Tocqueville VS Twitter

Commissioned in 1832 to study the prison system in the United States, the young Alexis de Tocqueville discovered on the other side of the Atlantic a new society that would inspire his most famous book: “ Democracy in America “. In this work, which is still the perfect subject even though it was written almost two hundred years ago, Tocqueville, a political scientist ahead of his time, examines this democracy by describing its deep springs, namely Americans’ unmoderate taste not only for liberty, but also and above all, for the equality of all citizens.

“Vox populi, vox dei” with algorithmic sauce

An aristocrat by birth, Tocqueville admittedly loved there is freedom of desire, equality, respect for rights but no confidence in democracy. It’s not that this diet is inherently bad (“the best except all others”, as Winston Churchill famously said).…) but, he analyzed, it carries the seeds of resentment of selfishness, the oppression of the majority over the minority, and tends to favor the increase of power of a powerful State in front of individuals, certainly free . , but atomized and forced to accept their voluntary servitude. Above all, Tocqueville feared the creeping despotism of the democratic regime in which citizens tended to give the collective ” more light and wisdom than any of the people who compose it “.

Returning to our time, Tocqueville will undoubtedly rebel against the new boss of Twitter, the billionaire Elon Musk, who, a few days ago, justified the fact that Donald Trump had to be returned to the social network in the on the basis that a (short ) majority (51.8%) of voters in an online poll he launched himself, decided [1]. In other words, the return of the old adage “Vox Populi vox dei”not through the ballot box but this time through a social network, in other words, through a kind of twitterization of public space, one might say.

Back to the basics of democracy

In the face of the democratic crisis and populist temptations that many countries are going through, it will argue that it is possible, even if it must bet on digital tools to renovate and revive democratic life. By using technological solutions based on AI or by increasing the use of collaborative platforms, these technologies will, we assume, contribute to the reinvention of democracy when the pillars of where this principle of political organization is immovable.

They are four, remember: of course, and above all, the sacred principle of “One person, one vote”. Next ; the existence of a rule of law capable of guaranteeing that decisions are made in accordance with the law. Then, having a system of checks and balances to protect individual rights and prevent, as Alexis de Tocqueville feared, the reign of arbitrariness. And finally, a concept that is almost impossible to obtain in the age of social networks, the spirit of compromise that avoids the tyranny of the majority [2].

In the light of this poll on Twitter that resulted only in the fact that Donald Trump (87 million subscribers) has, once again, a voice in the chapter on this social network. [3]clearly none of these democratic principles work.

When we know that this social network is also known to be polluted by countless fake accounts, “trolls” and others. bots (programs that connect websites with the goal of increasing the audience), you don’t have to be a political expert to realize that few, if any, of these essential conditions for a truly democratic decision are absent almost entirely online. that referendum should represent the voice of the people.

Twitter can do without intermediate democratic bodies

On several occasions, Elon Musk has vowed that he wants to defend a strict view of freedom of expression, even if it means running against the expectations of some of its users and advertisers. Specifically using the defense argument of the First Amendment of the American Constitution that guarantees all citizens “free speech” (freedom of speech), Musk defends the principle of direct democracy.

In fact, Musk has never hidden his taste for the idealized form of political regime by destroying the representative of democracycontributes, according to him, to so many abuses.

Philosophically, the new boss of Twitter, like some other teachers in Silicon Valley, is close to the current of thought of “libertarians”, the radical liberals who promote the “absolute freedom” of individuals to do what they want with their personality and themselves. property, and this, with the lowest possible obstacles, including state institutions.

Polarize debates

In expanding its subject ” Vox Populi vox dei ” promoted by Elon Musk, it’s easy to imagine ” twitterization and, more broadly, the use of social networks, is increasingly being revealed as a “weapon of mass destruction” of democracy.

Here, the dissemination of manipulated information, there, the desire to control dissemination platforms, or even the promotion of forms of direct democracy in defiance of existing institutions. Social networks that pride themselves on democracy by emphasizing immediacy and spontaneity give the illusion that the answer is necessarily simple and direct and, therefore, have the effect of polarizing debate, especially when answered by ” yes” or “no” to a complex question.

Tocqueville, at the beginning of the 19th century, already noted that two main methods allow the extension of despotism: centralization and interventionism.

After two centuries and through the intermediary of social networks, particularly Twitter passed into the hands of a single person, Elon Musk, the protection of democracy also involves the defense of freedom and freedom of information. In the age of social networks, “Vox populi” does not mean “Vox Dei”.


1 Elon Musk’s tweet: Should Twitter offer a general amnesty to suspended accounts, provided they haven’t broken the law or engaged in egregious spam”

2 On Nicolas Baverez: The democratic alert, Observatory Editions, 2020