Complex systems help explain how democracy is destabilised

12 December 2018 | Story Staff Writer. Photo Randy Colas, Unsplash. Read time 8 min.

Complex systems theory is usually used to study things like the global climate, financial markets, and transportation and communications systems.

But with global politics becoming more unpredictable – highlighted by the United Kingdom’s vote for Brexit, and the presidential elections of Donald Trump in the United States and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil – complex systems theory is being used to examine the stability of democracies.

An international, interdisciplinary team – including mathematicians, economists, psychologists, philosophers, sociologists and political scientists – has published a collective examination of the work in this field. Don Ross, a professor of economics and philosophy with appointments in UCT’s School of Economics and the University College Cork, Ireland, was a co-author on the paper.

“While static models are often best for achieving wide scientific generalisations, to understand novel processes in which systems studied by many disciplines interact, we have to go to dynamic models and grapple with complexity,” explains Ross.
 

“Citizens of democracies are becoming less content with their institutions. They are increasingly willing to ditch institutions and norms that have been central to democracy."

“There is little work on the circumstances under which instability of democracy might happen,” says Dr Karoline Wiesner from the University of Bristol’s School of Mathematics and lead author of the paper. “So, we lack the theory to show us how a democracy destabilises to the point it is not describable as a democracy anymore.”

“Citizens of democracies are becoming less content with their institutions. They are increasingly willing to ditch institutions and norms that have been central to democracy. They are more attracted to alternative, even autocratic regime types.”

Feedback and stability in democracies

The team’s paper focuses on two features of complex social systems in general and of democratic systems in particular: feedback and stability, and their mutual relationship. The researchers examined ways in which the stability of democracy is affected by feedback loops.

“A special problem here is that scientists across disciplines study stability in different senses,” says Ross. “Sometimes they’re interested in whether causal relationships are stable. That’s what economists mainly focus on. In other contexts, they’re concerned with whether events themselves become unpredictable and radically novel compared to what’s been observed before.”

The researchers focused on factors implicated in the current crises of governance, including economic inequality, political polarisation, and the impact of both traditional social media on societal norms.
 

"Those who have large financial resources can better influence institutional change than those who do not."

The authors say: “Economic inequality and the health of democracy are closely linked. We know greater inequality associates with poorer health and social problems. But it is also linked to political polarisation."

“This is because democracy presupposes a basic equality of influence. But when economic inequality increases, so do differences in influence over institutions. Those who have large financial resources can better influence institutional change than those who do not."

“A shock increase in economic inequality – such as resulted from the policy responses to the 2008 financial crisis – leads to corrosion of the relationship between less well-off voters’ choices and institutional outcomes. It may even lead to effective or actual non-democratic rule.”

The team also shows that extreme diversity of opinion can sometimes be a cause of instability. While a degree of diversity and partisan disagreement is healthy and even necessary in a democracy, too much may lead to an inability to understand and solve joint problems.

Radicalisation and polarisation compound this. Radicalisation occurs when political elites try to reshape politics to secure a permanent advantage by bending rules, ignoring norms and pursuing strategies that previously seemed off limits.

Polarisation involves a breakdown of common faith. It leads members of one partisan coalition to ignore potential threats to democracy, based on the belief that having their opponents in power would be worse.

Psychology of democracy

The authors also explored how social institutions can be destabilised by the erosion of social norms.

“Much of democracy relies on norms, conventions and expectations of people’s behaviour,” said Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, a psychologist at the University of Bristol. “This means numerous psychological processes can contribute to the stability or instability of democracy.

“Social media can have a profound impact on these processes. There is a lot of evidence that the strength with which people hold an opinion is proportionate to the extent to which they believe it to be shared by others.

“But what if this signal is distorted? Extreme views can move into the mainstream when they are legitimised by actual or presumed majority endorsement. It serves to entrench extreme opinions and make them resilient to change.

“The fact that any opinion, no matter how absurd, will be shared by at least some of the more than one billion Facebook users worldwide creates an opportunity for the emergence of a false consensus effect around any fringe opinion, because the social signal is distorted by global interconnectivity.”
 

“Social media can have a profound impact on these processes. There is a lot of evidence that the strength with which people hold an opinion is proportionate to the extent to which they believe it to be shared by others."

The researchers also highlight the algorithms used by social media platforms to determine what appears in users’ feeds. They point to the recent Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and the 2016 United States presidential election, where highly personalised data was available to political operatives, and was used to open the door to micro-targeting of messages that exploited people’s vulnerabilities.

“One of our important messages in this paper is that a stabilising feature of a democratic system – opinion exchange – breaks down when this possibility for engagement and debate is destroyed because messages are disseminated in secret, targeting individuals based on their personal vulnerabilities to persuasion, without their knowledge and without the opponent being able to rebut any of those arguments,” says Wiesner.

“These impacts of social media on public discourse show how democracies can be vulnerable in ways against which institutional structures and historical traditions offer little protection.

“Complex systems science offers a unique entry point to study such phenomena.”

 


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