Wednesday, 9 November 2016

So, are Trump and Brexit the internet's fault then?

It goes without saying that there has been a troubling sea-change in the way politics is done (in the UK and the US anyway) over the last few months. The question is, why? Of course, populist demagoguery and the appeal to the lowest common denominator of mysogyny and racial and religious prejudice are hardly new, and neither is the phenomenon of post-truth politics . It's just that in the past it has taken conditions like the collapse of the Weimar Republic to bring them to the fore. And though there has been an economic downturn since the global financial crash, people aren't yet having to take a barrowload of banknotes to the shops to buy a pound of potatoes.

So why have the electorate turned their faces so vehemently against 'experts' and 'the establishment' that they are prepared to support people who are saying things that would not long ago have been unthinkable? And I don't just mean Trump's offensiveness towards women, the disabled, muslims and even PoWs, Johnson's racial slur on the President of the USA or Farage's Breaking Point poster. There is their utter disregard for normal standards of truth and honesty and their willingness to threaten political violence if they don't get their way (both Farage and Trump have explicitly warned of, and even encouraged, people taking to the streets if their agenda is frustrated). There is their willingness to talk in ludicrously broad terms of what they are going to achieve without the slightest attempt at formulating policies for doing so. Their willingness to whip their electorate up with promises they have absolutely no intention of delivering on.

Not so long ago these people (Trump, Farage, Johnson, Gove and others) would have become political pariahs for the way they have behaved - banished to the wastebin of political history like Nick Griffin, Jean-Marie le Pen or Ross Perot (all of whom would probably in 2016 be seen as rather conservative with a small c). So what has changed?

Is it ludicrous to suggest that the growth of the internet and social media holds part of the explanation? You see it used to be that the general electorate had an extremely unequal relationship with the political establishment. Political leaders were part of a secret world to which we, the electorate, had no real access and whose denizens knew far better than we did what was wrong with the world and how to put it right. You could protest of course, and many did, but you would never really know what went on in the corridors of power and never fully grasp the hugely complex levers of power that these people wielded.

The internet has changed all that. There is wikileaks of course, exposing the soiled underwear of that political establishment for all to see. But there's also Twitter and the like. Time was that political leaders pontificated on the BBC news and all you could do was shout at the television. Now political leaders have twitter accounts and your tweets are allowed exactly the same number of characters as theirs. It's like the scene at the end of the Wizard of Oz when the curtain gets pulled back to reveal the funny little man operating the machinery.

But the other thing that twitter does is allow (encourage even) strident and simplistic comments to be instantly disseminated with no real challenge. Time was, if a politician wanted to say any of the things Trump has put in his tweets they would have to do it either on TV or in parliament, and there they would be subject to more or less effective questioning and made to explain or justify their remarks. On twitter, that simply doesn't happen in the same way. Social media operates as a series of 'echo chambers' within which people generally hear repeated and amplified messages with which they are already inclined to agree. And if there is any voice of dissent it can quickly descend into a 'he said, she said' twitter storm that really doesn't hold anyone to account.

And it seems to me that this provides fertile ground for the dissemination of the sort of populist, demagogic politics we see from Trump and the Brexiteers (now there's a name for an apocalyptic Death Metal band...). And once a movement like that starts in social media world it can be very hard both to gauge accurately and to stop. The normal standards of decent political discourse simply don't apply in social media echo chambers, and anyone interjecting with rational, fact-based or expert counter-arguments can easily be dismissed (and/or personally attacked) as establishment stooges or even 'enemies of the people.' And the left-wing liberals would never set foot in these sort of social media echo chambers anyway (they have their own) so such a movement can grow virtually unchecked.

So what can be done?

I have always felt that, in the long term at least, an increase in the ability of people to communicate directly with each other must be a good thing. However recent events have shown beyond doubt that removing too rapidly the governing mechanism of respect for political establishments has been extremely dangerous. And now the only thing to do is somehow offer and disseminate an alternative discourse with which at least some of the people currently caught up in demagogic populism can engage. We won't do it by lecturing either (which sort of rules me out!) The liberal left needs to develop memes and (non-sarky) tweets and snappy one-liners about the empowerment of ordinary citizens and the benefits of cultural cross-pollination and the enormous benefits that liberal democracy has brought.

We need clever people and young people and people whose minds haven't atrophied or solidified around crass simplifications about immigration and scroungers. Thankfully that's just what we've got. But they need not to disappear into their own comfortably outraged echo chambers but get out there and start repairing the damage.

Good luck with that.

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