If the 2008 and 2012 U.S. presidential campaigns had seemed to confirm Internet utopians’ belief that digital tools enhance democracy by expanding citizen empowerment and engagement, the 2016 campaign highlighted the challenges that the Internet poses for American democracy, and perhaps democracy in general. The surprising robustness of the campaign mounted by Bernie Sanders, the Independent senator from Vermont who challenged Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Democratic nomination, seemed to pick up where Obama’s two campaigns and even Howard Dean’s in 2004 had left off: A andidate running against the establishment proved able to raise money, organize supporters, and mobilize voters as never before. Trump fulfilled this promise too: He showed how the Internet can enable an outsider to run for—and win—the presidency
by means of a nontraditional campaign despite being outspent two-to-one by an establishment opponent.
From the point of view of the health of liberal democracy, the Internet’s great promises are also its pitfalls. Its liberating, anti-establishment potential can be harnessed by demagogues who appeal to the worst impulses of the mob. By aiding and abetting the disruption of established (and in some ways, outdated) institutions, such as political parties and the media, the Internet left a void that could then be filled not only by direct appeals from candidates, but also by fake news and propaganda. Furthermore, the anonymity and lack of accountability that give Internet speech its power—in whistleblower cases or in repressive contexts such as those faced by Arab Spring demonstrators—also enable foreign powers to intervene secretly in campaigns and allow trolls to commit racial and sexual harassment. Finally, the Internet’s unprecedented ability to facilitate the targeted delivery of relevant information, marketing, and even friendship also leads to the bubbles, filters, and echo chambers that shelter people from information that might challenge the messages sent to them by campaigns, partisan media, or social networks.