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.

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