Imagine, if you will, a world where knowledge and opinion can be shared almost instantly among millions of people. Imagine a world where powerful men and women can be openly mocked, denounced, and accused by the weak with impunity. Imagine a world where the humblest person can consult the same sprawling archives of information as the most exalted. Imagine a world where the great ideas of the day are vigorously debated among not merely tiny elects but entire populations. For inhabitants of ancient Greece, medieval Europe, or Nazi Germany, such dreams would describe a paradise of free speech and enlightenment. But for those of us trapped in their nightmarish reality today, they are a kind of hell.
It’s important to recognize that our current cultural agonies – over copyright versus open access, legacy media versus the blogosphere, Big Data versus Wikileaks, Facebook versus fake news – represent a triumph of communication and popular autonomy. The fact that virtually everything can be publicly claimed and contested in endless cycles of proposition and rebuttal is as far away from the Spanish Inquisition and Nineteen Eighty-Four as can be imagined. And even though the much-vaunted crusading press of yesteryear did sometimes uncover official corruption and other wrongs, it also ran tobacco ads, sexist comic strips, and stentorian editorials endorsing the status quo. So while obviously our torrents of electronic chatter have made for chaotic politics and fragmented communities, after generations of dreading mass “conformity,” we are surely enjoying the most independent, least conformist system of discourse in history. Lucky us, no?
Put another way, just as you wouldn’t want to combat the serious health issue of obesity by engineering a continental crop failure, we shouldn’t try to address the serious political issues of conspiracy theories and online extremism by engineering the communications equivalent of a famine. The fact that many debates seem hopelessly intractable now, and that no consensus on anything seems possible, is undoubtedly frustrating. Yet arbitrarily classing Facebook posts, Youtube channels, or Spotify podcasts as either Fit or Unfit for consumption is not how we approach truth. As Joshua Yaffa wrote in a 2020 New Yorker article on the real and perceived threat of Russian disinformation, “Such externally guided operations exist, but to exaggerate their prevalence and potency ends up eroding the idea of genuine bottom-up protest…The real solution lies in crafting a society and a politics that are more responsive, credible, and just. Achieving that goal might require listening to those who are susceptible to disinformation, rather than mocking them and writing them off.”
In his landmark book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Daniel Boorstin coined the term “graphic revolution” to characterize the proliferation of print, sound, photographed and broadcast expression which had gained momentum since the Nineteenth Century – and Boorstin wrote in 1961! Since then, the sheer volume of expression created and disseminated has probably multiplied a hundredfold. Yet over this same period a corresponding abundance of cautionary views on the graphic revolution has emerged: off the top of my head, I could name (besides The Image itself) Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders (1957), Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s Manufacturing Consent (1988), David Shenk’s Data Smog (1997), and Slavov Zizek’s Welcome to the Desert of the Real (2002), plus thousands more books, documentaries, and articles, as well as the long-running parodies of Mad, Adbusters, and Saturday Night Live. The premise shared among each of these is that, with the exception of the medium advancing the premise, the media often deliberately or inadvertently distorts the truth. Individually, Chomsky, Postman, Packard, Adbusters et al may be persuasive, but collectively they can’t all be right.
Here is the paradox underlying modern charges of spin, propaganda, disinformation and outright lies aimed everywhere from alt-right websites to CNN, and at everybody from Donald Trump to Justin Trudeau: each voice asserts theirs is the only honest one. The result is a maelstrom of I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I dispute that both laments the danger to informed citizenship and, by doing so, negates it. Just check out the Comments section of any news site to see streams of invective vented by anonymous posters against the perceived gullibility or duplicity of journalists, voters, and fellow readers. By comparison, our intellectual environments of even thirty or forty years ago, let alone of centuries past, were prisons of ignorance, acquiescence, and self-censorship. At no other time in civilization have we had such opportunity to protest the suppression of protest; no society has ever exposed so many of its illusions so regularly as ours; never has there been such saturation of disagreement and disproof as suffocates us in 2022. This is, for better or worse, what democracy looks like.