Why liberals might kill free speech

We’ve got a huge problem on our hands which the 2016 election, along with Brexit, has not so much created as fully exposed. What we’ve witnessed is a kind of short-circuit between the three pillars that have defined our particular form of democratic liberalism over the last century. Democratic liberalism over the 20th and into the 21st century consisted of a kind of balance between the public at large, mass media, and policy elites with the link between the three being political representatives of one of the major parties. As idealized by public philosophers such as Walter Lippmann, the role of politicians was to choose among the policy options presented by experts and “sell” those policies to the public using the tools of mass communication to ensure their legitimacy.

The fact that such a balance became the ideal in the first place, let alone its inevitable failure, can only be grasped fully when one becomes familiar with its history.

Non-print based mass media only became available during the course of the First World War and it was here that the potential of media such as film, radio, posters and billboards to create a truly emotionally and ideologically unified public became apparent- although the US had come close to this discovery a little over in a decade earlier in the form of mass circulation newspapers which were instrumental in getting the American public behind the Spanish- American War and that itself gave rise to real standards of objectivity in journalism.

During WWI it was the Americans and British who mastered the art of war propaganda transforming their enemies the Germans into savage “huns” and engendering a kind of will to sacrifice for what (at least for the Americans) was a distant and abstract cause. Lippmann himself was on the Creel Committee which launched this then new form of political propaganda. Hitler would write enviously of British and American propaganda in Mein Kampf, and both the Nazis and the Soviet would use the new media and the proof of concept offered by allied powers in the war, to form the basis of the totalitarian state. Those systems ultimately failed but their rise and attraction reveal the extent to which democracy, less than a century from our own time, was seen to be failing. Not just the victory of the Soviets in the war, but the way they were able to rapidly transform the Russian Empire from an agrarian backwater to an industrial and scientific powerhouse seemed to show that the future belonged to the system that most fully empowered its technocrats.

The Great Depression and Second World War would prove to be the golden age of experts in the West as well. In the US in was technocrats who crafted the response to the economic crisis, who managed the American economy during the war, who were responsible for technological breakthroughs such as atomic weapons, rockets capable of reaching space, and the first computers. It was policy experts who crafted novel responses to unprecedented political events such as the Marshall Plan and Containment.

Where the Western and Soviet view of the role of experts differed had less to do with their prominence and more to do with their plurality or lack of it. Whereas in the Soviet Union all experts were united under the umbrella of the Party, Western countries left the plurality of experts intact so that the bureaucrats who ran big business were distinct from the bureaucrats who ran government agencies and neither had any clear relationship to the parties that remained the source of mass political mobilization while the press remained free (if not free of elite assumptions and pressures) to forge the public’s interpretation of events as it liked.

Lippmann had hoped the revolutionary medium of his time- television- would finally provide a way for the technocrats he thought necessary to rule a society that had become too complex for the form of representative democracy that had preceded allowing experts to directly communicate with the public and in so doing forge consensus for elite policies. What dashed his hopes was a rigged game show.

The Quiz show scandal that broke in the 1950’s (it was made into an excellent movie in the 90’s) proved to Lippmann that American style television with its commercial pressures could not be the medium he had hoped for. In his essay, Television: whose creature, whose servant?   Lippmann called for the creation of an American version of the BBC. (PBS would be created in 1970, as would NPR). Indeed, the scandal did drive the three major US television networks- especially CBS- towards the coverage of serious news and critical reporting. Such reporting helped erode political support for the Vietnam war, though not, as it’s often believed, by turning public opinion against the war, but as pointed out back in the 1980’s by Michael Mandelbaum in his essay Vietnam: The Television War  by helping to mobilize such as vast number of opponents as to polarize the American public in a way that made sustaining the post-war consensus unsustainable. Vietnam was the first large scale failure of the technocrats- it would not be their last.

From the 1970’s until today this polarization was mined by a new entry on the media landscape- cable news- starting with Ted Turner and CNN. As Tim Wu lays out in his book The Master Switch, the rise of cable was in part enabled by Nixon’s mistrust of what was then “mainstream news” (Nixon helped deregulate cable). This rise (more accurately return) of partisan media occurred at the same time Noam Chomsky (owl of Minerva like) in his book Manufacturing Consent was arguing that the press was much less free and independent than it pretended to be. Instead it was wholly subservient to commercial influence and the groupthink of those posing to be experts. And hadn’t, after all, George Kennan, the brilliant mind behind containment and an unapologetic elitists compared American democracy to a monster with a brain the size of a pin?

Chomsky’s point held even in the era of cable news for there was a great deal of political diversity that fell outside the range between Fox News and CNN. Manufactured consent would fail, however, with the rise of the internet which would allow the cheap production and distribution of political speech in a way that had never been seen before, though there had been glimpses. Political speech was democratized at almost the exact same time trust in policy elites had collapsed. The reasons for such a collapse in trust aren’t hard to find.

American policy elites have embraced an economic agenda that has left working class income stagnant for over a generation. The globalization and de-unionization they promoted has played a large (though not the only) role in the decline of the middle class on which stable democracy depends. The Clinton machine bears a large responsibility for the left’s foolish embrace of this neoliberal agenda, which abandoned blue collar workers to transform the Democratic party into a vehicle for white collar professionals and identity groups.

Foreign policy elites along with an uncritical mainstream media led us into at least one disastrous and wholly unnecessary war in Iraq, a war whose consequences continue to be felt and which was exacerbated by yet more failure by these same elites. Our economic high-priests brought us the 2008 financial crisis the response to which has been a coup by the owning classes at the cost of trillions of dollars. As Trump’s “populist” revolt of Goldman Sachs alums demonstrates, the oligarchs now thoroughly control American government.

And it’s not only social science experts, politicians and journalist who have earned the public’s lack of trust. Science itself is in a crisis of gaming where it seems “results” matter much more than the truth. Corporations engage in deliberate disinformation, what Robert Proctor calls agnotology.

The three legs of Lippmann’s stool- policy experts, the media, and the public have collapsed as expertise has become corporatized and politicians have become beholden to those corporate interest, while at the same time political speech has escaped from anyone’s overt control. Trump seems to be the first political figure to have capitalized on this breakdown- a fact that does not bode well for democracy’s future.

Perhaps we should just call a spade a spade and abandon political representation and policy experts for government via electronic referendum. Yet, however much I love the idea of direct democracy, it seems highly unlikely that the sort of highly complex society we currently possess could survive absent the heavy input of experts– even in light of their very obvious flaws.

It’s just as possible that China where technocrats rule and political speech and activity is tightly controlled by leveraging the centralized nature of internet could be the real shape of the future. The current structure of internet which is controlled by only a handful of companies certainly makes the path to such a plutocratic censorship regime possible.

Returning to the work of Tim Wu, we can see the way in which communications empires have risen and fell over the course of the last century: we’ve had the telephone, film, radio, television and now the computer. In all cases with the noted exception of television new media have arisen in a decentralized fashion, merged into gigantic corporations such as Bell telephone, and then are later broken up or lose dominance to upstarts who have adopted new means of transmission or whole new types of media itself.

What perhaps makes our era different in a way Wu doesn’t explore is that for the first time diversity of content is occurring under conditions of concentrated ownership. Were only a handful of companies such as FaceBook and Google to pursue the task in earnest they could exercise nearly complete control over political speech and thus end the current era. Such rule need not be rapacious but instead represent a kind of despotic-liberalism that mobilizes public opinion behind policies many of us care about such as stemming global warming. It’s the kind of highly rational nightmare Malka Older imagined in her sci-fi thriller Infomacracy and Dave Eggers gave a darker hue in his book The Circle.

Hopefully liberalism itself in the form of constitutional protections of free speech will prevent us from going so far down this route. (Although the Courts appear to think that Google et. al’s  right to police their platforms’ content is itself protected under the First Amendment.) How our long standing constitutional protections adapt to a world where “speech” can come in the form of bots which outnumber humans and foreign governments insert themselves into our elections is anybody’s guess.

The best alternative to either despotic-liberalism or chaos is to restore trust in policy elites by finding ways to make such elites more accountable and therefore trustworthy. We need to come up with new ways to combine the necessary input of real experts with the revolution in communications that has turned every citizen into a source of media. For failing to find a way to rebalance expertise and democratic governance would mean we either lose our democracy to flawed experts (as Plato would have wanted) or surrender to the chaos of an equally flawed and fickle, and now seemingly permanently Balkanized, public opinion.

 

Advertisements

Should Facebook Censor the News?

book-burning-1492

In the era of information wars knowledge of the past is perhaps the only way we can remain anchored to reality. Such collective memory shouldn’t only consist of an accurate record of the facts, but would also include a sense of the history of knowledge and inforwar itself.

When not seen from the point of false omniscience we call the present, history has always been the unwieldy struggle of rival forces, shifting alliances, and enemies that cannot be clearly distinguished along purely ideological or religious lines. There is not, nor has there ever been, a direction to history, it being as Churchill lamented “one damned thing after another”. It’s perhaps the fact that we’ve been forced to re-learn this that makes the present so damned painful. Many of those who thought we were headed towards a brighter future instead find themselves slipping back into nightfall.

At least part of the reason for our shock over the 2016 election wasn’t just the outcome but the fact that it happened when it did at all. Stable, even sclerotic, societies such as ours don’t usually play Russian roulette with their future whatever the imagined benefits that might come if the chamber is found empty. Almost from the start of the 21st century we had experienced shocks none of which gave rise to even minor reforms let alone the kind of political earthquake Trump’s election represents.

As a reminder, since 2000’s we’ve gone through a presidential election whose outcome was decided not by the voters but by the US Supreme Court, the bursting of the 90’s tech bubble, the 9-11 attacks, the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent Great Recession, two failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with nearly a decade of lackluster economic growth despite unprecedented measures being taken by the world’s major central banks. And yet it is now when none of these crises are as acute as they been in the past that their consequent political upheaval has occurred.

What I think such questions regarding timing miss is the fact that not only has the breakdown in trust between elites (especially in the media and the academy) and a large portion of the American (indeed Western) citizenry been occurring across these different crises, but that this erosion has been running in parallel with a transformation of the communications landscape that has upended the ability of elites to as Noam Chomsky characterized it “manufacture consent”.

Since the Second World War, and only starting to unwind the 1980’s ,there was only a marginal difference between Republicans and Democrats (it was Nixon, after all, whom we have to thank for the EPA and Jimmy Carter who started what we now think of as Reagan’s arms buildup). American elites were in overall agreement over the fundamental questions regarding society and possessed means the likes of which had never been seen before to ensure the rest of society also held these assumptions as sacrosanct.

This was perhaps an odd situation give that liberal elites in Western democracies were able to reach such mutual agreement and gain such a degree of public acquiescence absent the types of control over information and speech that had been present both historically and which was so pronounced in the Communist societies that were their penultimate rival. It was the shape of this occluded form of control which political theorists such as Herbert Marcuse among others tried to uncover.

None of these others is more important for my purposes than Noam Chomsky and his book Manufacturing Consent first published in 1981. Ever like the owl of Minerva this revelatory book appeared on the very eve when the conditions it depicted were about to be transformed into something radically different.

In that work Chomsky argues that five features of the 20th century media landscape resulted in a world in which the media, rather than challenge elites, instead helped to consolidate elite control over the public. These five features were:

1) Size and concentrated ownership of media outlets

2) Advertising as the main source of revenue

3) Media reliance on government and corporate “experts”

4) “Flak” individuals experienced when they stepped outside of elite norms.

5) Anti-communism as an inviolable national religion.

By 2016 all of the elements Chomsky had described in Manufacturing Consent had been either been radically transformed or were no longer in existence.

The internet had permitted the rise of alternative or even conspiratorial media of which Breitbart and Infowars were just two prominent right wing examples. While advertising remained a primary source of revenue the cost of producing and distributing media (minus the kinds of editorial constraints of mainstream media) effectively shrank to zero with advertising’s role having shifted to content distributors such as FaceBook that refused to bear any editorial responsibilities.

2016 was also the year of the revolt against experts. The consequence, no doubt, of their repeated failures from the non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to the financial collapse that had not been foreseen by the phony experts and pseudo-scientists into whose hands we had placed our future- we call them economists.

It was also a year in which standard norms regarding political discourse collapsed, and the national religion of anti-communism was such an ancient memory that a former KGB operative could hack the American election in favor of the Republican candidate and very few within the GOP would be upset about it.

In some ways at least this merely returns us to the pre-cold war era before the kinds of media/elite alliance Chomsky describes in Manufacturing Consent had taken hold. We’ve been moving in that direction for quite some time now with the rise of openly partisan cable news in the 1980’s and 90’s.

In order to get our bearing we might have to look back even further to the period of Yellow Journalism when figures like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer battled for readership using the tools of sensationalism and scandal. Indeed, it was Pulitzer’s shame over his abuse of the truth during this period that convinced him to foster professionalism and standards of evidence through instruments such as the Columbia School of Journalism.

Yet we may have to look even further back. For one of the historical conditions that made the manufacturing of consent possible was the fact that in the late 1800’s information production itself had become industrialized. Those who had access to capital could produce such a flood of material that the effect was to drown out anyone who merely had access to the older, much smaller, means of publishing and distribution.

This centralization continued through post-print form of media. Radio was really only democratizing on a local level, which is why up until the 1950’s culture could still emerge from regional diversity- just ask Wolfman Jack.  National, not to mention international, broadcasts required access to limited in number (and therefore expensive) telephone lines. Television production and distribution was even more capital intensive. And then the internet changed everything. We’re now back to something that resembles the pre-industrial type media world with both its possibility for a truly public form of speech and its lack of any editorial bearing or control.

And yet, though media and speech have become decentralized and slipped completely outside the bonds of control in another they are more susceptible to censorship and oversight via centralized mediators than ever. A concerted effort by Google, Twitter, and especially Facebook, could in reality asphyxiate the platforms of the Alt-right should they so choose. The question is, even if it was politically possible at the moment, should we want them to?

My guess, from where we stand today, is that launching on such a course would not only ultimately fail but would come back to haunt us. Preventing the ugliest of sentiments from being spoken openly does not prevent people from having them, and perhaps it’s the opposite. After all, politics in countries with much stricter hate speech laws than the US have not merely gone down the same dark path as ourselves, but one that is perhaps even darker. The kinds of censorship in the name of social stability and elite interest Facebook is flirting with to secure its foothold in China should give us pause. For not only is this the opposite of the technologically enabled democratic future many of us long for, which would entail real democratic control over such editorial decisions and transparency regarding how those decisions were made, we can never be sure such a weapon used against frankly despicable enemies won’t someday be used by the very same elites to define the despicable- as us.