The world has seen many crises, from the financial crisis to the COVID health crisis that continues. Sadly even more, challenging scenarios will unfold in the future. For instance, the clash between democracies and autocratic states. As this conflict slowly unfolds and is potentially escalating on the political frontier in the next decade, democracies have to worry about their weak spot. Namely, their democratic culture and process to select suitable candidates based on truth. As this key philosophy is undermined by developments in the digital age.
Long before disinformation such as Fake News came into the jargon of our society, Greek philosophers such as Socrates argued that Truth (Sophia) is essential for democratic debate. His student, Plato, even went further, saying that dialectics – the process of questioning and testing to gain truthful insights is the most important characteristic of healthy democratic nations. Simply, citizens did not choose the optimal candidate by choosing the best rhetoric candidate, but ironically by avoiding candidates that are persuasive and avoid dialectic.
Despite this ancient knowledge, people nowadays have not been set up and educated to develop an internal compass, overcoming superior rhetorical argumentation build on emotional triggers. Heavy bombardment of misinformation and subversive information is potent to undermine reasonable judgment. Researchers in the Journal of Digitalism provided worrying evidence that empathically optimised automated fake news is increasing and will continue to grow in years to come. Consequently, democracies have become a target of international misinformation, aiming to destabilise democratic processes. Mostly are these sources of disinformation coming from autocratic counties that have already developed capabilities, utilising emotionally triggered misinformation as an instrument to remain internal stability. Many years this capability had been a powerful bargaining power of international players against democracies. However, due to the democratic debate and election process in the United States, this will change.
Watching the presidential debate, I was astonished by how I felt watching it. Clearly, Trump as the aggressor was able to represent strength. His communication strategy was clearly built on interrupting reasonable argumentation by shouting out emotionally triggered rhetoric. To my astonishment, it worked. After objectively watching the debate, I have to say, Trump emotionally won the debate. Biden could not remain firm in his defensive stance, having trouble expressing himself and connecting emotionally to the viewer. Making up by directly looking into the camera but lacking in the proper pronunciation of certain words. Accordingly, my gut feeling said the strongman posture will prove to be effective in convincing voters.
Nonetheless, after remembering Trump’s leadership in the past ranging from comments regarding the injection of disinfectant to communicating false statements, my reasoning kicked in. Or as Nobel prize winner Kahnemann would call it System 2, in which logic enables reasonable decision making vs. System 1 in which emotions enables decision making. Oversimplified, citizens have to choose between emotional vs logical choices. The same mind game when people engage with misinformation which is emotionally convincing and the truth is logical but emotionally unspectacular. Here we are watching the debate, a nationwide or even worldwide learning process was established.
This exhausting and stressful situation is the fundamental basis to enable resilient decision making. Through this democratic process, humans are enabled to build resilience. This resilience is essential for the future, in which we will be increasingly confronted by empathically optimised automated fake news. Thus, only by experiencing the conflict between both Systems (Emotional vs. Logical) and still choosing the reasonable choice which is emotionally unspectacular, democracies can develop the needed resilience to protect themselves against instrumentalized misinformation.
Yves-Martin Felker is a Ph.D. researcher focusing on corporate strategy and especially on mergers and acquisitions. His current research focuses on improving acquisition performance and organizational capabilities. Additionally, he is responsible for the strategic partnerships of top global strategic experts and the Lancaster University.
Titelbild: Unsplash. CC. 4.0.