Truth, Facts, and Politics in the Digital Age

On election night, one tweet succinctly summed up the situation: “Smart people spent 2016 being wrong about everything.”

Indeed. I can, however, think of one smart person who may have seen more clearly had he been alive:  Neil Postman. As I’ve suggested on more than a few occasions, #NeilPostmanWasRight would be a wonderfully apt hashtag with which to sum up this fateful year. Naturally, I don’t think Neil Postman’s work on media ecology and politics explains everything about our present political culture, but his insights go a long way. I wrote a bit about why that is the case after the first presidential debate a couple of months ago. Here I’ll only remind you of this paragraph from Amusing Ourselves to Death:

“My argument is limited to saying that a major new medium changes the structure of discourse; it does so by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, by favoring certain definitions of intelligence and wisdom, and by demanding a certain kind of content–in a phrase, by creating new forms of truth-telling.”

It is that last line that I want you to consider as I pass along a few items that help us better understand the relationship among media, truth, and politics.

The first two pieces are from Nathan Jurgenson. The first is a post written in the immediate aftermath of the election. Here is a key section:

And it also seems that the horror I’m seeing being expressed right now is partly the shock about being so dreadfully wrong. It’s the terror of having to come to terms with the fact that your information diet is deeply flawed. It’s the obvious fact that misinformation isn’t a problem over there on the right wing meme pages but is also our problem.

On the right, they have what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness,” which we might define as ignoring facts in the name of some larger truth. The facts of Obama’s birthplace mattered less for them than their own racist “truth” of white superiority. Perhaps we need to start articulating a left-wing version of truthiness: let’s call it “factiness.” Factiness is the taste for the feel and aesthetic of “facts,” often at the expense of missing the truth. From silly self-help-y TED talks to bad NPR-style neuroscience science updates to wrapping ourselves in the misleading scientisim of Fivethirtyeight statistics, factiness is obsessing over and covering ourselves in fact after fact while still missing bigger truths.

The second is an essay from October, “Chaos of Facts,” that more deeply explores similar terrain. Here are two excerpts, but do read the whole thing.

It’s easy to see how Trump’s rise was the culmination of image-based politics rather than some unprecedented and aberrant manifestation of them. Yet much of the political apparatus — conventional politicians and the traditional media outlets accustomed to a monopoly in covering them — still rarely admits this out loud. Instead, it tried to use Trump’s obvious performativity as an opportunity to pass off the rest of the conventional politics it has been practicing — the image-based, entertainment-driven politics we’ve been complaining about since Boorstin and before — as real. Perhaps it was more real than ever, given how strenuously many outlets touted the number of fact-checkers working a debate, and how they pleaded that democracy depends on their gatekeeping.

And:

It’s been repeated that the theme of the 2016 campaign is that we’re now living in a “post-truth” world. People seem to live in entirely different realities, where facts and fact-checking don’t seem to matter, where disagreement about even the most basic shape of things seems beyond debate. There is a broad erosion of credibility for truth gatekeepers. On the right, mainstream “credibility” is often regarded as code for “liberal,” and on the left, “credibility” is reduced to a kind of taste, a gesture toward performed expertism. This decline of experts is part of an even longer-term decline in the trust and legitimacy of nearly all social institutions. Ours is a moment of epistemic chaos.

You should also read Adam Elkus’ post, “It’s the Memes, Stupid.” Here is his concluding paragraph:

Subcultural memes, bots, and other forms of technology that represent, shape, distort, mutate, select, reproduce, combine, or generate information are not only sources of political power, they are also significant and under-analyed features of contemporary society. Memes and bots are both alike in that they are forms of automation – memes (in the Dawkins telling) almost robotically replicate themselves, and computer programs of varying degrees of complexity or simplicity also increasingly outnumber humans in social forums like Twitter. The Puppetmaster said in Ghost in the Shell that humankind has underestimated the consequences of computerization. This was a gross understatement. If there is no distinction between politics and memes (or other forms of cyberculture), we have a long road ahead in which we have to adapt to the consequences.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that the moment we inhabit has emerged out of nowhere, breaking altogether with some placid, unmediated past. (Neither Elkus nor Jurgenson make this mistake.) Thinking about how the past relates to the present is not a straightforward affair. It is too easy, on the one hand, to fall into the trap of thinking that we are merely repeating the past in a different key, or, on the other, that our moment is, indeed, wholly discontinuous with the past. The truth, difficult to ascertain, is always more complicated.

That said, consider the closing paragraphs of Søren Kierkegaard’s, “The Present Age”:

The public is an idea, which would never have occurred to people in ancient times, for the people themselves en masse in corpora took steps in any active situation, and bore responsibility for each individual among them, and each individual had to personally, without fail, present himself and submit his decision immediately to approval or disapproval. When first a clever society makes concrete reality into nothing, then the Media creates that abstraction, “the public,” which is filled with unreal individuals, who are never united nor can they ever unite simultaneously in a single situation or organization, yet still stick together as a whole. The public is a body, more numerous than the people which compose it, but this body can never be shown, indeed it can never have only a single representation, because it is an abstraction. Yet this public becomes larger, the more the times become passionless and reflective and destroy concrete reality; this whole, the public, soon embraces everything. . . .

The public is not a people, it is not a generation, it is not a simultaneity, it is not a community, it is not a society, it is not an association, it is not those particular men over there, because all these exist because they are concrete and real; however, no single individual who belongs to the public has any real commitment; some times during the day he belongs to the public, namely, in those times in which he is nothing; in those times that he is a particular person, he does not belong to the public. Consisting of such individuals, who as individuals are nothing, the public becomes a huge something, a nothing, an abstract desert and emptiness, which is everything and nothing. . . .

The Media is an abstraction (because a newspaper is not concrete and only in an abstract sense can be considered an individual), which in association with the passionlessness and reflection of the times creates that abstract phantom, the public, which is the actual leveler. . . . More and more individuals will, because of their indolent bloodlessness, aspire to become nothing, in order to become the public, this abstract whole, which forms in this ridiculous manner: the public comes into existence because all its participants become third parties. This lazy mass, which understands nothing and does nothing, this public gallery seeks some distraction, and soon gives itself over to the idea that everything which someone does, or achieves, has been done to provide the public something to gossip about. . . . The public has a dog for its amusement. That dog is the Media. If there is someone better than the public, someone who distinguishes himself, the public sets the dog on him and all the amusement begins. This biting dog tears up his coat-tails, and takes all sort of vulgar liberties with his leg–until the public bores of it all and calls the dog off. That is how the public levels.

I’d encourage you to take a closer look at those last six or so lines.

I first encountered “The Present Age” in philosopher Hubert Dreyfus’s On the Internet. You can read, what I presume is an earlier version of Dreyfus’ thoughts in his paper, “Kierkegaard on the Internet: Anonymity vrs. Commitment in the Present Age.” In On the Internet, Dreyfus summed up Kierkegaard’s argument this way:

. . . the new massive distribution of desituated information was making every sort of information immediately available to anyone, thereby producing a desituated, detached spectator.  Thus, the new power of the press to disseminate information to everyone in a nation led its readers to transcend their local, personal involvement . . . . Kierkegaard saw that the public sphere was destined to become a detached world in which everyone had an opinion about and commented on all public matters without needing any first-hand experience and without having or wanting any responsibility.

I’ll leave you with that.


When Words and Action Part Company

I’ve not been one to jump on the Malcolm Gladwell bandwagon; I can’t quite get past the disconcerting hair.  That said, his recent piece in The New Yorker, “Small Change:  Why the revolution will not be tweeted,” makes a compelling case for the limits of social media when it comes to generating social action.

Gladwell frames his piece as a study in contrasts.  He begins by recounting the evolution of the 1960 sit-in movement that began when four freshmen from North Carolina A & T sat down and ordered coffee at the lunch counter of the local Woolworth’s and refused to move when the waitress insisted, “We don’t serve Negroes here.”  Within days the protest grew and spread across state lines and tensions mounted.

Some seventy thousand students eventually took part. Thousands were arrested and untold thousands more radicalized. These events in the early sixties became a civil-rights war that engulfed the South for the rest of the decade—and it happened without e-mail, texting, Facebook, or Twitter.

Almost reflexively now, the devotees of social media power will trot out the Twitter-enabled 2009 Iranian protests as an example of what social media can do.  Gladwell, anticipating as much, quotes Mark Pfeifle, a former national-security adviser, who believes that, “Without Twitter the people of Iran would not have felt empowered and confident to stand up for freedom and democracy.”  Pfeifle went so far as to call for Twitter’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.  That is a bit of a stretch one is inclined to believe, and Gladwell explains why:

In the Iranian case … the people tweeting about the demonstrations were almost all in the West. “It is time to get Twitter’s role in the events in Iran right,” Golnaz Esfandiari wrote, this past summer, in Foreign Policy. “Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.” The cadre of prominent bloggers, like Andrew Sullivan, who championed the role of social media in Iran, Esfandiari continued, misunderstood the situation. “Western journalists who couldn’t reach—or didn’t bother reaching?—people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets post with tag #iranelection,” she wrote. “Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi.”

You can read the Foreign Policy article by Esfandiari Gladwell, “Misreading Tehran:  The Twitter Devolution,” online.   Gladwell argues that social media is unable to promote significant and lasting social change because they foster weak rather than strong-tie relationships.  Promoting and achieving social change very often means coming up against entrenched cultural norms and standards that will not easily give way.  And as we know from the civil rights movement, the resistance is often violent.  As Gladwell reminds us,

. . . Within days of arriving in Mississippi, three [Freedom Summer Project] volunteers—Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman—were kidnapped and killed, and, during the rest of the summer, thirty-seven black churches were set on fire and dozens of safe houses were bombed; volunteers were beaten, shot at, arrested, and trailed by pickup trucks full of armed men. A quarter of those in the program dropped out. Activism that challenges the status quo—that attacks deeply rooted problems—is not for the faint of heart.

A subsequent study of the participants in the Freedom Schools was conducted by Doug McAdam:

“All  of the applicants—participants and withdrawals alike—emerge as highly committed, articulate supporters of the goals and values of the summer program,” he concluded. What mattered more was an applicant’s degree of personal connection to the civil-rights movement . . . . [P]articipants were far more likely than dropouts to have close friends who were also going to Mississippi. High-risk activism, McAdam concluded, is a “strong-tie” phenomenon.

Gladwell also goes on to explain why hierarchy, another feature typically absent from social media activism, is indispensable to successful movements while taking some shots along the way at Clay Shirky’s much more optimistic view of social media outlined in Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.

Not suprisingly, Gladwell’s piece has been making the rounds online the past few days. In response to Gladwell, Jonah Lehrer posted “Weak Ties, Twitter and the Revolution” on his blog The Frontal Cortex.  Lehrer begins by granting, “These are all worthwhile and important points, and a necessary correction to the (over)hyping of Twitter and Facebook.”  But he believes Gladwell has erred in the other direction.  Basing his comments on Mark Granovetter’s 1973 paper, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” Lehrer concludes:

. . . I would quibble with Gladwell’s wholesale rejection of weak ties as a means of building a social movement. (I have some issues with Shirky, too.) It turns out that such distant relationships aren’t just useful for getting jobs or spreading trends or sharing information. According to Granovetter, they might also help us fight back against the Man, or at least the redevelopment agency.

Read the whole post to get the full argument and definitely read Lehrer’s excellent review of Shirky’s book linked in the quotation above.  Essentially Lehrer is offering a kind of middle ground between Shirky and Gladwell.  Since I tend toward mediating positions myself, I think he makes a valid point; but I do lean toward Gladwell’s end of the spectrum nonetheless.

Here, however, is one more angle on the issue:  perhaps the factors working against the potential of social media are not only inherent in the form itself, but also a condition of society that predates the arrival of digital media by generations.  In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt argued that power, the kind of power to transform society that Gladwell has in view,

. . . is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are  not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.

Arendt made that claim in the late 1950’s and she argued that even then words and deeds had been drifting apart for some time.  I suspect that since then the chasm has yawned ever wider and that social media participates in and reinforces that disjunction.  It would be unfair, however, to single out social media since the problem extends to most forms of public discourse, of which social media is but one example.

In The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, Steven D. Smith argues that

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the very point of ‘public reason’ is to keep the public discourse shallow – to keep it from drowning in the perilous depths of questions about ‘the nature of the universe,’ or ‘the end and object of life,’ or other tenets of our comprehensive doctrines.

If Smith is right — you can read Stanley Fish’s review in the NY Times to get more of a feel for his argument — social media already operate within a context in which the habits of public discourse have undermined our ability to take words seriously.  To put it another way, the assumptions shaping our public discourse encourage the divorce of words and deeds by stripping our language of its appeal to the deeper moral and metaphysical resources necessary to compel social action.  We tend to get stuck in the analysis and pseudo-debate without ever getting to action. As Fish puts it:

While secular discourse, in the form of statistical analyses, controlled experiments and rational decision-trees, can yield banks of data that can then be subdivided and refined in more ways than we can count, it cannot tell us what that data means or what to do with it . . . . Once the world is no longer assumed to be informed by some presiding meaning or spirit (associated either with a theology or an undoubted philosophical first principle) . . . there is no way, says Smith, to look at it and answer normative questions, questions like “what are we supposed to do?” and “at the behest of who or what are we to do it?”

Combine this with Kierkegaard’s 19th century observations about the Press that now appear all the more applicable to the digital world.  Consider the following summary of Kierkegaard’s fears offered by Hubert Dreyfus in his little book On the Internet:

. . . the new massive distribution of desituated information was making every sort of information immediately available to anyone, thereby producing a desituated, detached spectator.  Thus, the new power of the press to disseminate information to everyone in a nation led its readers to transcend their local, personal involvement . . . . Kierkegaard saw that the public sphere was destined to become a detached world in which everyone had an opinion about and commented on all public matters without needing any first-hand experience and without having or wanting any responsibility.

Kierkegaard suggested the following motto for the press:

Here men are demoralized in the shortest possible time on the largest possible scale, at the cheapest possible price.

I’ll let you decide whether or not that motto may be applied even more aptly to existing media conditions.  In any case, the situation Kierkegaard believed was created by the daily print press in his own day is at least a more likely possibility today.  A globally connected communications environment geared toward creating a constant, instantaneous, and indiscriminate flow of information, together with the assumptions of public discourse described by Smith, numbs us into docile indifference — an indifference social media may be powerless to overthrow, particularly when the stakes are high.  We are offered instead the illusion of action and involvement, the sense of participation in the debate.  But there is no meaningful debate, and by next week the issue, whatever the issue is, will still be there, and we’ll be busy discussing the next thing.  Meanwhile action walks further down a lonely path, long since parted from words.