INTRODUCTION: This essay was submitted to the annual Dalton Camp Award, which offers a $10,000 prize for writing that links journalism and democracy. Read the winning essay here. http://www.friends.ca/DCA/2015/SpencerKeys
“Totalitarianism undermines civil society through the atomization of individual citizens. …totalitarian states ‘atomize society so that people become isolated and mistrustful of one another and hence unable to concert their efforts in organized political activity. Society itself thereby becomes an instrument of coercion…’” —James L. Gibson, Social Networks, Civil Society, and the Prospects for Consolidating Russia’s Democratic Transition, 2001, Washington University in St. Louis
The atomization of dissent—one expects it under a totalitarian regime. But I would argue that this atomization has also happened in Western ‘democracies’ whose political power structures have become subsumed by commercial interests. This atomization has been achieved in much more subtle fashion in the West than it was in the former Communist bloc countries or in China. Rather than a Stalinistic crackdown and ‘disappearing’ of dissidents, the commercialized West has opted for the appeal to narcissism through personalized technologies. Rather than suppress access to media, Western corporatocracies have actually increased personal access to media. Now anyone can write a blog or host a Facebook group page, granting them absolute control over what they publish with no system of editing or vetting. This is why Robert McChesney and John Nichols, in The Death and Life of American Journalism, have argued that, while a key component of democratizing media, the blogosphere can never replace traditional journalism. Universal access to media too easily fosters a kind of Rush Limbaugh Syndrome, where any bigot can spout uninformed, divisive opinions with at least some guarantee of an audience. Social media has only exacerbated this problem. What are the implications for democracy then, and the social discourse required to achieve it?
McChesney and Nichols’ book charts a new path for journalism.
This atomization of Western society, combined with the rapid-fire nature of social media, has created a potentially dangerous erosion of civil society. I’ve lost count now of how many times I’ve inadvertently been drawn into what I call ‘Facebook wrangles’ where, simply by disagreeing with someone’s opinion, I’ve been the victim of the most vicious name-calling and abuse. Perhaps due to the many tragic reports of teen suicides in response to cyber-bullying, Facebook administration now takes complaints very seriously and slanderous content is removed quickly when reported. But the question remains: Are we no longer capable of civil discourse?
What has happened to the simple right to ‘agree to disagree’? How can a society retain its cohesiveness if its members can’t even disagree with one another without resorting to vicious and even libelous behaviour? And how can any semblance of democracy be maintained if its members can’t debate the most basic of issues without descending into a verbal free-for-all? The theme of the Dalton Camp Award is how media informs democracy. While much has been discussed about the role of social media in political activism, such as in the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, little has been said yet about its role in civil discourse.
There’s no doubt social media is a powerful tool for change, though the depth and extent of the change wrought by it is open to question. Clay Shirky, in his 2011 essay for the Council on Foreign Relations, The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere and Political Change, argues that the real power of social media is “in supporting civil society and the public sphere—which will produce change over years and decades, not weeks or months.” Undoubtedly, this is a conservative opinion, given that the Council is an elite establishment. However, as we’ve seen in Egypt, the ousting of a corrupt regime is only the first step. The actual building or rebuilding of civil society is a much larger, longer-term task. Social media can only claim to have been the tool that pried the lid off an already simmering kettle. It provided a vital logistical tool but no long-term strategies for social cohesion. And of course, for regimes not committed to a democratic agenda, there will always be counter-measures. As Shirky notes, this takes in the two central arguments against social media’s ability to transform national politics. “The first is that the tools are themselves ineffective, and the second is that they produce as much harm to democratization as good, because repressive governments are becoming better at using these tools to suppress dissent.” The second point is somewhat suspect, and reflects an establishment concern with preserving the status quo. But the first point, social media’s effectiveness for sustained democratic change, is at least arguable.
In the 2013 State of Civil Society Report, an essay by Stefania Milan and Mario Lubetkin acknowledges another challenge to political transformation through social media. Not the least of which is the growing concentration of media in few corporate hands, a trend that began well before Facebook or Twitter were even invented. To this complication Milan and Lubetkin add both “the predominance of ‘infotainment’ and ‘sensationalism’ over information and analysis, and the prevalence of Western voices at the expense of a silenced global South.” Once again, McChesney and Nichol’s magisterial analysis of the fall of journalism in the United States (and by extension, Canada) bears on the discussion. In their view, the sharp decline in investigative journalism has been a direct result of corporate concentration, with its fixation on the bottom line and continual cuts to staff. Put simply, good journalism costs money to produce.
Which brings us back again to the role of civil discourse in an atomized, highly individualized society. As Milan and Lubetkin point out, “social media and blogging platforms, by privileging an individualistic approach to communication, are sometimes at odds with the ways in which organised civil society traditionally communicates.” James L. Gibson’s analysis of the potential (or lack of it) for democracy to take root in post-Cold War Russia has relevance here. “Although conceding that the emergence of a civil society was one of the reasons for the decline of Soviet communism in Central and Eastern Europe… Many analysts argue that civil society in the mid-to-late 1990s is being undermined by the radical individualism, social anomie and distrust, and just simple greed that characterize politics in these polities.” Gibson’s thesis focuses on social networks as “a key attribute of a civil society… the antithesis of a civil society is atomization—a condition in which each citizen is dissociated from every other citizen.” (italics mine) By “social networks,” Gibson wasn’t talking about Facebook or Twitter. He was talking about old-fashioned, face-to-face socializing in what sociologists call groups with ‘weak ties,’ that is, social rather than family or clan groupings. Most ominously for social media, he contends that for these kinds of social networks to have transformative effects, they must be “politically relevant—they must encourage and support discussion of politics among citizens. …social networks are a means of transmitting innovative information and values in a society, and consequently, in democratizing polities, those with more developed networks are more likely to adopt democratic values.”
Meanwhile, traditional social networks have been breaking down. Writing for OpenDemocracy.net, Michael Edwards notes that labour unions in the US have declined by 43 percent between 1950 and 2000, while parent-teacher associations have lost 60 percent of their membership during the same period. Yet these community-based social networks were the very heart of social transformation in the 20th century. As Edwards explains: “When one looks at the few times in history when civil society has functioned as a powerful and lasting moral and political lever—like the civil rights and women’s movements of the 1960s and 1970s—large numbers of people became active in translating ethical action into power structures at every level, from the family to the courts and corporations.” (italics mine) Tellingly, Edwards notes that although NGOs have blossomed as never before—with 1.5 million charities in the US alone and 90 percent of all NGOs established since 1975—they currently seem to have less, rather than more, influence on the political agenda. Obviously this too is debatable.
Gibson’s 2001 essay acquires a chillingly prophetic tone in light of recent political tensions between Russia and the Ukraine. Thirteen years ago, he wrote: “Few who study Russian political culture are optimistic about the development of a strong civil society in that country. In addition to the debilitating burden of hundreds of years of authoritarianism, contemporary Russia is said to lack two crucial elements of a civil society—interpersonal trust and a broad array of non-state voluntary organizations. For instance, … 80 to 90 percent of Russians do not belong to any voluntary associations.” Compare this with Edwards’ report of dropping membership in civic associations in the US over the past 50 years or so. Canadians tend to be just a few steps behind America in most sociological trends, so it’s not a stretch to suggest a similar plunge here.
The age-old strategy of divide and conquer seems to apply here, particularly with the rise of narcissism in Western culture. In part this is a natural outgrowth of a consumer oriented industrial-technological society, where industries rely on continual mass consumption of their products to stay profitable. Obviously a community ethos works directly against this form of capitalism. Why share a lawn mower with your neighbours when you can buy your own? Why borrow a tool when you can have your own garage full of tools (even though you probably only use them a few times a year)? This kind of consumerism set the groundwork for the narcissism we now seeing playing out on social media. “In data from 37,000 college students, narcissistic personality traits rose just as fast as obesity from the 1980s to the present,” write psychologists Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell in The Narcissism Epidemic. “By 2006, one out of four college students agreed with the majority of items on the standard measure of narcissistic traits. …Narcissists thrive on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook.” Tellingly, a Carnegie Mellon study on online discussion forums found that they fostered “superficial exchanges instead of meaningful conversations.”
The fixation with the self is damaging social discourse.
But how can trust be maintained in a social media environment where anonymity is treated as license for abuse? How can a social group come together in an environment where disagreement is met not with well-reasoned debate but with ad hominem attacks? Have we been so ‘dumbed down’ that most of us can’t formulate an intelligent argument, so when someone disagrees with us, we simply lash out? According to Twenge and Campbell, there are potential solutions. “The first step toward severing the link between narcissism and antisocial behaviours is to make socially inappropriate behaviour go unnoticed and unrewarded.” Our reliance on technology comes with a price, one we’re seldom encouraged to consider. ‘The tool shapes the shaper.’ Add to that the fact that for thousands of years humans have relied on non-textual cues to communication—the raising of an eyebrow, shifting in a chair, a rise or fall in the tone of voice—to interpret meaning. With social media the majority of this information is missing, leaving only text to interpret. The pathetic ‘smiley face’ icons of social media cannot possibly replace all this lost information from the sender.
This is nothing less than a radical transformation of human communications. Yet we’re somehow expected to adapt to it within the space of a generation. Certainly you could argue that traditional cursive writing also left out many non-textual cues. The difference, however, was that great effort was taken in public education to train people to express themselves in writing with eloquence and flair. Compare even an average letter written in Victorian times with an email or Facebook post. I’m willing to bet the range of expression will have seriously contracted. And if it’s Twitter you have even less space for eloquence. Not to mention, a forum that rewards instantaneous, often thoughtless expression over thoughtful, reasoned eloquence. This is hardly a formula for social cohesion, much less any major social change.
The corporate consolidation that began in the early 1990s, with the concomitant rise in lobbying to direct the political agenda, has had as much effect on NGOs, democracy and social activism as digital media itself did. This is a fundamental premise of Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything. An increasing focus on ‘branding’ and ‘market share’ slipped over from commercial realms to influence NGOs competing for public donations. Gradually they came more to resemble than contrast the corporations they were fighting. Adam Smith’s ‘law of the marketplace’ thus did a far better job of undermining social change than any concerted infiltration could have done. In analyzing the communications weaknesses of NGOs, Milan and Lubetkin point out that, “More coordination is needed in order to speak with a unified voice to policy-makers.” Instead, the imperative to stake out an NGO’s unique slice of the funding pie has largely kept them from presenting a united front, a single rallying cry for millions. Obviously some groups are more effective at this than others, for example Avaaz and 350.org.
Bill McKibben is probably glad he has tools like Facebook and Twitter to rally the troops, as was seen in the most recent global climate change rallies. But I’m willing to bet he’d prefer to see us create or join community-based social networks—like the old civil associations and unions—that carry forward the work far beyond a single day of activism. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Naomi Klein makes this very point. As journalist Adam Vaughan explained: “She said it was not just the scale of the march in New York that had impressed her but the diversity, made up of local communities who had been hit by superstorm Sandy, indigenous people fighting tar sands developments, anti-fracking campaigners and what she described as the first time the Labor movement was out in force, calling for job creation in response to climate change.” (italics mine)
Who knows? Maybe that would help us reboot civil discourse, and with it, civil society.
 Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols, The Death and Life of American Journalism, Nation Books, 2010, pp. 78-81.
 Clay Shirky, The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere and Political Change, Council on Foreign Relations, January/February 2011, http://www.bendevane.com/FRDC2011/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/The-Political-Power-of-Social-Media-Clay-Sirky.pdf
 Clay Shirky, ibid.
 Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols, ibid., pp. 81-82.
 Stefania Melan & Mario Lubetkin, ibid.
 James L. Gibson, Social Networks, Civil Society, and the Prospects for Consolidating Russia’s Democratic Transition, 2001, Washington University in St. Louis, http://jameslgibson.wustl.edu/ajps2001.pdf
 James L. Gibson, ibid.
 Michael Edwards, When is civil society a force for social transformation?, OpenDemocracy.net, May 30, 2014, https://www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/michael-edwards/when-is-civil-society-force-for-social-transformation
 James L. Gibson, ibid.
 Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, Simon & Schuster Inc. 2009, first Atria paperback edition 2013, pp. 2, 110.
 Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, ibid., p. 111.
 Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, ibid., p. 207.
 Stefania Melan & Mario Lubetkin, ibid.
 Adam Vaughan, Naomi Klein: UK fracking trespass law flouts democratic rights, The Guardian online, October 7, 2014, note video interview at 1:13:31, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/oct/07/naomi-klein-uk-fracking-trespass-law-flouts-democratic-rights