media, a certain range of views that were being circulated. 

“But now, the plethora of information that’s available that people can access, targeted directly towards them, means people can sit in these little information bubbles, or misinformation bubbles, without realising it.” 

Rights vs responsibilities 

We all have rights, right? Kind of, but not in a formal legal sense. Australia is the only Western liberal democracy that doesn’t have a federal bill of rights or human rights act. 

Susan added that our rights have always been qualified – you can’t racially vilify people or incite violence, for example. The belief that an individual has the right to do whatever they want, whenever they want is an imported one. 

“I think because the media has globalised so much that our understanding of how our society works is impacted more and more by what’s happening in the States, in particular. So we have this sense that we've got these personal rights and these personal individual freedoms but that’s just such an American narrative,” Susan said. 

And taking our cues from a dominating culture is nothing new, Jonathan said.  

“Because I've spent a lot of time working with Indigenous people, the word ‘responsibility’ comes up far more often than the word ‘right’. ‘Right’ is a European invention,” he said. 

“Responsibilities really matter. Responsibilities for the earth, responsibilities for each other. I would love to live in a society where responsibilities were our top priority.” 

What’s next? 

If we don’t want our democracy to be deconstructed, we might need to shift our perspective slightly and consider how we build a better, stronger, more inclusive democracy.  

The panel discussed how democracy can take many forms, and ultimately, it’s about the expression of the will of the people. 

With changes in who has power and how that power is exercised in our day-to-day lives, with corporations operating beyond the reach of any one nation state, perhaps it’s time that we shift our understanding of what democracy is?