Democracy in the age of social media

From The Irish Times, May 14th, 2016

For political addicts in the western world, recent elections have offered more unpredictable twists than this year’s Premier League.

We have just had an electoral split between the Civil War parties and a rise in Independents that was perhaps anticipated but certainly unprecedented. In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn led an astonishing coup in the UK Labour Party, dragging it far to the left. In Spain, new parties sprung up during the economic crisis and have entirely recast the political landscape, leading to months of parliamentary deadlock. In the race for the US presidential nominations, Donald Trump is redefining demagoguery for the world while Bernie Sanders is redefining socialism for an American audience.

There has been no shortage of theories for each of these scenarios, and this sort of political upheaval is probably to be expected in the wake of massive economic turbulence. But are there any longer-term patterns that might be a factor in these previously unlikely outcomes?

Democracy depends on an informed citizenry, it is often pointed out – the currents of information that shape the direction of politics, elections, policy and ultimately our lives traditionally flow through mainstream media. So we need to start considering the implications of what happens when the free press gets disrupted, which is evidently happening right now.

We have been hearing for many years about this election or that vote being the first “digital” or “social media” election, and the superficial impact has been quite evident to see – candidates with a huge social media presence, Q&A sessions on internet forums, get out the vote efforts on Facebook, that sort of thing.

But the larger implications are far harder to discern – what happens when the mainstream press loses its ability to determine the contours of mainstream discourse.

In a long series of tweets last month, writer and theorist Clay Shirky discussed this scenario. “Social media is breaking the political ‘Overton Window’ — the ability of elites to determine the outside edges of acceptable conversation,” he wrote. “Politically acceptable discourse is limited by supply, not demand. The public is hungry for more than politicians are willing to discuss. These limits were enforced by party discipline, and mass media whose economics meant political centrism was the best way to make money.”

The Overton Window Shirky refers to is a phrase conceived in the mid-1990s by US free-market advocate Joseph Overton, describing the range of acceptable political discourse on any given topic. While predating Overton’s theory, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s 1992 book Manufacturing Consent offers a seminal analysis of the role played by the US press in disseminating establishment “propaganda”, in effect describing how the Overton Window of acceptable thought is maintained and policed. Just look at the coverage of Corbyn in much of the UK press to see the Overton Window in action.

The political order of the past few decades has come to rely on a relatively stable dynamic between politicians, press and the public. But we are at a point where that dynamic is undergoing flux due to the changing nature of the press, and the way the public engages with media?

The incisive technology analyst Ben Thompson goes so far as to suggest that “politics is just the latest industry to be transformed by the internet”. That might be overemphatic, but I feel he is correct in diagnosing an imminent and fundamental shift.

“In a Facebook world, information suppliers are modularised and commoditised as most people get their news from their feed,” he writes. “The likelihood any particular message will ‘break out’ is based not on who is propagating said message but on how many users are receptive to hearing it. The power has shifted from the supply side to the demand side.”

In this scenario, Thompson is right to identify Facebook as key to the changing landscape. While Twitter is a hugely influential broadcasting platform, Facebook’s reach is far greater. According to an article in Mother Jones magazine in 2014, Facebook conducted an experiment in the three months leading up to the 2012 US presidential election, increasing “the amount of hard news stories at the top of the feeds of 1.9 million users. According to one Facebook data scientist, that change – which users were not alerted to – measurably increased civic engagement and voter turnout.”

Concerns over concentrated media ownership will be nothing compared to the anxiety over the power wielded by Zuckerberg and Facebook, whose secretive algorithm will determine what we see, or don’t see, on our newsfeeds.

None of this is to suggest that the rise of Independent TDs, Podemos, Corbyn, Trump or Sanders can be directly attributed to the disruption of traditional media by social media – that would be absurdly reductive and would be to ignore the wider context in which each has succeeded.

But it would also be foolish to think that one form of media is merely replacing another without any political repercussions, without any underlying change in the established dynamic by which voters inform themselves about and then choose their leaders.

The great Canadian intellectual Marshall McLuhan, in coining the phrase “the medium is the message”, got to the core of the situation. “The personal and social consequences of any medium,” he wrote, “result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by…any new technology.”

To like or to dislike, that is the question

From The Irish Times, September 19th, 2015

Since its introduction in 2009, Facebook’s “like” button has become a ubiquitous unit of online expression. However, its limitations were always obvious: it’s far too reductive even as a swift mode of interaction.

One example I can recall occurred earlier this year when a good friend wrote a deeply affecting Facebook post about his devastation at the sudden death of a colleague.

He expressly asked people not to like it, but inevitably, the post received about a dozen likes, thoughtless little actions that presumably meant well but which in some small way exacerbated my friend’s grief. These feelings were too real, the emotions too raw, for a reaction as trite as a like.

Those limitations were acknowledged this week when founder Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company was experimenting with a “Dislike” button and other variations.

“I think people have asked about the dislike button for many years,” Zuckerberg said at a meeting with staff. “What they really want is the ability to express empathy. Not every moment is a good moment . . . your friends want to be able to express that they understand and relate to you, so I do think it’s important to give people more options than just like as a quick way to emote.”

The announcement generated a fair degree of alarm: Facebook has a rather inglorious habit of infuriating users with its tinkering.

One concern was whether the move will add to the online world’s already deep well of negativity; many fear that a dislike button would be a baton in the hand of the bullies, a tool of snide derision rather than an expression of empathy.

A larger concern, however, is how the like button and its imminent variations can actually limit our interactions; in a technical sense, our ability to communicate is limited only by our vocabulary, but when we transpose language, with its rich variety, for a series of buttons crudely approximating feelings, we constrain that communication in very real ways.

Obviously, the like button is not a replacement for language, but the rise of that blue “thumbs up” logo demonstrated a widespread desire to abbreviate our communications in the digital domain, “a quick way to emote”, as Zuckerberg put it. As such, there’s an undeniable vapidity to the like button, in that it encapsulates a shallowness to our online relationships that is potentially quite corrosive.

Particularly for the millennial generation of 20-somethings that has grown up interacting with their peers on Facebook, the like button might ultimately be seen less as a signature mode of interaction and more as a signifier of superficiality.

Three layers, two sides and one vote


A few weeks ago, I heard the most beautiful, inspiring story. A friend of a friend, a woman in her late 30s, had summoned the courage to be her true self – first she told her close friends, then she told her siblings, and finally she told her parents, that she was attracted to women. The reaction from her friends and family was the same – unqualified support and love.

I was deeply moved by the story – I don’t know the woman, don’t even know her surname, but that process of someone feeling like they have to hide an inherent part of their identity due to external stigma before overcoming that pressure and finding love and understanding is, well, it’s profoundly moving.

A few weeks later, Ursula Halligan wrote about her own similar experience, and the echoes were loud and painful – the denial of one’s identity, the self-reproach, the shame and sadness before the ultimate acceptance, support and immense relief.

The struggle they experienced brought to mind something we might call Savage’s Hierarchy, a sort of Maslow’s Hierarchy, but for desire and sexual identity. I have heard it described by the great Dan Savage, who is not only the world’s greatest ever sex-advice columnist, but also perhaps one of the world’s foremost philosophers. From “Good, Giving and Game” to “Dump the Motherfucker Already”, from the “campsite rule” to “monogamish” to the “It Gets Better” campaign, Savage has articulated a consistent set of principles that serve as a guide not just to sexual satisfaction, but also to love and life in general. He is the Bertrand Russell of modern relationships, basically.

His hierarchy consists of three layers of desire, in ascending order: “What you want to do, what you are doing, and what you tell the world you’re doing.”

The closer the alignment of those layers, the happier and more content we are, the more ourselves we feel, basically. The further apart those layers are, the greater the mental and emotional dissonance, and the greater the toll it takes trying to reconcile them, or worse, enduring the impossibility of reconciling them.

The textbook example is of the gay or lesbian teen, struggling with every layer of the hierarchy: ashamed of their innermost desires; unable to act on them safely or at all; and finally unable to tell the world what they want or who they really are. That’s a recipe for stress, emotional breakdown, self-reproach, depression.

The great thing about Savage’s Hierarchy is its flexibility – it applies to everyone’s desires, so illuminates the struggles of shy people who struggle to date, say, or straight people with unusual kinks, or married couples in sexless marriages, or any configuration you can imagine. Striving for alignment of the layers of our sexual identity is something we all do, whether we realise it or not.

And of course, the principle doesn’t just apply to our desires – the conflict between who we want to be, who we really are and who we present ourselves to others as is the central tension behind our sense of self. It’s a tension that has been explored by generations of thinkers, from Descartes to Hume, from Freud to Lacan, but for our purposes here, I like Savage’s take just fine.

But perhaps the hierarchy applies not just to people but to societies as well. What does a society truly want to be, how does it function in practice, what image does it project to the world?

It’s illuminating, I think, to see today’s Ireland, the Ireland that goes to the polls to decide whether it wants full marriage equality for everyone regardless of who they love, through the prism of Savage’s Hierarchy.

The social changes that have roiled Ireland with the decline of the Catholic Church can be seen as a kind of seismic shift in the country’s three layers – in an oppressive Catholic theocracy that stigmatised and shamed basically all sexual desire, it was really difficult for anyone except the most devout to easily align their three layers.

Savage’s Hierarchy also helps to shed some light on the more galling elements of the No campaign. Certainly, I find most of the No campaign’s arguments and talking points to be appallingly misleading and mendacious. Above all the tendency, and eagerness, of prominent No campaigners to assume the status of a persecuted minority is an act of jawdropping chutzpah given the context, a debate about offering equal rights to a minority that has actually been long persecuted.

But seen in the light of Savage’s Hierarchy, the behaviour of the No campaign begins to make a good deal more sense, even if it remains highly objectionable. Without seeking to psychoanalyse individual No campaigners, it’s possible to discern that the larger philosophy espoused by the No campaign is rooted in an orthodox Catholic mindset that shames sexual desire.

That means, in practice, being inculcated in a culture in which the only permissible way to align the three layers of sexuality was to deeply internalise the message that the only acceptable form of desire was preferably joyless procreation within marriage. The three layers involve subjugating “unacceptable” desires, only having sex within marriage for the ostensible purpose of having children, and assuring your social status by showing the world how pure and traditional you are.

Anything that deviates from that model is deeply threatening, because it calls into question all that self-oppression – and people getting divorced, or having affairs, or being gay, or anything that falls outset that narrow range of “acceptable” behaviour, must be demonised. Demonisation is how the uppermost layer of the hierarchy was strictly policed, and forcing people to publicly deny their sexuality works its way down the layers through a fear of exposure at the middle layer and a sense of shame at the foundational layer.

To have a handful of people deviating from the “norm” is useful, in that it’s then easy to demonise “deviants”, which in turn serves to enhance the social reward for keeping your layers aligned to the orthodoxy.

You get too many people deviating from the orthodoxy, however, and the ropes of Catholic, sex-negative oppression used to keep everything in place begin to fray.

The ropes have been fraying for a long time now, because desire is a wondrous thing of infinite variety, and too many people expended too much of themselves trying to deny their true sexuality (the fact that the Catholic Church was particularly hypocritical in its attitude to certain people acting out their deviant desires in a non-consensual manner was a big factor in all this, of course).

One result of this social upheaval in attitudes to sexuality is the loss of prestige and social status that comes from upholding the previously imposed values, and I suspect that is what lies at the heart of the No campaign’s persecution complex. Of course, it is a cynical and reprehensible attempt to constrain criticism of their increasingly unacceptable views, but I think there is a degree of genuine shock at how the tide has turned on their worldview.

Thus the palpable anger at having their privilege revoked – views and opinions that were once respectable and commonplace in the context of a Catholic theocracy now prompt scorn and ridicule, and they can’t stand it. But that’s what happens when you’re on the wrong side of history – social progress happens when enough people decide certain attitudes are no longer acceptable.

So today, Ireland has an opportunity to categorically say that we, collectively as a society, are leaving that oppressive cultural mindset behind.

Today, perhaps, marks an inflection point in our evolution from a deeply sex-negative Catholic country to a society that tolerates and embraces all sorts of sexual difference. It won’t just be members of the LGBT community who want to marry who will benefit if the referendum passes, but all of us who value real liberty.

Today, Irish society has the beautiful opportunity to reconcile our three layers, to free ourselves of any shame in desiring different things, to remove the stigma of doing different things, and ultimately to allow everyone to be who they want to be.

A better tomorrow, I feel, is just hours away.

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