Digital democracy or demise of informed discourse

Back in 2011-2013 when there were various Arab uprisings including the Egyptian one I started writing a blog post about how I thought social media was changing the game in political terms. A friend in Thailand suggested it was too soon and not to be over hopeful that anything much would really change so I dropped that post into my draft folder.

Now five plus years later I am revisiting that idea. In short it looks to me that social media has enabled a broader political discourse both positive and negative and the old right / left scale for thinking about politics seems to be less relevant than it was.

On the positive side it seems like the dispossessed and the marginalised have access to alternative media and communications across nations and traditional social and cultural divides. The irony of this is that we know more about what is happening in Yemen, Myanmar, Syria and other hotspots around the world.

On the other hand as another friend suggests maybe we have lost 500 years of political democratic tradition and just empowered a wider range of ridiculous blathering. Too much noise and not enough signal and now that the news is often delivered from a social media feed of some kind the news itself is filtered, distorted and manipulated by algorithms, advertisers and the media mode itself.

The recent enquiry into manipulation of Facebook data and micro targeting of what amounts to a global campaign of “divide and conquer” would support the view that media and especially delivered by social technologies is not easy to analyse or manage. Traditionally media organisations have been regulated in some way or shape but social media is still resisting categorisation as a media platform which it very cleary is.

Returning back to the Arab Uprisings as a phenomenon. In The Arab Uprisings ExplainedNew Contentious Politics in the Middle East. Edited by Marc Lynch and published by Columbia University Press in 2014 various essayists offer their insights.

“The Arab uprisings pose stark challenges to the political science of the Middle East, which for decades had focused upon the resilience of entrenched authoritarianism, the relative weakness of civil society, and what seemed to be the largely contained diffusion of new norms and ideas through new information technologies.”

See also an article by Marc Lynch in WAPO shortly before that book was published. I agree with his view that while the outcomes of those events was less successful in real change that 2011 period did mark a significant change in political thinking turning into real actions.

The key sentence for me is this one.

“Few of the authors expected an easy translation of popular uprisings into institutionalized democratic politics. But neither democratic outcomes nor regime overthrow are necessary for the Arab uprisings to be seen as an extraordinary political event commanding the attention of political scientists. The moment of mobilization was extraordinary on its own terms. What made this moment distinctive was not the presence of protest – by 2011, nobody in Egypt was surprised by public demonstrations or by disaffection with then-President Hosni Mubarak – but the speed, magnitude and composition of simultaneous mobilization across multiple countries.”

Returning to the present day in 2018 I follow Charles P Pierce on twitter. His writing over at Esquire and various other outlets made more sense of the last U.S election than most other commentators at the time.

While there is hope of improved access to political change in many countries it is in the supposedly more developed Western economies of the U.K, U.S, Germany, Australia and of course in New Zealand as well that we still see a surprising lack of awareness or insight on issues of equality, democracy or any critical thinking in the political media.

Part of that comes from the demise of traditional newspaper publishing model where clickbait has been mistaken for a business model. In the U.S we have seen the rise of demagoguery and a huge rise in distrust for that electoral system. Yes the U.S electoral system is flawed and damaged but it seems like the Democrats are just as irrelevant as the Republicans when it comes to answers or any kind of fix.

It is a moral travesty when stand-up comedians speak more truth than the elected representatives of any country. Of course there is a long tradition of the court jester speaking the truth but unfortunately those people don’t vote or vote strategically enough.

The so called President Trump is nothing more than a con man and only knows about real estate. He has a track record of not playing by the rules and stiffing his suppliers and partners. I recall about a year ago some commentators thought the Republicans would use him to get some of their pet ideas through and then manipulate him out the door.

In The President Is a Few Bulbs Short of a Chandelier Charles Pierce writes “Trump melts down—and is cut off by the hosts of—Fox & Friends.” Or see Nikki Haley Just Learned That Trump Sees Everyone Around Him as Disposable Assets They can’t fit through the loopholes with him two recent news stories that are signs that the US political system is incapable of any coherent action.

At the very least Mr T, like the cartoon character he is; is suffering from a number of health conditions brought on by lack of sleep, decades of coddling, unbounded privilege and a media who despise him but continue to publicise his every move because train wrecks make money for media platforms.

On a recent trip to Australia it seemed to me that Australian politicians are more intent on playing the election game than in getting anything done. The extraordinary scams and rorts being uncovered by the Banking Royal Commission are mind blowing in the way that financial regulations have been side stepped by all the major players.

It is easy to be cynical about change in politics and to return to the earlier thoughts about the impact of social media on political debate around the world. Is there any hope for change or are we all screwed?

I certainly hope not and recent hopeful news in Armenia of a velvet revolution shows promise hearing from expat Armenians it seems like outcomes in 2018 might be for real change at the grass roots level.

In New Zealand we have a 38 year old Prime Minister who has been groomed for leadership since she was 17. So far she has shown more real world understanding of the levers of change than most politicians.

I’m hoping for a giantkiller and I think that future voters and younger voters under the age of 30-ish are looking for real answers on housing, transport, social equity and real equality.