Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
At first glance, there’s no immediately apparent connection between Elon Musk’s efforts to control Twitter, the war in Ukraine and the recent election in France. And yet, there was a perplexing similarity in the current of unease that gripped the world as all three of these events unfolded this past week.
If you consider it closely, you can see the common thread. They may be thousands of miles apart in geography and substance, but at the heart of each lies a concern about the future of democracy.
Whether it’s Ukraine fighting Russia’s efforts to destroy its independence as a democracy, or France pushing back against a far-right populist and Putin apologist, or apprehension over what might become of Twitter – that cauldron where conspiracy theories, election lies and disinformation campaigns can cook up a brew capable of infecting society and tearing a country apart – we’re all witnessing the great challenge of our times play out around us.
For the past 16 years, democracy has been losing ground to authoritarian rule around the world, according to the watchdog organization Freedom House. Authoritarian leaders, Freedom House warns, are working together to undercut democracy and human rights around their world, seeking to discredit the competition and spread their model of government.
The challenges to global democracy are deeply worrisome, but it’s not all dismal. In fact, the current crises have created unexpected opportunities.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s campaign to erase Ukraine’s nationhood and counter NATO has already backfired on multiple fronts. By unwittingly fortifying and uniting NATO, boosting Ukraine’s national identity and eroding Russia’s standing, Putin may have just created the conditions to strengthen the forces of democracy.
For several years, Putin, along with other authoritarian leaders, have tried to use propaganda brigades to sow divisions among Americans in an attempt to weaken the West and prove to their own people that their system is superior. It didn’t help that the US political discourse was dominated by divisive squabbles, many of which were fomented by politicians with authoritarian, populist leanings. It’s no wonder democracy had been losing ground as people grew exhausted, apathetic and disgusted with politics.
But Russia’s brutal and unprovoked war, which has resulted in thousands of civilian casualties, has shown us just what is at stake. And many who have taken democracy for granted and viewed it with jaded eyes, now understand that it is in need of safeguarding.
In Europe, there are early glimmers that the wave of antidemocratic populism may have crested.
In the United States, the country remains deeply divided, but it is coming together on the issue of Ukraine with an intense bipartisanship that would have been hard to imagine just a few months ago.
Americans overwhelmingly support Ukraine’s right to set its own democratic course. And nearly three out of every four Americans back the efforts to supply Ukraine with weapons, according to a Reuters/IPSOS poll, with strong majorities among both Democrats and Republicans saying they prefer candidates in November’s midterm elections to support arming Ukraine.
And a war launched by a Russian leader who has turned deranged conspiracy theories into government policy shows just how dangerous misinformation is.
In the US, majorities of Democrats and Republicans say the spread of misinformation about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a major issue, according to an AP-NORC poll.
Americans are also worried about their own democracy, telling pollsters that they’re concerned that Russia will try to interfere with the midterms through misinformation and disinformation on social media.
Concerns of interference also played a role in the presidential election in France last weekend. One key issue was far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and her party’s still-outstanding loans from Russian banks. She had also previously expressed admiration and respect for Putin, and denied the fact that Russia had illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, all of which raised questions about her independence from the Kremlin.
And given that Russia has used social media to further its goals, it’s no wonder there has been a fierce debate about the future of Twitter. The platform, which provides a direct port into America’s political bloodstream, has tried to rein in extremists, conspiracy theorists and those who used it to divide the country with hate speech, disinformation and propaganda.
It’s unclear precisely what Musk’s plans are for Twitter, but his rhetoric suggests he might make it more, not less amenable to extremism and divisiveness. During an on-stage interview at the TED conference earlier this month, Musk said, “If in doubt, let the speech exist. If it’s a gray area, I would say, let the tweet exist. But obviously in the case where there’s perhaps a lot of controversy, you would not necessarily want to promote that tweet.”
And of course, there’s the issue of whether former President Donald Trump – who used Twitter to rise to power and perpetuate a conspiracy theory about widespread election fraud that inspired a mob to attack the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 – will be reinstated under Musk in a move that could very well propel him back into the political limelight ahead of the 2024 election.
And the prospect of a more inflammatory Twitter amid a raging war already ridden with disinformation makes the risk more palpable to Americans concerned about democracy both at home and abroad.
Of all the polls about Americans and Ukraine, perhaps none is as stunning at this: 78% of Americans said they support the resettlement of 100,000 Ukrainians refugees in the United States, according to Gallup.
That level of public support is the highest Gallup has found for admitting refugees since 1939. For context, only 26% said they’d support bringing 10,000 refugee children from Germany in 1939; 16% said they supported more Jewish and other European refugees than were strictly allowed by law to be admitted in 1946, just after World War II.
Clearly, the war in Ukraine has touched a nerve in the American psyche. The deep sympathy and concern for the Ukrainian people and the outrage over Putin’s push to usurp their freedom has sparked a renewed appreciation for democracy.
But this growing consensus will not on its own save America from its ills. It will not by itself reverse the tide of authoritarianism sweeping the globe. It does, however, present an opportunity. Americans don’t have to agree on everything. But to move forward, the country needs to come together on at least two crucial points: that democracy must survive and that truth must be respected. That consensus is materializing not a moment too soon.
Those who worried about a pro-Putin populist winning in France; about Twitter turning into a more powerful weapon for disinformation, hate and division; and about the fate of Ukraine, have created an opening for responsible, eloquent and principled political leaders. They must seize the moment and try to bridge the widening divisions that have emerged in the US in order to put it back on a path to becoming a stronger, united and lasting democracy.