Twitter, the shoe-fitting fluoroscope of democracy

There is a small revolt against Twitter brewing among some journalists, who are recognizing the structural pitfalls of the social media platform.

Not so long ago, it was assumed that being able to post updates in real-time opened up new opportunities to inform and be informed. But the reality, in recent years, points in the other direction.

A shoe fitting fluoroscope (Wisc. HS)

The ability to post updates in real-time instead creates endless misunderstandings, distraction, diversion and error. It provides vast new spaces for disinformation and propaganda to dominate and drive discussion. Oh, and it’s somewhat addictive, too.

Giving the example of the US high school students who either threatened or didn’t threaten the native American activists at a demonstration in Washington this month, New York Times commentator Farhad Manjoo writes: “The Covington saga illustrates how every day the media’s favorite social network [Twitter] tugs journalists deeper into the rip currents of tribal melodrama, short-circuiting our better instincts in favor of mob- and bot-driven groupthink….Instead of curious, intellectually honest chroniclers of human affairs, Twitter regularly turns many in the news — myself included — into knee-jerk outrage-bots reflexively set off by this or that hash-tagged cause, misspelled presidential missive or targeted-influence campaign.”

How did journalism come to accept the role of social media in its process? The internet has made so much information so inexpensive to consume, including journalism. With the business model of journalism thus broken, the companies (and journalists) rapidly embraced the promise of social media. And they did so with a presumption of progress associated with new technology.

If the last two years have shown anything, though, it’s that for democracy to function, its key players – journalists, politicians, an informed public need to reconsider whether the technology actually supports or hinders democracy.

Highly debatable on Twitter – but what does it resolve?

I’d argue that in its current form social media in general (and Twitter specifically) is hurting democracy.  But like earlier technology misapplied, such as X-rays used for shoe fitting, there is a lag to recognizing the mismatch between capabilities and results.

Manjoo writes that Twitter is today “the epicenter of a nonstop information war, an almost comically undermanaged gladiatorial arena where activists and disinformation artists and politicians and marketers gather to target and influence the wider media world.”

That’s a lot of energy expended fighting battles in an attack-only platform unsuited for compromise. In fact, like the spam that dominates email today, the volume of disinformation on social media may eclipse the volume of useful, factual information. It’s not just the volume of bad information, but that social media distorts underlying values needed for liberal democracy, too

This is a point Manjoo makes, too: “the tide of Twitter umbrage narrows one’s gaze and discourages empathy. There’s never any time to wait to get out your take: fear of missing out, which is Twitter’s primary sensibility, requires that everyone offer an opinion before much is known — because by the time more is known, Twitter will already have moved on to something else.”

That doesn’t mean those who value democracy should turn away from social media. But the people of open democracies should recognize what social media is good for and what it’s not good for.

Years ago shoe-sellers put shoe-fitting fluoroscopes in their stores so customers could examine how well shoes fit. Basically, customers – and employees – were exposing themselves to not insignificant amounts of radiation to solve what was marginal problem.

Today that cavalier use of x-ray radiology is almost unthinkable.

Social media in general and Twitter in particular are possibly the shoe-fitting fluoroscope of democracy today; a technology that allows underinformed, highly-emotive, combative over-communication about issues that instead require sensible deliberation and compromise.

In part, the presumption of progress explains how journalists and the informed public could make this mistake. What’s not so easy to understand is how long thoughtful citizens in a society will look to this technology to solve the problem of sensible political communication in a democracy.

Looking ahead, we can instead grow reliable information networks outside of Twitter, and create secure networks where intelligent, reasoned ideas can be discussed, to further the debate that liberal democracy requires. This point should be stressed: not just for journalists, but political candidates and parties. They will all need to grow their own networks of secure communication to enable a sensible debate democracy relies on.

Until then, it’s as if the best minds of a generation are willingly radiating their feet. They’re doing this not because it’s a healthy thing to do but because the technology exists and no one has realized how ill-suited that technology in its current form is for the task of practical political debate.

Cryptocurrency as networked data to corrode Western economic power

“When you consider that cryptocurrency, like online propaganda, is at a certain level, just networked information on the internet, an immediate question is how an emergent underground cryptocurrency in the West would interact with an authoritarian cryptocurrency-based global financial system.”

Full story here – for The Age.

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.

Australian government report calling for algorithm regulator

The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission has prepared a wide-ranging preliminary report on the impact of digital platforms such as Google and Facebook on the marketplace and the news industry. It contains a preliminary recommendation that the government form an algorithm regulator, that essentially tracks the changes and effects on the companies’ algorithms without revealing their technical details.

The recommendation in the summary of the report, published December 10, is here:

The full report is here.