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Democracies under threat


What makes a democracy stable? Or, on the opposite, what contributes to its decline? A multidisciplinary team, led by CSH External Faculty member Karoline Wiesner and with the participation of CSH researcher David Garcia, explored these questions from a complexity perspective.


As the latest votes show, democracies all around the world are changing – and not necessarily to the better. Recent developments like the Brexit referendum, the elections of Donald Trump as president of the United States or of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil are only the tip of the iceberg. Indices measuring democratic values and developments, like the Economist Intelligence Unit or the Freedom House Democracy Index, have been observing a constant decline in many countries since several years.

But whereas the problem as such gains attention, “we lack the theory to show us how a democracy destabilises to the point it is not describable as a democracy anymore,” says mathematician and physicist Karoline Wiesner. Early in 2018, Karoline invited mathematicians, economists, psychologists, philosophers, sociologists and political scientists to a workshop at Bristol University to see if complexity science could contribute to such a theory and understanding.

Now the workshop participants published a paper about their findings: “Stability of democracies: a complex systems perspective” appeared this week in the European Journal of Physics.


The paper discusses several of the many mechanisms resulting in institutional instability, such as social inequality, financial shocks, or the disconnected information flow on social media. Many of these mechanisms are interconnected, some even multiply interconnected, the authors explain. This can lead to unexpected and often unwarranted feedback loops.

An example are US media: In the United States, media are much less regulated than in Europe. One effect is, that many of them do not comply with (media) ethical principles, like fact-checking or a balanced presentation of information. These media are highly dependent on their audience’s support: A large audience rises the income through advertising. To keep their audience happy, they tend to present information and perspectives in a way that supports and enhances prejudices and beliefs of their viewers, listeners, or readers. They, in return, see their views confirmed and legitimized. In physics such a mutual reinforcement is called positive feedback (the word “positive” not meaning “desirable”, but “enhancing”).


This mechanism works even stronger in social media with their meanwhile well known “echo chambers” and “tailor-made” messages that use and further enhance biased opinions and beliefs without the possibility of a correction.

One of the important messages in their paper, says Karoline, “is that a stabilizing feature of a democratic system – opinion exchange – breaks down when the possibility of 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. 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.”

This insight makes it even more important to understand the underlying processes. “[T]he scientific and quantitative analysis of the question of stability of democracy is possible and, indeed, necessary,” says the paper. “It requires a concerted effort across the mathematical, natural and social sciences.” In particular, the authors conclude, it is complexity science with its new tools and insights that can substantially contribute to an understanding of, well, complex social developments.




Wiesner K,Birdi A,Eliassi-Rad T,Farrell H,Garcia D,Lewandowsky S,Palacios P,Ross D,Sornette D,Thébault K
European Journal of Physics
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