Frontier Forum

Recent Event Recap

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Pulitzer-prize Winning Historian Anne Applebaum Details the Fragility of Democracies and the Risks of Disinformation and Propaganda 

In this virtual presentation of the Frontier Forum Lecture Series, the College of Arts and Sciences, the USF Institute on Russia, and the Humanities Institute welcomed Anne Applebaum as a featured guest speaker. Applebaum is a prize-winning historian with a particular expertise in the history of communist and post-communist Europe, a staff writer for The Atlantic and a Senior Fellow at Johns Hopkins University, where she co-leads ARENA, a research project on disinformation and 21st century propaganda. Her book, Gulag: A History won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction, and her writing has also won the Cundill, Nonino and Lionel Gelber prizes, among others. 
During this event, Applebaum sat down with Dean Eric Eisenberg to discuss her book, Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive lure of Authoritarianism, the fragility of the world’s democracies, and what the future looks like for nations that have seemingly embraced pseudo-dictators. 
The focus of the program detailed how democracies, no matter which country they may be functioning in, are tied together by how political information is disseminated to and consumed by the public. In one example, Applebaum detailed how “Brexit”, as it has become commonly known, hinged its argument on the downside of globalization, rallying behind their slogan “take back control”. She continued by stating that, “in many ways, it was a false slogan. I’m in London now, and much of what I see with Brexit is the U.K. having less influence, less control, less trade. It was a lie, but it was an effective lie, because it spoke to something that people genuinely feel quite deeply.” 
Applebaum also used part of her time to talk about the appeal of authoritarianism, and the intertwining of intellectualism in that space. She noted that there is a 20th century prejudice that the attraction to authoritarianism is somehow only alluring to people who are uneducated. She cited the history of the last century, noting that even Soviet communism, Nazism, or even lesser dictatorships, they always used and required the work of intellectuals. Reflecting on today’s times, she referenced that some of these intellectuals now have the power to use social media as their tool to get their message out – messages that are often carefully crafted to deceive, divide, and exploit emotions. 
She also stated that: 

Our assumption that democracy is so attractive, and is obviously the best system, and ‘how could anybody want anything else’ – this is a very second half of the 20th century idea. In our case, it’s born from our experience of success. The American project, which has had its ups and downs, terrible crises and catastrophes, but the experience from the 40s, 50s, and 60s was one of increasing prosperity and increasing power and influence in the world and so we began to forget that there were other ideologies that had a dark appeal. 
The idea of absolute power, the idea that you can control all those social levers, that you can be in charge of what people think, and how they react, this can be an extremely dark, but attractive thought for people. Maybe even particularly for intelligent people. 

During the event, the virtual audience in attendance was encouraged to submit questions for Applebaum, which she subsequently answered during the lively chat. Some of the most intriguing questions dealt with generational perspectives and understanding of dictatorships and authoritarianism, the repercussions and consequences of the Jan. 6 insurrection, and the implementation of direct democracy and experimenting with democracy.  
We were honored to host Anne Applebaum and hope that the audiences’ takeaway from this experience will be one that propels them toward increased participation in democracy and a keener awareness of the information that we consume daily. 
We invite you to join us for our next Frontier Forum event, featuring marine microbial ecologist and Phi Beta Kappa speaker, Dr. Forest Rohwer. Dr. Rohwer has spent his life’s work investigating microbes’ role in coral reef health and disease, and his lecture detailing such, is sure to be one of great interest. This event will take place on Tuesday, February 8, 2022 at 7:00 p.m. To learn more about our Frontiers of Knowledge program, which makes these Frontier Forum events possible, please contact us to be added to our email list.