Monday, 26 March 2018

The Public Sphere

Andrew Rawnsley in yesterday's Observer reckons "the internet has created a political ecosystem in which the extreme, the incendiary and the polarising tend to prevail over the considered, the rational and the consensus-seeking". This is nonsense on two counts. First, the political ecosystem didn't suddenly coarsen with the arrival of Twitter. Brexit was fuelled by a decades-long campaign run by the bulk of the British press, while the election of Donald Trump owed more to the groundwork laid since the 1990s by cable news networks like Fox than to Facebook. If anything, social media has led to greater plurality and dissent, hence the strong backlash against both Brexit and Trump. This plurality may constitute a commercial threat to incumbents like the Guardian Media Group, but it doesn't herald the end of politics. Second, the liberal media is itself increasingly prone to the rejection of the "considered and rational" in its pursuit of a smoking-gun that it imagines will annul both the EU referendum and the US Presidential election. What's worth picking out of Rawnsley's hyperbole is his reference to the political "ecosystem", which clearly extends beyond his normal beat of SW1.

The editorial in the same issue suggests that we face the threat of a fragmented polity: "The trend towards micro-targeting risks moving us further away from the democracy of the public forum, towards a fractured, individualised democracy in which 'swing voters' are targeted based on narrow issues, using false claims or under-the-radar dog-whistling that are not subjected to public scrutiny". This exaggerates the potential for targeted messaging. In practice, most people will get the default, and those that might be susceptible to a customised version were probably getting it in the past as well (it's worth recalling Zac Goldsmith's decidedly old-school leaflet, claiming that Sadiq Khan would tax Indian families' jewels, which was issued during the 2016 London Mayoralty election). There won't be millions of messages, there will be closer to a dozen, based around standard demographic dimensions such as age, income and housing tenure. The reference to "the public forum" and the scrutiny it enables, in combination with Rawnsley's "ecosystem", indicates that the true subject of the Observer's concern is the public sphere.

Despite the fact that the UK's laws on political campaigns and donations have long been weak, Rawnsley imagines a golden age not so long ago: "In the analogue political era, we could all read the promises a party put in its manifesto, we could all see the claims a party made on its roadside billboards, and we could all watch the attacks launched on an opponent in a TV broadcast. That made it possible to call out mendacities and expose contradictions and to hold those responsible to account. ... There is not the capacity to apply that invigilation if millions of individualised messages are being micro-targeted at voters on social media". No evidence is offered to support the claim that invigilation is unfeasible today, possibly because the opposite is true: social media has actually made it easier to call-out lies and highlight contradictions, both as a medium and as a record (ironically, the Observer elsewhere went big on a 2012 post by Jeremy Corbyn that appeared to condone an antisemitic mural). Likewise, obliging a party campaign to register all its distinct, automated messages for public scrutiny would be trivial precisely because it's automated. The challenge then is not the technology but the inadequacy of electoral law.

While the regulations around party political campaigning can certainly be tightened, this won't effect the dissemination of propaganda by individuals who aren't formal party representatives and who only need to avoid breaking the laws on incitement or party financing. Lone-wolf political operators quickly learnt that social media could be used to amplify a message through the techniques of viral marketing, and they had long ago learnt from tabloid newspapers that the incendiary and polarising commands more eyeballs than the considered and rational. Liberals struggle to cope with this impudence, not least because of their formal commitment to free speech, hence they tend to emphasise its impropriety. Personal political advocacy is not new, of course. It has long been traditional for newspapers to give prominence to celebrities who urge us to vote a particular way at election time. While these endorsements don't have the clout that they did back in their 1980s heyday, their decline in effectiveness owes more to the general fragmentation of the media landscape and the devaluation of celebrity rather than to the disruption of Instagram. You might imagine that the competitive autonomy of social media would appeal to liberals, but this would be to misunderstand their conception of the public sphere.

The central concern of historical liberalism was the defence of the private sphere, particularly in the forms of private opinion and private property, which came to prominence in the 16th century in Europe in the wake of the Reformation and the end of feudalism. The need for collective action in that defence resulted in the evolution of the concept of the public sphere (and the related concepts of public opinion and public scrutiny) in the 17th century as a constraint on state power. While it had a sociological reality in the 18th century era of small electorates and limited media, it increasingly became an idealised form over the course of the 19th century as the "public" simultaneously expanded and fragmented along class lines. This increase in both scale and the variety of interests meant that the public sphere could no longer operate as a normative assumption among a small section of society but had to be increasingly recreated on a daily basis through the discursive practices of the media. Over and above the commercial power that arose from an expanding audience, this gave the mass media a privileged position as both the facilitators and primary invigilators of political discourse. Inevitably, this shift from bourgeois consensus to discipline proved attractive to authoritarians, hence "public opinion" became increasingly repressive.

The advance of democracy led to an increasing tension within the presentation of the public sphere between the interests of property-owners and propertyless workers, which was alleviated partly by being channelled into cross-class "respectable opinion" (what would become in time the agenda of the tabloids) and partly by appeals to unifying themes such as patriotism (which remains a more acute concern in the media than the population at large). Despite these attempts at unanimity, the public sphere of the first half of the 20th century exhibited the signs of multiple, competing publics, reflected in the emergence of mass-circulation newspapers that were formal extensions of political parties rather than just habitual supporters (this was more evident on the continent than in the UK, but the point still applies). This multi-polarity began to decline with the advance of consumer society in the 1950s as the media in general got with the postwar capitalist programme. While there is much truth in Jurgen Habermas's claim that the public sphere has been progressively "refeudalised", with critical debate replaced by the consumption of appearances, structurally the media landscape of the opening years of the 21st century was little different to what it had been a century before. This has now changed.

Much of the anxiety over social media's supposedly negative effects (e.g. filter bubbles) and its potential for abuse by bad actors (e.g. fake news and targeted misinformation), not to mention its trivialisation and distraction, reflects a fear that it has degraded the public sphere, essentially through the creation of "personal publics", i.e. elective communities like Twitter or egocentric networks like Facebook. But there is no good evidence that the public sphere, however conceptualised, has actually suffered and plenty of evidence that social media have led to a greater diversity of views in public discourse and a wider exposure to challenging views for most users. The liberal media campaign against the tech titans, which was initially driven by competitive concerns over advertising revenues, has taken on a political dimension because of the assumed use of personal data in the misinformation campaigns that may have contributed to Brexit and Trump. Ironically, this is itself a misinformation campaign because it misrepresents what the tech titans are actually doing and exaggerates the political impact of their actions.

Platforms like Facebook and Twitter seek to constrain and channel autonomy and variety by guiding users' choices, which makes them no different to traditional media organisations. This is because they share the same economic imperative - the need to organise consumers in order to sell advertising - and because they are capitalist businesses with the same fundamental objective: to make money (that Facebook is more profitable than Twitter reflects its greater success in organising users). They may be disrupting newspapers and TV as competitors for ad revenue, but they aren't seeking to alter the fundamentals of the liberal public sphere or their role within it. They are just as engaged in supporting traditional discursive practices, hence their willingness to ban objectionable material or suspend users for bad language. That they typically only do this in response to complaints is a reflection of the nature of a platform that has vastly expanded authorship and abolished editorial control. While this might appear problematic in the traditional conception of the public sphere, where judgement and discrimination are paramount and voice is a privilege, it explains why the emergence of social media has been the single biggest advance towards a revival of the critical-rational public debate that Habermas called for. Social media are transforming the public sphere, not threatening it.

1 comment:

  1. Herbie Destroys the Environment26 March 2018 at 18:15

    The internet, and the facebook affair is an example I think of where the social system, i.e. capitalism, becomes a fetter.

    On one level we shouldn’t really care that our data is being mined and I claim people knew this was happening anyway. The problem is this data mining is done is a class conflicted world, which results in other conflicts such as ethnicity. (And in a world where information is power and money via targeted advertising etc).

    So the fact that politics and election results are being affected by facebook leads to the conclusion that the internet needs to be controlled.

    Part of me wonders if we should be saying that is politics and elections that are the problem not the internet.

    So can I ask the question, why exactly do we have elections and politics? And a further question, why do we need adverts?