Anne Applebaun delivers the Kenner Lecture

Anne Applebaum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and staff writer for The Atlantic, delivered the Kenner Lecture titled "Disinformation and the Threat to Democratic Institutions" Tuesday, Jan. 31, at Lehigh's Baker Hall.

Applebaum: The Belief That Things Can Get Better is Key to Making Them Better

The Pulitzer-Prize winner delivered the Kenner Lecture titled ‘Disinformation and the Threat to Democratic Institutions.’

Photography by

Christa Neu

After visiting the New World in the early 1800s, French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Americans had an aptitude for practicing democracy on a small scale, coming together to build a local school or hospital or create civic groups. 

It's that talent for institution-building that has waned in the Internet Age but is key to reversing the erosion of democracy, according to Anne Applebaum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and staff writer for The Atlantic. On Tuesday, Applebaum delivered the Kenner Lecture titled "Disinformation and the Threat to Democratic Institutions" at Lehigh's Baker Hall. It’s a subject she explores in her book “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism."  

“In fact, thanks to the wholesale transfer of entertainment, social interaction, education, commerce and politics from the real world to the virtual world…many Americans actually now live in a kind of inversion of the Tocquevillian dream," Applebaum told the large audience. "So instead of participating in civic organizations that give them practical experience in consensus building, they join internet mobs or groups in which they are submerged in the logic of the crowd, and they click ‘like’ or ‘share’ and then they move on. So instead of entering a real-life public square, they drift, often anonymously, into digital spaces where they rarely meet anyone who disagrees with them,  and when they do, their instinct is often to vilify them.” 

What rules there are on large internet platforms like Facebook are decided by a small number of people, who make money by selling users' data to advertisers and others, she said. 

"If de Tocqueville were to visit cyberspace, it would be as if he had arrived in pre-1776 America and found people who essentially didn't control the rules of their society," she said. 

Americans are paying a high price for the country's failure to create a rules-based internet, Applebaum said. It's hard for the nation to make collective decisions when people can't even agree on the facts.  

What happens tomorrow depends on what we do today.

Anne Applebaum

"We saw it after the 2020 Election when the former president and his supporters pushed out an entirely false narrative of electoral fraud," she said. "Those claims were then amplified and reinforced on television channels. And then they were repeated and amplified in cyberspace, creating an alternative reality that is still inhabited by millions of people." 

The Q-Anon conspiracy flooded platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, convincing millions that political elites "are a cabal of globalist pedophiles," she said. "And that was one of the elements that helped inspire the mobs that stormed the Capitol." 

It doesn't help that other countries have moved toward authoritarianism. 

"China's leaders have built an internet based on censorship and intimidation, as well as entertainment and also surveillance," Applebaum said. "Iran bans Western websites. Russian security services have the legal right to obtain personal data from Kremlin-friendly social media platforms while Kremlin-friendly troll farms swamp both Russia and the world with disinformation..." 

The U.S. has no real answer to such challenges, she said. 

"Our online system is controlled by a tiny number of very secretive companies in Silicon Valley," she said. "So, it's not a democratic world, it's an oligarchic world." 

Applebaum meets with students

Prior to the Kenner Lecture, Anne Applebaum met with students in the Herbert A. Roemmele '53 Global Commons in Williams Hall.

Still, the U.S. has faced serious challenges to its democracy before and could learn from the reform efforts that saved it, she said.  

Applebaum talked about how more than a century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt broke up huge U.S. companies that held monopolies which contributed to extreme inequality in the nation. Laws were enacted, providing more protections for small businesses and entrepreneurs, as well as working people. 

"And in this sense, you could argue that the internet takes us back to the 1890s. So once again, online we have a small class of enormously wealthy people whose obligations are to themselves and maybe their shareholders, but not to the greater good. Americans didn't accept this in the 1890s and why should we accept it now? We're a democracy where we can change the rules." 

There are efforts around the nation to create online public interest networks that build community and restore civility, she said, citing one based in Vermont called Front Porch Forum.  

Asked by a Lehigh student if she has advice on navigating ideological news sources, Applebaum said it's important for readers to know whether a publication does fact-checking and publishes corrections. It's also a good idea to read local news that deals with day-to-day concerns of the community, such as housing, environmental problems and infrastructure. She urged students to get involved in local efforts. 

Applebaum, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for her book “Gulag: A History” about Soviet concentration camps, told the crowd that she is a pessimist by nature. "You didn't write books about the Soviet Gulag because you're happy," she said, drawing laughter from the audience. American democracy has always fallen short of its promise of freedom and equality, she said, but it is in trying to achieve such aspirations that the nation has been able to do big things like ending slavery and the emancipation of women.  

“What happens tomorrow depends on what we do today,” Applebaum said. 

“And it’s in maintaining some kind of optimism and some kind of belief that you can make things better that things do get better," she said.

"It's irresponsible to be a pessimist," she said. 

The Kenner Lecture Series was endowed by Jeffrey L. Kenner ’65 ’66 and established in 1997. Earlier Kenner lectures included New York Times columnist Ezra Klein, PBS NewsHour Anchor Judy Woodruff and former U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent. 

Story by Margie Peterson

Photography by

Christa Neu

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