Phil White wrote: ↑Sun Oct 04, 2020 10:33 am
The deliberate exploitation of the shortcomings of language as our primary means of communication foments a very deep uncertainty and unease, which is, in many cases, the very purpose of the communication.
Not that this is anything new, though. We are just far more widely exposed to it than we used to be.
When the internet was unleashed on the wider world in the early 1990s following its beginnings in academia and the US Department of Defense, it was touted by its civilian promoters as a fantastic new tool for sharing knowledge and information, and for generally bridging the gaps in human communication both within and between societies.
What has happened in practice?
Well, obviously the invention of propaganda and misinformation long predates the internet. However, while the internet has made possible many undeniably useful and genuinely informative projects (as I hope visitors to Wordwizard will agree), and has given ordinary people platforms for expressing their views that they never had before -- and to that extent has had a democratizing effect -- it has also enabled and encouraged the turbocharged weaponization of information in the form of propaganda, mis- and disinformation, online harassment and trolling, scams, frauds, intrusive advertising, mob violence fuelled by rumours and false allegations, outsourcing of labour and manufacturing in a globalized race to the bottom, and intrusive surveillance by the State and commercial operations alike.
It has also made possible the rise of a relatively small number of gatekeeping organizations that have become extraordinarily powerful thanks to the concentration of their power to set the terms of access to information for the rest of us. These include both familiar players like Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Weibo, WeChat, Amazon and Alibaba, and a number of less familiar ones.
The rise of these new gatekeeping organizations has been largely at the expense of the dilution and enfeeblement of the more traditional gatekeepers of the news and information circulating in society, such as long-established newspapers and broadcast media, which have now found themselves suddenly competing for attention and resources with entities that exhibit minimal sense of responsibility over the information they mediate, but have the considerable financial and competitive advantage of requiring much less investment per user plus a massive income stream from advertising, part of which has substantially migrated from the traditional media.
(We can debate the extent to which the traditional media actually deserve special consideration, given their own decidedly blemished track record, not least of which is their tendency to support the status quo and the interests of the Establishment and the power of the State. Nowhere has this been made more obvious in recent times than in the shameful scapegoating of Julian Assange which even the former collaborators of Assange, The New York Times
and The Guardian,
have engaged in, motivated by their ultimate allegiance to -- and fear of -- the Establishment despite their progressive pretensions. But I think it is indisputable that any society that claims to be democratic needs independent investigative channels and mechanisms for checking up on and calling to account the wealthy and the powerful, whether they are individuals or institutions. It's most unfortunate that some of our best-known newspapers have also shown themselves to be devoid of backbone when they had to choose between their integrity and their fear of the wrath of the State.)
Anyway, once the potential of the internet and its information platforms for influencing and/or informing/misinforming the public had become clear, politicians, politically active organizations of all kinds and individuals with axes to grind naturally came to embrace and exploit the new medium.
The result of this enhanced free-for-all is that the bad information is driving out the good, just as counterfeit money drives genuine currency from circulation. The purveyors of sensationalist news, entertaining or otherwise compelling propaganda, unfounded conspiracy theories and celebrity trivia are sucking the oxygen from the media space. They are adept at grabbing the public's attention, with the result that despite the ready availability today of previously unthinkable amounts of information, a huge proportion of voters are poorly informed about most of the issues that will affect them when they cast their ballots -- if they can overcome their sense of alienation sufficiently to bother doing so.
Partly this is because they have stopped seeking that information, finding it hard to know which of it can be relied on and which cannot, so they give up even trying. Partly, it is because many are so busy with other priorities such as commuting, working, shopping and family commitments that they simply don't have the time (and/or education, in some cases) to absorb and evaluate the never-ending stream of information about weightier and more complex issues. So they choose to focus on the more entertaining, less cognitively demanding stuff that is out there.
My conclusion is therefore that far from democratizing our decision-making and giving a voice to ordinary citizens who previously (often with good reason) felt shut out of it, the debasing and shaping of information that the internet has facilitated has in practice given society's power brokers unparalleled opportunities to bamboozle people, to force or encourage policies and decisions that act against the interests of the vast majority of citizens, and to do so without consulting them in any meaningful way.
Rather, the power to decide has been delivered into fewer and fewer hands that are increasingly resistant to any kind of informed public accountability, if we are to judge by the popping up all over the globe like mushrooms after rain of erratic, autocratic and dictatorial leaders. The rise of populism is partly a function of voters' mistrust and confusion plus a desire for simple solutions to complex problems, and partly a revolt against mediocre previous governance; but in any event, it is no coincidence that the trend towards dictatorial rule has been developing more or less in parallel with the ever-increasing intrusion of the internet and its ancillary technologies into our lives.
Today, most of those autocratic leaders are at least pretending to be merely responding to the democratically expressed will of the people, but some are discovering that they can drop that fig leaf and feel confident they can get away with it. This is because the surveillance, control and anti-political resistance technologies that our societies have been so busy developing and installing (also with the help of the internet) mean that once in power, these leaders are extremely difficult for their citizens to remove.
Regrettably, I see no way in which the internet genie and its undesirable by-products can be stuffed back in the bottle, especially as some states start to develop their own domestic internet equivalents. As with other intractable situations such as runaway climate change and worldwide ecosystem collapses, it is a predicament, not a problem.