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  • Writer's pictureChristopher G. Moore

The Authoritarian Genie Released from the Social Media Lamp

Kim Jong-un is the supreme leader of North Korea since 2011.

I have been reading The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson (2018) and would like to share my thoughts about a couple of ideas raised in the book.

From the Trump White House to political systems in Thailand, Turkey, Russia, China, and the Philippines we have witnessed a shift to the strong leader model of governing along with a distrust of democracy, its institutions, its processes, and rules of succession. Does this mean we are observing a fundamental shift in attitudes of people living in democracies? Or are there other, better explanations?

The Elephant in the Brain argues that social status has been divided between two styles of leadership: one is based on domination and the other one is based on prestige.


The leader who uses domination reply on an arsenal of weapons: guns, prisons, re-education, exile, censorship, and intimidation. The Alpha male (they are mostly male) builds or co-opts a coalition which overwhelmingly benefits the ruling class socially and economically and the vast majority who aren’t part of the coalition either bend to the leaders will or suffer the unpleasant consequences in an oppressive system. The world is witness to this kind of domination-based, non-democratic, autocratic leader, who uses violence to keep people in line. North Korea is an extreme example where domination takes place by highly restricted access to the Internet and social media.


Prestige as Robert Mueller (the American special counsel who is investigating the Russian involvement in the US 2016 presidential election) shows the second way to leadership. Such a person doesn’t cause fear and a wishes to avoid (unless you are a target of his investigation). This style of leader evokes admiration and we wish to associate with him. We exercise our free will to join a coalition that supports him. We’d vote for someone like him. He doesn’t need to use the threat of force and violence in order to implement his policies or a gun to our head to influence our electoral choice. Such a person has a record showing expertise, contribution to community, self-sacrificing conduct, fairness, curiosity, and the inclusion of different points of view as a natural part of the decision-making process. A combination of these qualities are rarely found in a single individual. But there are such people who have them. Why aren’t more of such type of leaders? What is it about the political process that is biased against opting for prestige over domination, offering no or little choice alternative?

Coalition formation

The Elephant in the Brain raises the importance of coalition building in the political process. Their analysis falters as it fails to take into account the significant difference between domination and prestige over the treatment toward the coalition formation process. A common thread through the domination of governance is that the coalition behind the leader is a minority of the overall population. If it were a majority, the Alpha dominant leader would be first to have open and fair elections. Democracy is messy because it allows for a more fluid formation process. The recent events surrounding the school shooting in Florida shows how quickly new and potentially powerful coalitions emerge from the private and public sectors. The new players can work together to create a counter agenda. The new policies threaten the vested interest of the old coalition of gun manufacturers, sellers and owners. The old coalition over time become rigid, brittle, fragile, and, when threatened, ruthless. It appears it is all for the benefit of the leader. But this is almost never the case.

The State uses all of its institutions and powers to reward its coalition partners and to exclude, threaten or intimidate those who signal an intention to form a new political coalition. In the domination style of the political process, a great deal of attention is devoted to exposing the beginnings of new coalitions as anyone of them might gain momentum and post a threat to the existing beneficiaries of the domination system. New coalitions as well as factions rising inside existing coalitions are both existential threat to a domination political system. This is a reason why they rarely have a smooth succession plan. No one trust whether another leader will realign the coalitional interest in a way that will be disadvantageous to some of the partners. The leader in this system comes from some faction of the coalition. They are allies. Everyone else is a potential enemy and a threat.

In the democratic system, the conflict as well as the stability comes from creating a coalition formation space. Most people aren’t political. They don’t follow the political developments on a daily basis. They go about their lives as if politics is happening in another universe that rarely intersects with their own. Yet despite the lack of interest and focus of the general populace, coalitions form to change laws on abortion, pot possession, discrimination and a number of other issues, and leaders who are admired for their leadership of such coalitions are elected to represent the emerging values and interest. If you want to know the true nature of a political system—to cut through the propaganda—examine the history on coalition formation and assess how it correlates with the history of political prisoners. You will find a correlation.

Whether democratic or autocratic, the coalitions that benefit from the power-sharing arrangement are unstable. Coalition partners fall out with each other. Or a new coalition replaces the old one. In the case of an autocratic state the collapse of the coalition usually results in the failure of the state itself. The state institutions reinforced with guns only dissolve or pull back to a small ring around the center of power. Syria is a good example of such a coalitional collapse. When the coalition in a parliamentary system fails, an election is usually called to provide a possibility of new coalitional partners to form and replace in part or whole the old ones, with the goal of bringing in the new members in order for stability and legitimacy to prevail. The lesson of history is political coalitions are not solid, permanent features; they are transitory and have an expiry date.

Digitalized emotions

Democracy has been widely believed to be the best way to ensure that the prestige style of leadership trumped over the domination style. Until Trump came along. Look at who Trump admires. They are all dictators out of the domination mode. Turkey, Russia, China, Burma, the Philippines, and Thailand have leaders that are variations of Donald Trump. What The Elephant in the Brain doesn’t address is how those from the domination style have found with the Internet and social media a new and powerful set of weapons to their arsenal. The anti-democratic forces (there are exceptions such as North Korea) have discovered that digital domination is less bloody once you convince the people outside your coalition to self-suppress their feelings which are now directed against others.

Xenophobia and ultra-nationalist platforms have produced new coalition partners for dictators. Propaganda requires control of the media and exclusion of counter-media messages. It also requires wide penetration to the mass population. The propaganda can be micro-tailored in ways that make earlier propaganda crude and subject to ridicule. Social media—Twitter and Facebook—have become the best new communication channel for authoritarians. They have subverted ‘social’ and converted it into ‘social-political’ that drives emotions in the direction that reinforces authoritarian rule. It converts dictators into populists, and turns Nobel Peace Prize winners into handmaidens of dictators who enable and legitimize their violence. The social media companies are the second set of handmaidens who have equipped authoritarians with powerful emotional weapons of mass persuasion and mass misinformation.

The emotional fury of the Burmese directed at the Rohingya is a signal of how this new world of domination works. Nearly 700,000 Rohingya fled genocide to live in make-shift refugee camps along the Burmese and Bangladesh border. This ethnic minority in Burma was a convenient way to create super-majorities of Burmese who supported violence against men, women and children. Thousands were slaughtered and raped. Their homes pillaged, burned and bulldozed. The regime labeled this minority group as less than human and the majority Burmese agree. Authoritarians’ strong suit is violence.

As a visible minority group with a different religion, the Rohingya played into the hands of the Burmese government by providing a focal point, playing the emotional card to assemble and rally a large group who share the same fanatical sense of revulsion, hatred and fear. The American far-right embraces an anti-immigrant agenda as do most other countries with a domination style of leadership. In the Internet age, democracy has degenerated into sizeable coalitions based on communal hatred and fear of others.

The voters who elected Trump flipped to the domination, strong-man, and attack the non-believers, anti-ethnic and foreigner model. There is a lack of faith that their coalition would survive a fair, open and honest vote. It may be also why they have little interest in exposing the Russian involvement. The domination style takes allies from wherever they can find them if it means this is the way to power.

This tweet illustrates the domination political style: Modern authoritarians

The current political trend was featured in a speech by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein: “Today oppression is fashionable again; the security state is back, and fundamental freedoms are in retreat in every region of the world. Shame is also in retreat. Xenophobes and racists in Europe are casting off any sense of embarrassment – like Hungary’s Viktor Orban who earlier this month said ‘we do not want our colour… to be mixed in with others’.”

Few people thought there were enough such voters to elect such an American president. But there is growing evidence he had help from Putin whose interest is populating the world with Putin-like clones, or at least creating chaos that challenges the Western hegemony. Xi Jinping admires Putin. It has been suggested that Xi Jinping has modelled his own political fortunes along the Putin roadmap (a proposal to abolish term limitation is one evidence). Others have speculated on whether Xi’s leadership will not follow the Putin style of leadership. What remains common is the failure to embrace a central feature of limitation: (1) that it is limited in duration; and (2) the measure of leadership success is succession policy, without a smooth transition of power to a new leader, the existing leader finds himself riding on the tiger’s back..

Trump is ill-suited to the democratic process as are the non-democratic leaders in a growing number of countries. These modern authoritarians hunger for prestige—which doesn’t come due to the lack of the leader’s merit, expertise or achievement—so they double down on repression of those who don’t admire them, make fun of them. Censorship, exile, murder or prison are useful tools to enforce submissions. In the digital coalition of hatemongers, the members are emotionally charged up and aim their discontent and bile not at their own regime but at immigrants, blacks, or Muslims as one unified class of dangerous, criminally active and less than human.

History suggests that those tools have not earned a leader prestige outside his narrow coalition of partners in extraction, corruption and other crimes. Their tools bring them dividend rich in loyalty and devotion from coalition members. The authoritarians and their coalition partners have discovered the Internet is the best coalition partner they could ever wish for. This partner has opened a vast platform where the participants believe they are making up their own minds. The hate, fear, and disgust except for their relatives, cronies, and corrupt associates, makes them fall in line with the rulers.

The result is traditional prestige and freedom to build alternative coalitions have been degraded. Norms, laws, and institutions in the United States are in an upheaval as the authoritarian model proves cunning and resourceful in marshalling the Internet and social media, giving them a renewal based on mass support that continues so long as the capacity for hatred and fear is not exhausted.

In the battle between the NRA and a group of 17-year-old high school students in Florida, the world watches to see if the hatemongers can ride out the challenge to their influence and power. If the hatemongers lose this battle, it gives hope that democracy still has the robustness and resilience to put the authoritarian genie back into the magic social media lamp.

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