Part One: Has Civil Discourse Become Outdated?
INTRODUCTION: To celebrate the fifth anniversary of this blog—to the day—I’m publishing this essay, which was originally submitted to the annual Dalton Camp Award, a $10,000 prize for writing that links journalism and democracy. Continuing in my unbroken string of no-wins for literary prizes, it did not win. Read the winning essay and decide for yourself whether my essay should have had at least a runner-up award. 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 Bill O’Reilly 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?
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, quality 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 organized 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.”
 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.