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Democratisation by Social Media and the Internet Is Just Meaningless Waffle

Written By: - Date published: 1:35 pm, December 24th, 2019 - 22 comments
Categories: accountability, Deep stuff, democracy under attack, democratic participation, internet, Media, Politics, uncategorized - Tags: , ,

It seems that some people hold the opinion that Social Media and the Internet have heralded in new era of democracy and have provided more democracy.

This is so misguided, it is almost funny.

Sure, we can access and share so much more information and so much faster than we used to. In the good old days, you had to subscribe to a newspaper or go to the library to borrow a book, take it home, and read all pages. Slow, but effective, because it allowed time to let things sink in, to think about it. No longer. Public and academic libraries are under constant thread of closing and/or downsizing in an effort to cut costs in favour of automation (i.e. fewer staff, fewer people to interact with) and newspapers have gone online to now put their content behind paywalls.

Nowadays, we devour headlines, tweets, and Instagram posts and suffer from constant and chronic FOMO. We take and post selfies like our lives depend on it. Sadly, in some case selfie-takers pay with their lives taking that penultimate selfie.

Paradoxically, and ironically, our communication and social skills seem to be changing and not for the better.

We don’t even know how to date anymore and let algorithms decide our ‘match’. I won’t go there.

Although there are very considered and intelligent pieces online on current political and socio-economic issues, healthy debate is somewhat of a rare beast. We tend to talk past each other and often seem to lack the clarity of expression via the written word and the reading comprehension to take it to the next level. The tools are there but our skills seem to lag behind. Effective communication is not just a skill, it’s an art and we all are artists in the sense that we create our communications as best as we can and as we see fit – it is our way to express ourselves and be known to and by the world. Problem is that many simply parrot without giving it much thought because it sounds good – have you ever heard a real parrot?

Another paradox is that with the whole world literally at our fingertips we seem to retreat small circles of likeminded people (AKA ‘friends’) whom we confirm and who confirm us. A few holiday snaps with holiday bods thrown in for good measure to collect the much-needed ‘likes’. We need to keep the ‘approval ratings’ up or we fall to pieces.

Arguably, communication is about generating, confirming, and strengthening human relationships. This is what Social Media was designed for. At least, I think it was. The origins of the internet were somewhat different. However, people are no longer the end or main purpose. We have become conduits, merely minute nodes in the World Wide Web through which information flows and is spread, at lightning speed. We believe we are players but we have become pawns in a much bigger game and we don’t even acknowledge this – no wonder that some say the game is rigged.

Instead of forming (new) relationships, we engage in online contests of so-called achievements and PBs (personal bests), of who is the smartest alec, of whose daddy has the biggest power-drill, of who’s right and wrong, and whether it is going to rain next week or not. At times, it feels more like an exercise in alienation and xenophobia, because, in reality, we don’t know the others (some of whom are bots) from a bar of soap.

Suffice to say, it is a mixed bag.

One would think that communicating with government, be it local or central, would be a lot easier than in the old days. Indeed, much can be done on-line nowadays. However, obtaining information under the OIA has become more like squeezing blood out of a stone, apparently. Politicians now communicate with the public through their professional media or comms teams. Accountability to the electorate has become a PR exercise, more than anything, for political expediency.

Obviously, there is more online engagement with political parties. However, media manipulation and propaganda is not more democracy, it is perverting the democratic and political process, and it is harming democracy.

The hallmark of democracy is not only that people have a say on their governance once every so many years, but also have at least some (…) influence on and over the actual process. Informally, people can make loud noises and display their displeasure with political decisions (or indecisions); they can make submissions and start petitions and all that. However, formally, not much has changed over a long time – the system and process are antiquated. In fact, people’s engagement with and trust in politics has been steadily dropping. This is not good for democracy. However, there are a few glimmers of hope.

There is no point blaming SM or technology for this or the lack of political progress. We have a tremendous set of tools and technology at our disposal and like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Der Zauberlehrling), we don’t seem to know how to wield the power properly; it may even work against us. With Climate Change breathing down our neck, we had better learn quickly and take our future in our own hands, for better or worse – this is democracy in its truest sense. The elites won’t save us, never have, and never will.

22 comments on “Democratisation by Social Media and the Internet Is Just Meaningless Waffle”

  1. Wensleydale 1

    That Dilbert strip is so accurate it's almost painful.

    I don't use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any of that stuff. I tell my kids, "The internet is a great repository of useful information and hilarious videos mostly about cats. But it's also a wretched hive of scum and villainy. And obvious mental illness. Be careful."

  2. RedLogix 2

    A solid post Incognito, I like it a lot. I could never quite make up my mind whether I should pick Dilbert or Wal as my role model cheeky

    The other aspect of the internet that we tend to be in complete denial of, is that while it permits us the luxury of choosing where and who we associate with, it also means we invariably land up in echo-chambers that suit our interests, confirm our biases and repeat back to us our own motivated reasoning.

    It's serves a purpose, but the basis of a broadly functioning democracy it is not.

  3. Dennis Frank 3

    Taking a social ecologist's view of the online ecosystem, I agree with your diagnosis while feeling that the trend is driven by human nature.  So there's an upside:  in ecosystems, monocultures don't prevail normally.  Banality is prevalent online, but unlikely to embed as the norm.  Boredom will motivate folks to provide a positive alternative.

    In an ecosystem,  you get biodiversity as the norm.  Since we are part of nature, I'd expect online culture to ferment, and produce a diversity of cultural niches.  When symbioses develop the ties that bind organisms become extremely resilient.  Thus the resilience of capitalism, for instance, derives from the symbiotic relation of the employee to the employer.  One needs the money, the other the help.

    So the implication for social media is how to evolve designs that operate for mutual benefit.  Where the fun (infotainment, if you prefer) is shared by the maximal number of participants.  This logic suggests that the current toxic phase is being worked through.  The old maxim applies:  this, too, shall pass

    • weka 3.1

      sometimes nature does do monoculture. eg where we clear land and then let an aggressive species dominate. Think kānuka when it forms climax forest, which is not its normal role. Another analogy, although I think SM is more like plantation pine.

      The thing that amazes me is that given how many people have IT skills and how many of those donate time, that we haven't had any solid alternatives to FB arise.


  4. Stuart Munro 4

    I'm in two minds about the influence of the internet on democracy – on the one hand the case you make is pretty solid, but there are instances where it has proved constructive. 

    In Korea, the 386 generation were a significant driver of progressive activism, and a similar growth of progressive intention proliferated on the internet throughout the so-called Arab Spring, particularly in Egypt. Although the Egyptian outcome was ultimately rather poor, the fault for that was not one of connectivity. The world is increasingly connected, and though political structures don't reflect that, communities of interest are forming spontaneously and attempting to influence politics.

    When, as seems inevitable, mankind perishes like fruit flies from an inability to respond to our effects on the environment, the tech infrastructure that survives will present a fruitful field for speculation by tardigrade anthropologists.

  5. Tiger Mountain 5

    What a downer post-Seasonal greetings all round…not at the Standard but.

    Sure incognito makes good points,  people often do not research and triangulate posts-particularly ones they agree with-when clear thinking is needed. Social media does do some good though, it is 30 years of neo liberal hegemony and bourgeois individualism that is more depressing.

    At Ihumatao when the Police we’re seeking to escalate and move on protestors, online alerts went out, and the Auckland Police operational ability was exposed when it was obvious they would be outnumbered on that occasion. A one off perhaps, but the potential is there.


  6. weka 6

    Social media was created to make money. It's uses human relationships but the wellbeing of people and how they relate isn't the primary goal. Or even the secondary one.

    I think we have had models arising that were based around strengthening human relationships and community, but they haven't dominated. Possibly our best bet is to have enough solid systems in place and being practiced so that when the shtf, there is something already in the wings. In the same way that regenag will be able to step in when conventional ag fails to supply us all with food due to climate change, the regenag people have been practicing and developing the tech outside the mainstream. I'm way more optimistic about the food than I am about SM.

  7. Ad 7

    Who is your royal "we"?

    "We have a tremendous set of tools and technology at our disposal and like theSorcerer’s Apprentice (Der Zauberlehrling), we don’t seem to know how to wield the power properly; it may even work against us."

    Plenty of successful campaigns particularly on the right-populist end already successfully and effectively used social media to win. 

    Granted it's not everything. But without effectively deploying social media to get the under-30 vote out, Obama wouldn't have made it, and Corbyn's result would have been many measures worse.


  8. Ad 8

    This humble forum is a pretty good example of what can be achieved through applied blogging and sustained comments. 

    What The Standard achieves is a reinforced public sphere. What this site generates is a well-structured process which aggregates public opinion into a synthesis of individual thoughts acting for the common interest. 

    So this thing called the 'public sphere' is constantly formed through live comments on a site. It is a necessary but insufficient condition for causing shifts in public opinion.

    Jurgen Habermas brought the concept of the public sphere into clarity. And he was as hopeful as any for social media as an ideal form of the public sphere. Yes it won't head towards its ideal form until it's successfully regulated, and there's more Cambridge Analyticas.  

    What it's really good at however in a democracy is providing direct interaction between the elected and powerful with the ordinary citizen with an otherwise unimagined directness and amplification. 

    Social Media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube etc, are intensely empowering, no matter which side of the political sphere you're on. Its agency has its limits, but so early in this era we're still only finding those really are. 

  9. Dennis Frank 9

    Trump allowed a couple of his team to attend Bilderberg 2019, which sends the signal that he is open to working with the establishment even while seeming to oppose it (to ride the populist wave).  It'll be interesting to see how he frames his re-election bid.

    "The annual Bilderberg Meeting is designed to foster dialogue between Europe and North America. Bilderberg was established in 1954 as a forum for informal discussions, bringing together individuals who share an active interest in affairs relevant to the relationship between Europe and Northern America. The Meeting has one main goal: to foster discussion and dialogue. There is no desired outcome, there is no closing statement, there are no resolutions proposed or votes taken, and the organisation does not support any political party or viewpoint."  https://www.bilderbergmeetings.org/frequently-asked-questions

    Above the fray.  Note how Chinese & Russians are carefully excluded (not to mention dangerous nutters like Saudis & Israelis):  https://www.bilderbergmeetings.org/background/steering-committee/steering-committee

    One hand on the rudder is former Google chairman "Schmidt, Eric E. (USA), Technical Advisor, Alphabet Inc."  "Alphabet Inc. is an American multinational conglomerate … created through a corporate restructuring of Google on October 2, 2015…  Alphabet is the world's fifth-largest technology company by revenue …  Eric Schmidt said at an Internet Association event in 2015 that there may eventually be more than 26 Alphabet subsidiaries. He also said that he was currently meeting with the CEOs of the current and proposed Alphabet subsidiaries. He said, "You'll see a lot coming.""  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alphabet_Inc.

    Other notable hands on the rudder:  Barroso, José Manuel (PRT), Chairman, Goldman Sachs International; Former President, European Commission & Brende, Børge (NOR), President, World Economic Forum.

    Not just top capitalists though:  Schadlow, Nadia (USA), Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute  "Schadlow was appointed to the National Security Council staff .. in March 2017.., Schadlow became the primary author of the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS)."  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nadia_Schadlow

    Relevance to the topic?  Democracy in our time has been all about managing consent (Chomsky), so it continues to serve the powers that be on that basis.  Prospects for continuance currently still look good.  Qualitative easing has kept the capitalist system functional since the gfc.  Manufacturing all those imaginary dollars has ebbed the tide of wealth a little, producing stagnation without stagflation.  The consequent limit to growth stabilises the system, it seems, and financial wizardry still works better than other forms of magic. 

    Roman rule worked on the basis of bread & circuses, and nowadays we see the principle remains valid – due to social media providing the circus (along with television & cinema).  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bread_and_circuses

    • Stuart Munro 9.1

      It's an interesting point, the qualitative easing – a more apt description of Key misgovernance was never coined.

      When rivers went from drinkable to wadeable, that was qualitative easing. Novapay was a downgrade, and the P testing fraud fell short of professional practice, as did the Christchurch rebuild.

      It was pretty stupid in governance terms for NZ to eschew quantitative easing when our major trading partners were doing it – but that wouldn't have pushed the price of Key's Parnell mansion over $20 million.

      Spectacularly lousy governance – NZ is the place to see it.

  10. Kay 10

    "One would think that communicating with government, be it local or central, would be a lot easier than in the old days. Indeed, much can be done on-line nowadays. However, obtaining information under the OIA has become more like squeezing blood out of a stone, apparently. Politicians now communicate with the public through their professional media or comms teams. Accountability to the electorate has become a PR exercise, more than anything, for political expediency."

    Yes, one WOULD think. Having spent the better part of this year attempting- often fruitlessly- to engage with politicians of all levels- it's somewhat interesting that these 'professional comms teams' seem incapable of the simple task of even setting up the auto-reply feature on Minister's emails. Hell, even I've figured out how to do that. The consequence of that meaning the public have no way of knowing if their emails have even been received by the office in the first place! 

     In the good old days of snail mail, there would be an acknowledgement letter from the secretary, even if said Minister/MP had no further intention of correspondence. You know, basic politeness which the internet has also put paid to in many aspects. And also provided government with the perfect means of avoiding interaction with the public over uncomfortable subjects they'd rather not deal with. I'm sure they don't like being bombarded with multiple emails from multiple people on the same topic, but if they can't stand the heat etc… Anyway, isn't that what they have their professional comms people for? 

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