The Cold War Daily

Notes on the new great power struggle.

Social media distorts underlying values needed for liberal democracy

There is quite a lot of effort put into taming social media for democracy, or at least understanding the disinformation networks flourishing on it. But the reality is, social media by its very nature is problematic for liberal democracy. Why? Liberal democracy is founded on Enlightenment principles, and its success, as author Neil Postman has written is historically linked to the printed word: “In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, print put forward a definition of intelligence that gave priority to the objective, rational use of the mind and at the same time encouraged forms of public discourse with serious, logically ordered content. It is no accident that the Age of Reason was coexistent with the growth of a print culture, first in Europe and then in America.”

A London coffee house in 17th Century (Wikicommons)

That doesn’t mean reason always prevailed in democracies, or all politics were reasonable in the past three centuries. But in democracies the politics had to at least make some sense on paper. That quality contrasted with the mass-media driven politics of 20th Century fascism.

Compare print-based logically ordered democratic content with the viral nature (read: emotional and sensational) of social media communication today in which algorithms reward high-engagement, which in turn
amplifies content likely to reinforce tribal identities.

As recent events underscore, it is the image and emotion that propels posts to wider popularity and those posts can carry only half-formed ideas. The claim that a pizza parlor in Washington masked a pedophile ring or that Hillary Clinton was hiding a “sickness” bypass the mind and head straight to the gut. This effect of imagery was something known to Comintern propagandists in the 1930s.

Meme: not about thinking but feeling

This effect provides another lever for interference and influence.

The risk for democracies is not just the uses of the format of social media but the longer-term effect the technology is having on lasting perceptions of political society. Since the time of the Enlightenment, a broad narrative of Western democracy has included skepticism (or critical thinking), reason, natural rights and a divine principle (basically a vague sense that the universe has a benign Creator). With these broad ideas, a sense of moral progress quietly kept the democratic public unified.

Social media instead inverts these experiences.

Where once healthy skepticism sat atop a vague belief in the Natural Rights of humanity and a Divine Order of the universe, now, there is a brazen cynicism for the very existence of power. What unifies swaths of the public isn’t a quiet faith in a greater sense of moral enlightenment, however imperfect. Instead, social media users lunge forward in a communitarian dynamo of outrage. Their emotions and sense of identity are fused into a swarm of anger, which can easily be manipulated because it already in motion, and so it seeks only direction.

In this way, the communication basis of liberal democracy has shifted. Politicians certainly can’t lead and appeal to the shared faith of the public to trust them, as has traditionally occurred in dark times.

Social media in its current form is an attack-only format, something President Trump knows all too well. Reason-centred reflection has given way to intoxicating outrage, fusing together communities. The skepticism to stand back from power and observe and question is reduced to a daily outrage, a sort of two-minute, on demand that can be fired up. That hate can easily be redirected not towards to the statements of politicians but the political institutions themselves.

The issue of algorithms is important here because these platforms are, to date, built on high-engagement. As virtual reality inventor Jaron Lanier says: “Often times when people think they’re being productive and improving society on social media, actually they’re not because the part of the social media machine that’s operating behind the scenes, which are the algorithms that are attempting to engage people more and more and influence them on behalf of advertisers and all of this, are turning whatever energy you put into the system into fuel to drive the system.”

“The enthusiasms that drove the Arab Spring turned out to be even more efficient for introducing the people that turned into ISIS to each other, in recruiting for them,” he said.

Lanier has said social media companies could seek another revenue model, rather than high engagement from the bulk of humanity.

Another possible compromise between democracy and tech companies would be for those companies to cordon off political discussion into a narrower space on the platforms, allowing it to be more easily monitored for manipulation.

Another answer still is to deem social media – with its constant engagement and attack-only mode – as an inappropriate/destructive place for political information. The reality is that in a democracy a citizen must be able to stand still, to deliberate with their mind, not to simply run in a pack driven by anger for their rivals.

A culture of freedom

When trying to gauge the zeitgeist of our era, you have to size up the politics. But to understand the politics, you have to grasp the economic situation that shapes them. For this reason, it’s helpful to compare and contrast our era with past times.

For source material, the personal history of the 1960s by Richard Goldstein, who coined the term “rock critic” – because he was among the first of them -offers some telling, eye-witness accounts of social mobility as it related to society and music.

The Bronx-born journalist and critic applies a class-consciousness to the music, culture, and events he witnessed, many of which became defining moments of the decade.

The March on Washington 1963. Goldstein was there. (USIA)

The link between the politics and the economics of our time matters a lot for those who wanting to understand our geopolitical reality. Understanding the resentments of our time is also helpful for the forces that would undermine society from the outside – including people working information operations against democracy.

In keeping with these observations, this quote from an interview with Goldstein discussing the difference between now and the 1960s serves as a good reminder of the seemingly invisible weight holding back needed political reform in our age.

Speaking of the 1960s, Goldstein says:

“It was a time of enormous social fluidity in England as well as in the United States. This social fluidity, which the Civil Rights movement played a major role in unleashing, is what creates this music because almost everyone who made it went to a state university. There are not a lot of wealthy people making rock music.”

“So this is very important: you’re talking about a product of a social era that is very different from the one we have today – when there was much more class fluidity.

“Of course it leads to sexual fluidity, cultural fluidity — all of these fluidities come from the fact that people were moving up, that the working class was moving up, $10,000 more in salary by the end of the decade.

“This makes an enormous difference in the culture of the era. 

“So when people talk about the 60s, it’s not just beads and bangles, it’s class mobility.

“If we’re ever going to get class mobility again, it may happen again.

“…The spirit of the 60s is embedded in American history. It’s been there since the Great Awakenings of the 18th Century which were abolitionist religious movements. Since the Transcendentalists, it’s very much the spirit of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman.

“If you read ‘On Civil Disobedience’ by Thoreau, you’re seeing the very basis of all the protest movements of the 60s, and even today of course….These mystical new ways of life, radical new ways of thinking of existence- this is an American tradition, going all the way back.

“It could happen again if the economic situation permits it, and very interestingly, it doesn’t today.

“If you want to know why it’s so different for young people to imagine the 60s, the economy puts them in a vice that makes it very hard for them to aspire to a more radical existence.

“To the extent that they do so at all, it’s very brave of them.”

Source: The Morning Show with Greg Berg, WGTD

%d bloggers like this: