By: Jared Marcel Pollen
All major political epochs have their corresponding media epochs: the reformation and the printing press, the nation state and the broadsheet newspaper, nationalism and the pamphlet. That Fascism rolled on the waves of radio, to take another example, is no coincidence. The acoustic space furnished by transmission, its spherical, enveloping field, allowed the disembodied God-like voice of the Fuhrer to cruise through every living room in the Reich. The proliferation of the bound, typeset book in the sixteenth century gave us what Marshall McLuhan called Gutenberg minds–– individualist, solitary, thinking. Books took us out of the city square and into the home, and newspapers later undid this by making reading more participatory and communal. If we take media as an extension of the central nervous system, one that provides the lattice which structures our whole reality, then any new transformation will inaugurate a transformation of the political nervous system along with it.
We now find ourselves at such an epoch, somewhere between the global village and the filter bubble. It’s been almost twenty years since broadband, and about fourteen years since the rise of social media, beginning with Facebook in 2004, and already we’ve observed the ways in which these technologies have altered democratic norms of communication; this includes a whole set of ethical questions re. privatization of the internet, censorship and “fake news.” (The last deserves some revision. We shouldn’t allow Trump’s slur for anything that dissents from the empire of his mind to be conflated with real obscurantism.)
Earlier this year, Facebook, which has long touted itself as an agent of democracy, announced it would be redesigning its newsfeed to reduce the volume of sponsored content and increase the amount shared by a user’s friends. This was not an act of good conscience. The network downplayed the significance of Russian hacking throughout the 2016 election until it was pressured (along with Google and Twitter) by the Senate Intelligence Committee to address the use of social media as a vessel for espionage and disinformation. Conspicuously absent from Facebook’s announcement was any mention of “fake news.” Precisely because neither they, nor any of us currently know what to do about it.
Solutions are being proposed, all of them unsatisfying and several of them hazardous. At the moment, Emmanuel Macron is preparing a new law to be introduced by the end of 2018 that will attempt to regulate the spread of false stories during elections. Germany and the Czech Republic recently put into place similar laws, and it remains unclear what––according to the state––will qualify as “fake news” and who gets to justify why it should be withheld from the public. Is this really the precedent we want to set for freedom of information and inquiry? And is this really the view we want to take of ourselves as citizens in the democratic experiment: i.e. that we can’t be trusted, or else educated to sort what is true from what is patently false, and thus require someone else to do it for us? A democracy is as only as good as the intellectual health of its populace. That “fake news” should even be an issue in an age when we are supposed to be more educated than ever––when we carry encyclopedias in our pockets––is one of the more salient ironies that ought to oppress us.
Earlier this month, a team of researchers at MIT published an exhaustive study in Science on the spread of disinformation online, which showed overwhelmingly that false stories and “rumour cascades” on Twitter proliferated at an astonishingly higher rate than stories that were deemed factually correct, and that humans, not robots, do the bulk of this sharing. Thus, the champagne fountain of untruth will continue to flow even with Facebook’s pledge to renovate their newsfeed in the name of more “personal” content. Falsehood not only seems to travel faster than truth, its monetary value has proven greater for the organs through which it’s filtered.
We should be wary of making value judgements about any new technology. I’m not inclined to view social media as an inherently good or bad thing, mostly because I think it is out of our hands now. Technology is developing not with us, but parallel to us, and in many ways has already outraced us. It is carrying us down the stream now and we cannot step into it a second time. Politically, we’ve seen social media used for bad and good: Facebook was central to Trump’s campaign of disinformation and division, and it was at the same time instrumental in the people power that drove the Arab spring. Still, there is nothing inherently democratizing about the platform. Companies like Facebook and Google have shown a willingness to liaise with authoritarian regimes like China and Russia, who see the services as an invaluable surveillance apparatus. And as we’ve recently learned, Facebook was guiltless (until they got caught) about sharing data with firms like Cambridge Analytica, whose whole raison d’être appears to be targeting low-information voters with hateful agitprop.
When de Tocqueville came to the United States in the 1830s he noted the unique atomization of American media. He saw that most Americans got their news from local periodicals, and believed that this fragmentation would keep the nation safe from populism. It wasn’t until after the Civil War that many of the major national newspapers were established. At the turn of the twentieth century the media landscape became increasingly concentrated in the hands of these papers, coinciding with a tremendous concentration of capital. By the 1960s, most Americans read the New York Times in the morning and watched Walter Cronkite in the evening, a brief return to something like the Roman forum.
We’ve once again returned to a fragmented, decentralized newsscape, though unlike anything someone like de Tocqueville could have envisioned. The threat is no longer the tyranny of majority opinion, which is the peril of any monophonic media universe, but of a mobile solipsism, bred in the depths of our own personal information silos. What is worse: a society in which the individual is pressured by the weight of collective opinion, where everyone is in danger of thinking like everyone else; or, a society in which every person can be a king of infinite space? Do we want to surrender our agency to preference algorithms in the name of convenience? And do we really want to surrender our reason to private, or state-sanctioned control of information? If we don’t take care to ask such questions, then the answers to them will very soon be provided for us.
Jared Marcel Pollen was born in Canada. He studied politics and literature at the University of Windsor and received his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College in NY. His work has appeared in The Millions, 3:AM Magazine, Salo Press and Potluck Magazine, among others. He is also the author of the collection of short stories, The Unified Field of Loneliness, available from Crowsnest Books. He currently lives in Prague.
Image: Election Day in Philadelphia by John L. Krimmel through a cubist lens, by deepart.io