In the age of mass social media, we must all become intellectuals or we shall be quite at loss as a race. Progress from barbarism to civilisation cannot be maintained if the barbarians control the ideas. Hence we should cut down on upon the number of barbarians, and not by using the barbarians’ tool of the axe but our own tool of the textbook. We should reverting to more traditional and classical modes of education, that emphasise common liberal values and rational ways of thinking existing throughout human history.
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By Matthew Parish
Let us start by defining social media. Many of us think of “Twitter”. It is perhaps a paradigm. Internet users create accounts, connect with one-another, and share their thoughts on virtually anything at all. We are interested for our purposes in their expression of their views on politics and current affairs. Is this “news“? It may not be, in the conventional sense of being a source of information distributed by an authority that is ostensibly impartial. But news does not have to be actually impartial. Consider “fake news”. Consider “Russia Today”. News can be biased and still be news. Moreover why cannot Twitter itself be considered a central authority for distribution of news, and each of its members potentially both a viewer and a contributing journalist. Twitter does not describe itself as a news source, but many of its members seem to treat it as one. The definition of news being fungible and surely capable of evolving over time, ”Twitter” might have to be regarded at least in part as a form of news, if an unreliable one because there is not even a pretence at quality control. Indeed we must observe that many authorities that do themselves as source of news, e.g. the BBC, have Twitter accounts and therefore at the very least Twitter must be identified as a distributor of news. The instinctive objection to describing Twitter as news is surely that so much of it is valueless nonsense. But then, so is so much news. It all appears to be a matter of degree.
One way of viewing the social media phenomenon might be to position it at the far and evolving end of a spectrum of the popularisation of current affairs that has gradually evolved since time immemorial. Upon this theory, significant events in the development of discourse about politics include invention of the printing press; the first newspapers; the radio; television; popularisation of the internet; decline of printed media; and the evolution of social media. With each stage of development, access to information about current affairs has become more widespread and less the subject of elite capture. When hardly anyone in the United Kingdom owned a television set, only the wealthiest and most privileged had the opportunity to watch the BBC television news. One consequence of this was that the purveyors of news, catering to an elite audience, themselves adopted an elitist stance. As the consumption of news has become more widespread, its content has inevitably changed in time to meet the tastes of its more popular audience. Social media is sometimes averred to be a powerful political tool. If so, then that can only be because it is more popular than its comparatively conventional media sources. It follows that its content will be more popular – or social media would not be popular. If you think social media is nonsense, that can only be because people want nonsense. Mainstream media exists principally for a residual elite.
Why might social media be so poplars a means of exchange of political opinions? There are several potential reasons. Firstly, it is less susceptible to censorship (in countries where this is an issue). It is more varied than many controversial forms of media, in that irrespective of one’s political views (in other words no mater how quixotic they might be), one can always find a social media outlet reflecting them. This leads into another sense in which there is a lack of censorship: the censorship of the editor. Anyone can publish anything, and the only determinant of quality is the level of popularity with other internet users. This leads finally into an inclusive sense of participation: everyone can contribute, and comment. Social media is a market in ideas, assertions, news, facts, lies, soundbites and all other sorts of communication, the desirability of which is determined solely by the propensity of others to read, follow and comment upon it. Social media is like an enormous book store in which there are no costs of publication and the only guide to quality is how many other people buy the same books.The censorship role of publishers, librarians, editors and the profession of journalists is in each case stripped away. People do not read what they are told to read or others think they ought to read. They read what they want to read (and as Twitter shows, what they want to read Is often very short). Inevitably there is a clustering element to popularity within the realms of social media. People want to read some things because other people want to read them. But it was always so with every form of media. Reasonless popularity is not an innovation unique to the social media age.
The criterion of rationality for admission to the category of media (an article must assess the facts reasonably, or present a reasonable chin of argument) has been radically overhauled by contemporary social media. Whereas reason was once used as an elitist gateway for admission to media, now the consumer of media gets to decide what is reasonable. If President Trump declares an article in a newspaper to be “fake news” in a 280-character Tweet, then who decides whether he is right? Only the readers; they must decide for themselves.
What does all this have to do with contemporary politics? I hope by now that the answer is obvious. If we want to understand the recent rise of populism in democratic political cultures, then the answer falls out of the definition of populism itself. Populist politics are those that appeal to large numbers of people, irrespective of their merit, liberality or reasonableness. In other words, we are seeing the rise of democratic politics unfiltered by the censorious lens of rationality and driven solely by popularity of the political ideas in question. Perhaps clustering of ideas (people following ideas just because others do) is more prevalent where an independent standard of rationality Is lifted. Perhaps politics is less stable, and liable to digress to greater extremes as a result. Yet it seems to me that if we accept that the media shapes political ideas, then this is inevitable. Domination of the news by social media must entail an increase in political populism. To what extent this correlation can be measured (and the recent rise in populism might in part be attributable to other causes such as extremist political narratives becoming more attractive in consequence of declining real terms living standards), I leave others to measure using empirical means. But the conceptual connection between social media and populism is surely obvious enough that more empirical investigation than that contained in this essay is surely warranted.
Is all of this good thing? I am frankly inclined to think not. Some might respond that this is because I am an over-educated elitist, from a social class whose traditional guardianship of political ideas is now being swept away. But I prefer to think of this problem in a different way. I see dominance of reason as the apex of the Enlightenment. I consider there to be something unique in human action and thinking that enables us to divine between the greater mass of human urges what is rational and, in consequence, fair. The Enlightenment was a revolt against institutionalised ignorance. I wonder whether a second Enlightenment might be in order: against de-institutionalised ignorance, or the ideas of the hordes. The only problem I have with arguing for a Second Enlightenment is that I am not sure what weapons we have with which to fight for it. Modern internet technology is such that we will never have an opportunity to revert to censorship by the intellectual.
Perhaps the answer is education. In the age of mass social media, we must all become intellectuals or we shall be quite at loss as a race. Progress from barbarism to civilisation cannot be maintained if the barbarians control the ideas. Hence we should cut down on upon the number of barbarians, and not by using the barbarians’ tool of the axe but our own tool of the textbook. We should reverting to more traditional and classical modes of education, that emphasise common liberal values and rational ways of thinking existing throughout human history. In these precarious times, the Enlightenment project is more important than it ever ha been. Redirecting the forms of education for our young people – from pure study to get rich or advance one`s career, to improve the mind and society as a whole – might be the most effective means of retarding the rate of populist rot and humanitarian decay.
Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland and a former UN peacekeeper. He has published two books and over 250 articles on the subject. In 2013 he was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and he has was listed as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland. He is currently a preferred candidate of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for appointment to a position of Under Secretary General of the United Nations with an agenda for institutional reform.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.