Social media is killing politics, claims book

Insulting: Some typical accusations against our political figures in the age of social media.

This weekend Hillary Clinton bitterly attacked online bigots. She spoke as a new book, by one of the global media’s most powerful leaders, argues that social media is ruining proper debate.

‘To be grossly generalistic, you can put half of Trump supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables.’

This was Hillary Clinton’s unforgiving characterisation of her opponent’s voters this weekend. Donald Trump, she said, had legitimised the views of hateful people.

Much of her evidence lay online. ‘Websites that used to only have 11,000 people now have 11 million,’ she said. She later criticised Trump for ‘retweeting fringe bigots’ and tying himself to the ‘alt-right’ movement, which has a large internet following.

Until recently, Trump’s volatile rhetoric would have made him a very unlikely candidate for the US presidency. But he stands a realistic chance of winning this year’s election. Across the Western world, support for radical movements of the right and the left has grown remarkably.

Now a former director-general of the BBC, who is boss of The New York Times, says political discourse is becoming more relativistic and nihilistic. In his book, Enough Said, Mark Thompson describes politics now as ‘a fight to the political death, in which every linguistic weapon is fair game’. Politicians’ speeches increasingly belittle facts, relying less on logos (reason and argument) than pathos (emotion).

Writers such as Plato, Thomas Hobbes and George Orwell worried that politicians could adopt and exploit harmful language. But Thompson argues that today’s trend has unique features; and his main focus, like Clinton’s, is the digital sphere.

On social media, he says, instant reaction has replaced careful reflection. In cult-like ‘echo chambers’, prejudices are reinforced and opinions polarised. Thoughts on complex issues are reduced to 140-character tweets, with little room for nuance. This, in turn, drives the news cycle. Struggling publications give exposure to outrageous viewpoints to generate traffic. Young journalists ‘race to keep one step ahead of the scything blades of Facebook’s unforgiving algorithm’.

So is social media to blame for the coarsening of political debate?

Nothing but followers?

Yes, says ‘technological determinist’ Matt Ridley of The Times. Social media, like the radio and TV before, controls our interaction with politics. We now distill our thoughts into simple, definite chunks, take sides and see the worst in each other. This anarchic political forum emboldens the opinionated and puts off the moderates.

Technology reflects our frustrations, say others: it does not cause them. Blame the politicians. In an age of globalisation, wars and poverty, a generation of managerial figures has promised much but delivered little. Even Clinton’s remark this weekend belittled millions of ordinary people. What sort of reaction did she expect?

You Decide

  1. Does your reading of social media change the way you think?
  2. Which is more responsible for the coarsening of political debate: technology or politicians?

Activities

  1. Work in pairs. Each write a persuasive speech on an issue you care about. One of you should rely on emotion; the other on reason. Then read them out and discuss as a class: which is more effective?
  2. Find a short speech from history. Take a brief extract from it which impresses you. Write a two-page essay explaining why it is persuasive, citing at least three reasons.

Some People Say...

“Human beings are merely a product of the technology at their disposal.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I do not do politics online. Why does the discussion affect me?
Politics affects all of our lives, whether for good or ill. It helps to inform the laws you must follow; it decides how much tax you pay (especially when you are older and have a job) and how much money is spent on public services you use, like schools. Your politicians are also your representatives abroad. If people are influencing political debate, they may change decisions which affect you.
But why does the way politics is discussed matter?
In democracies, political discussion enables people to express views on the issues they care about, and to try to persuade others. It gives leaders the chance to understand what they should prioritise. If the opportunity is wasted, you and others will lose the chance to have a say.

Word Watch

Later
On Saturday, Clinton issued a partial retraction, saying she regretted the word ‘half’.
Right
For example, Marine Le Pen, the National Front leader in France, has topped many polls for next year’s presidential election.
Left
Such as Jeremy Corbyn of the UK’s Labour Party and Bernie Sanders of the Democrats in the USA.
Relativistic
Valuing all opinions equally, no matter the facts behind them. Thompson criticises some former colleagues at the BBC for taking their duty of impartiality too literally.
Logos
Logos and pathos are from classical Greek.
Polarised
A report by Pew in the US in 2014 said: ‘Polarised crowds on Twitter are not arguing. They are ignoring one another while pointing to different web resources and using different hashtags’.
Radio
This allowed leaders to speak to voters more informally: US president Franklin Roosevelt held ‘fireside chats’. It also allowed regimes such as the Nazis to promote propaganda.
TV
At the height of the 1960s US civil rights movement, the proliferation of TVs allowed people to see for themselves the injustices peaceful protesters faced.

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