Has Social Media Made Democratic Politics Impossible? Listen Up! Social Media and the Sound of Silence
by Andrew Dobson
How times change.
Not so long ago, digital technologies looked like the political world’s all-purpose lubricant, guaranteed to loosen up the cogs and flywheels of a failed and failing political process. The internet was going to make government more transparent, close the gap between government and the people, and allow greater political participation.
This promise seemed to be realised as Wikileaks threatened to unpick the tapestry of secrecy woven in the corridors of power (Bello, 2006; Beckett and Ball, 2012), teledemocratic experiments were carried out across the world (Matti, Ari-Veikko, and Savolainen, 2003; Pennington, 2014), and the Arab Spring, the Indignados and Occupy Wall Street demonstrated the capacity of social media to get people off their sofas and on to the streets (Lovink, 2011; Bennett and Segerberg, 2012; Trottier and Fuchs, 2014). Transparency, participation, convocation – three of democratic politics’ desiderata - all seemed enhanced by the power of digital technologies.
So what happened? How can it be that, just a few short years after these shots in the arm of a sclerotic political process, we are even asking whether social media are good for democracy?
There are some familiar answers to this, which have come to be known to us through all-purpose terms like ‘filter bubble’, ‘confirmation bias’, ‘truthiness’, and that bête noire of the political internet: the algorithm. We no longer know what is true and what is false, it is said, and even if we do come across a fact that we believe to be a fact we only pay attention to it if it confirms what we already think. And social media platforms feed this narcissistic frenzy by pushing news and views into our threads that our previous online activity suggests we will endorse.
So what’s new?
But if this is all that makes politics impossible the blame cannot be laid solely at the door of digital technologies, because politics has exhibited these features since well before the internet even existed. The political ideologies to which the Enlightenment gave birth are filter bubbles in all but name, designed to organise our political beliefs into self-contained, self-fulfilling packages. And isn’t it true that we’ve always had a tendency to seek out facts that confirm our already established beliefs? We can’t accuse digital technologies of giving rise to a confirmation bias that’s been with us for as long as political disagreement has existed.
At the same time, anyone who has ever had a political argument in the pub, at the dinner table, or on a hustings platform will be well acquainted with ‘truthiness’. Digital technologies were not the midwife of the desire to sound just plausible enough to carry the day – it’s always been with us. And algorithms? They just do the job we’ve always done when we select the news we want to read by buying a particular newspaper or watching a particular news programme – they simply do it much more efficiently and draw on a much wider range of platforms.
True, digital technologies do encourage filter bubbles and confirmation bias, they do make it harder to work out what’s true and what’s false, and algorithms are the highways down which personalised information travels to its appointed and anointed destination. And the volume of traffic and the speed with which it is delivered to us is unprecedented. But none of this makes politics any more impossible than it has ever been before. None of this signals the change in kind that would be required to alter the terms of engagement in such a way as to morph our notion of politics to the point where we didn’t believe it possible to do it anymore.
But there is one long-neglected precondition and one overlooked practice for doing politics which digital technologies in their current form have wiped out virtually completely. Practically no-one has noticed this precondition and its accompanying practice, so vigilance in regard to them is in short supply. Yet without them politics, in anything other than a totalitarian sense, is impossible.
The precondition is silence and the practice is listening.
Whenever we think of ‘improving’ democracy we tend to think in terms of getting more people to speak. On the face of it this makes sense. Democracy’s selling point is its promise to respect people’s autonomy – to respect the capacity we have to know our own best interests better than anyone else, and to allow those interests a voice in the political process. ‘Voice’, then, looks to be democracy’s principal precondition, since without it democracy couldn’t exist. From this point of view, social media looks like democracy’s very best friend because it gives everyone a voice.
Social media programmes are better known as ‘platforms’ – a strikingly appropriate word in the context of their political promise. We associate the political platform with old-fashioned politics – a man (usually) with a megaphone (sometimes) addressing a crowd of voters at a rally or a demonstration. The line between the active and the passive in this tableau is clear, and the platform is the space occupied by the active speaker who is cajoling, persuading, haranguing an array of mostly passive listeners. The platform is the legitimising space of speech, and the message filters through in the form of the attenuated voice of the citizen in the voting booth.
Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat have transformed this tableau. Now everyone is on the platform, speaking. No-one is in the square or on the floor of the town hall, listening. Everyone is talking, everyone has a voice. The power is intoxicating and we are drenched in it. But with no-one in the square listening, and surrounded by the cacophony of simultaneous speakers, are we any longer doing politics?
What is politics?
Of course this depends on what we take politics to mean. For those who favour speaking as the currency of politics, no less an authority than Aristotle provides plenty of encouragement. He calls ‘man’ a ‘political animal’, and when asked what distinguishes the political animal from other animals he writes, ‘the power of speech’ (Aristotle, 1962: 28). Perhaps Aristotle would have been a champion of social media, given its astonishing capacity to give rein to that which most distinguishes the human – political – animal from other animals. Far from making politics impossible, he might say, digital technologies amplify the capacity - the power of speech - that lies at its very heart.
But he also says that speech is not a good in itself; it must be good for something. Here he distinguishes between voice and speech. Non-human animals have voice (the cat’s meow, the dog’s bark), and the function of voice is to ‘express pain or pleasure’ (Aristotle, 1962: 28). Speech, on the other hand, enables us to do what only humans can do: ‘to indicate what is useful and what is harmful, and … what is just and what is unjust. For the real difference between man and other animals is that humans alone have a perception of good and evil, the just and the unjust’ (Aristotle, 1962: 28-9).
So does Aristotle think that politics is an activity which involves speaking – and no more - about good and evil, the just and unjust? Not quite. Because he concludes: ‘It is the sharing of a common view in these matters that makes … a state’ (Aristotle, 1962: 29; emphasis added). How is this sharing to come about? Certainly not just by speaking. How can I know what others’ views are – how can I know if I share them - if I don’t … listen to them?
So filter bubbles, confirmation biases, and algorithms all militate against the listening, the sharing, that is at the heart of Aristotle’s conception of politics, and the one that is being argued for here. Social media platforms invite monologue, not dialogue, and it’s this that’s in danger of making democratic politics impossible.
Beyond the promises of transparency, participation and convocation invoked above – each of which is real and potentially valuable - digital technologies have their supporters among disability activists (Ellis et al, 2015), environmentalists and cosmopolitans who believe that such technologies can bring what is distant into our immediate care-space (Blue, 2016), and those who argue that the individual lifestyle stories, blogged around the world by internet celebrities from their bedrooms, can lead to participation in collective environmental, fair trade and justice causes (Bennett, 2012).
On the other side of the coin, Cassandras warn against the fragmentation encouraged by digital ‘clicktivism’ (Lovink, 2011; Freie, 2012; Barassi, 2015), the apparent obsession with identity creation rather than political formation (Papacharissi, 2010), and the potential disconnection from lived experience offline (Webb, 1998).
On the face of it, and in the light of the evidence offered by these theorists and commentators, the argument looks finely balanced – digital technologies have their disadvantages as far as doing politics is concerned, but they have promise too. It will also be suggested that, like guns, the problem is not with the object but with the human on the end of it. Like any technology, it is said, digital technologies are neutral, and whether the effects of their use are positive or negative will depend entirely on the way we use them.
But this view of the relationship between humans and technology is too simple – naïve, even. Just as we shape technology by creating it, technology shapes us – acting back on us, as it were, in ways that are sometimes benign and sometimes malign, but very often unpredictable (Sartre, 1978). This is not to say that digital technologies create new ways of being and behaving, but that they do select for, and help to amplify, certain ways of behaving that are already well-known to us.
Social media and listening
In this context, an enormous amount of attention has been paid to the aggression that marks much online behaviour nowadays. We are all capable of hostility, but social media seem to incubate it very effectively. Some argue that online anonymity (which is increasingly a myth rather than a fact) gives shouters the courage to say things they’d be unlikely to say face-to-face, and that cyber aggression is perpetrated by people with some form of personality disorder.
This is a rather comfortable line of argument that relegates online harassment to dark corners of the human psyche. But what if it is more systemic and widespread than that? Recent research, rooted in social norm theory rather than psychology, suggests that aggression is used across the political spectrum as a means of holding those with whom we disagree to account (Rost et al, 2016). The central point of the present argument is not that disagreement makes politics impossible (disagreement is central to politics; Rancière, 1999), but that the amount of space and time devoted by digital technology users to signalling their disagreement. While we are busy signalling (speaking), we are not considering (listening).
The social media environment looks increasingly like a space of declamation rather than conversation, and it is this that is making politics impossible. Listening theory suggests a spectrum of listening, running from cataphatic listening to apophatic listening (Dobson, 2014: 68). The cataphatic listener listens through categories imposed by the listener, rather than listening to what the speaker is actually saying. Social media platforms encourage the cataphatic and sideline the apophatic, and if we take politics to be a form of conversation, then Facebook and Twitter look to be closing it down.
The sending of social media messages has become an end in itself rather than part of a conversation. ‘The intensive, incessant circulation of opinion, comment and information elides the conditions for political debate,’ writes Gavan Titley, ‘by splintering political energy into continuous, compressed sequences of (minor) issues and events’ (2012: 53). What validates a message under these conditions is not the truth of its content, much less the degree to which it contributes to a meaningful dialogue, but its circulation.
The more that enunciation and circulation become the measure of success, the less important listening comes to be. In embodying the dynamic of circulation ahead of conversation, social media are less a contribution to politics than a problem for it. ‘If everyone speaks’, asks Eli Noam, ‘who will be listened to?’ (2005: 58). His gloomy prediction from 2005 seems indeed to have been fulfilled: ‘as the Internet leads to more information clutter, it will become necessary for any message to get louder. Much of the political information, therefore, will become distorted, shrill, simplistic’ (2005: 60).
The pressing need for listening
The need to listen is at its most urgent when opinions are divided. And in the so-called minority world – the USA and Europe in particular – opinions right now are especially divided. The Brexit vote in the UK, the febrile response to it as elections loom in other parts of Europe, and Donald Trump’s election to President of the USA, all revealed fault lines in the post-industrial, globalised, body politic that were known only to the left-behind who have finally found their voice.
Finally found their voice? Doesn’t this rather precisely show that speech should be prioritised over listening since, without it, the disgruntled wouldn’t have been able to express their disaffection? And haven’t social media played a key role in the left-behind finding their voice? After all t is now open to everyone with a smart phone and a social media app to speak to everyone in the world who possesses the same technology, across both space and time zones, directly and without mediation. This is expressive power for the people without comparison at any stage of human history. Perhaps - but what if politics, as David Runciman hints, has become too ‘noisy’; what if we are doing too much ‘shouting’ (Runciman, 2016)?
What is to be done?
The lion’s share of the attention in the social media/politics nexus is currently devoted to the issue of truth. Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign, for example, was dogged by accusations that ‘facts’ about Hillary Clinton were dreamed up by teenagers in Macedonia who were paid for pushing (mis)information into people’s feeds, contributing to the sense of the Democratic candidate’s untrustworthiness.
But a moment’s reflection suggests that facts are of secondary importance – not because they don’t matter, but because they only matter if people are prepared to listen to them. The significance of the Macedonian teenager scam is not that they were making up stories, but that the ruse worked because it fed into the phenomenon of confirmation bias, which is in turn a symptom of the deeper malaise of a refusal to listen to the other. And social media as currently conceived stokes up, reproduces and undergirds this refusal.
So this suggests that while the current vogue for fact-checking is not exactly beside the point, it’s certainly secondary to encouraging a social media environment in which facts are the currency of a meaningful dialogic conversation. So here is the challenge for the architects of social media platforms: design software that prevents monologue and makes listening both mandatory and a precondition for posting. We can articulate various preconditions for good listening: among them are silence, concentration and a capacity for empathy. I have argued that social media, as currently designed, militates against each of these preconditions. Can social media platforms be designed so as to encourage them? Can they be put at the service of a dialogic politics of listening rather than sucking the lifeblood from it?
Aristotle (1962), The Politics (Harmondsworth: Penguin)
Barassi, V. (2015), Activism on the Web: everyday struggles against digital capitalism (New York: Routledge)
Beckett, C. and Ball, J. (2012), Wikileaks: news in the networked era (Cambridge: Polity)
Bell, E. (2006), ‘Fact-Mongering Online’, in Hobsbawm, A. (ed), Where the Truth Lies: Trust and Morality in PR and Journalism (Atlantic Books, London)
Bennett, W. (2012), ‘The personalization of politics: political identity, social media, and changing patterns of participation’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 644: 20-39
Bennett, W. and Segerberg, A. (2012), ‘The logic of connective action: digital media and the personalization of contentious politics’, Information, Communication & Society, 15(5): 739-768
Blue, G. (2016), ‘Public attunement with more-than-human others: witnessing the life and death of Bear 71’, GeoHumanities, 2(1): 42-57
Dean, J. (2009), Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: communicative capitalism and left politics (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press)
Ellis, K.; Goggin, G. and Kent, M. (2015), ‘Disability's digital frictions: activism, technology and politics’, The Fibreculture Journal ,(26): 7-31 (available at http://espace.library.curtin.edu.au/R/?func=dbin-jump-full&object_id=237473&local_base=gen01-era02)
Freie, J. (2012), ‘Postmodern politics in America’, Society, 49(4): 323-327
Lovink, G. (2011), Networks without a cause: a critique of social media (Cambridge: Polity)
Mandiberg, M. (ed) (2012a), The Social Media Reader (New York and London: New York University Press)
Matti, M.; Ari-Veikko, A. and Savolainen, R. (eds) (2003), eTransformation in governance: new directions in government and politics (Hershey: IGI Global)
Papacharissi, Z. (2010), A private sphere: democracy in a digital age (Cambridge: Polity)
Pennington, N. (2014), ‘Social media and democracy: innovations in participatory politics’, European Journal of Communication, 29(2): 251-254
Rancière, J. (1999), Disagreement: politics and philosophy (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press)
Rosen, J. (2012), ‘The people formerly known as the audience’, in Mandiberg, M. (ed), The Social Media Reader: 13-16
Rost, K.; Stahel, L. and Frey, B. (2016), ‘Digital social norm enforcement: online firestorms in social media’, PLoS One, 11(6): 1-26
Runciman, D. (2016), ‘Politics has gone wrong. Is digital technology to blame?’, The Guardian, 31 October (available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/31/politics-digital-technology-brexit-donald-trump; accessed 25 January 2017)
Sartre, J-P (1978), Critique of Dialectical Reason Volume 1: Theory of Practical Ensembles (London: New Left Books)
Sudilich, M-L (2011), ‘Can the Internet reinvent democracy?’, Irish Political Studies, (26)4: 563-77
Titley, G. (2012), ‘Exclusion through openness? A tentative anatomy of the ritual of “migration debates”’, COLLeGIUM: studies across disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, (11): 46-59 (accessible at: https://helda.helsinki.fi/bitstream/handle/10138/32361/011_04_titley.pdf?sequence=1; accessed 25 January 2017)
Treré, E. (2016), ‘The dark side of digital politics: understanding the algorithmic manufacturing of consent and the hindering of online dissidence’, IDS Bulletin, 47(1): 127-138
Trottier, S. and Fuchs, C. (2014), Social media, politics and the state; protests, revolutions, riots, crime and policing in the age of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (New York: Routledge)
Webb, S. (1998), ‘Visions of excess: cyberspace, digital technologies and new cultural politics’, Information, Communication & Society, 1(1): 46-69
Wisniewski, C. (2013), ‘Digital Deliberation?’, Critical Review, 25(2): 245-259