Communication is an inherent part of the human experience. The ability to contextualize and synthesize information and complexity, and in turn conveying it to others, is one of the many factors that distinguishes humanity’s uniqueness. However, until the advent of technological advances such as the telegraph and the telephone, the dual tyrannies of time and distance reduced communication to either a one-way channel where a speaker presented to a passive audience or a strictly personal yet active relationship between only two people. Every advance in the telecommunications industry has shifted and shaped the nature of human interaction. This brings us to the major revolution of the 21st century; the rise of social media.
The prevalence and predominance of social media in the 2000’s has radically reshaped communication. No longer are individuals passive consumers. The inherently interactive nature of social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and LinkedIn revolutionizes the position of the audience in communications. Inserting everyone into the media that they consume, allowing anyone to repurpose, refine and relate anything to as many or as few people as desired. The most influential politicians in power at the dawn of early technologies were practically utopian in their hopes and desires for these communication innovations. Upon the laying of the first transatlantic telegraph cable between the United States of America and the United Kingdom, President James Buchanan congratulated Queen Victoria, extolling the telegraph as capable of developing “a bond of perpetual peace and friendship,” connecting like-minded nations in a manner never before seen. The impact of technological advancement throughout history only truly becomes clear in hindsight. At its initiation, communication technology, in particular, has appeared nothing less than miraculous, with the capacity to finally break through the walls erected between different peoples and usher in a new period untroubled by the potential for war.
However, advances in communication and social networking, in particular, have a dark side. Although they have the capacity to break down barriers, social networks are also capable of building them up into something far more dangerous to our public sphere, and by extension to democracy itself. Sites such as Facebook and Twitter, through their inherent structure, tend to encourage the construction of echo chambers. Online behaviour is marked by a concept known as ‘homophily,’ where individuals tend to privilege information that accords with their points of view, excluding any information, evidence or even people that don’t share those same preconceptions. This serves to widen chasms between people who happen to disagree on certain matters and reconstructs anyone of a different opinion as the antagonistic ‘other;’ something that is foreign and extreme which can, under no circumstances, be tolerated or communicated with. Social media has certainly democratized politics, by allowing a far greater proportion of the global population to discuss and contribute to the discourse. However, the transformative capacity of technological advancement has had a sinister effect, widening the divide between those on different sides of the political aisle. Accordingly, political discourse designed to resolve the differences within a country and allow it to chart a course that is most amenable to the mood and desires of the nation has become degraded. Debates intended to bring to bear evidence and points of view that may be equally valid, if different philosophically, are replaced in the online space with shouting matches and the refusal to empathize with opposing positions. The desire to improve public knowledge is thus replaced by the need to cause pain to those with whom you disagree, and the wish to, above all else, be victorious in this struggle.
External influences certainly do not help this state of affairs. In light of toxic public debates, particularly surrounding the British referendum on the European Union and the American election of Donald Trump, revelations of meddling and intrigue, perpetrated by foreign agents have made 2017 and 2018 years of soul-searching. These challenges are not unique to the Anglophone world either. American intelligence agents advised the French government of potential interference in their 2017 Presidential election. And most devastatingly, the so-called Islamic State (IS) have used social media to terrifying effect, announcing their brutal actions online in a manner expertly coordinated to become viral. Before spreading like a virus through Iraq and Syria, IS made its intentions towards the international community abundantly clear by their broadcasting of brutal executions coupled with seductively slick public relations campaigns designed to draw disenfranchised men and women to their cause from all over the world. The newly removed barriers to interaction have undoubtedly had a wide range of impacts, some positive, but many negative to the preservation of peace and the encouragement of peaceful conduct in both the domestic and the international sphere.
Because we are learning to solve these problems as they emerge, the current response is piecemeal and ultimately, lacking. At best, the responsibility and emphasis of solutions is placed on the wrong actors; the responsibility for discernment of information and the diffusion of moderated and mature debate is placed entirely on media organizations and governments. These parties also being comprised of people with their own biases, prejudices, and agendas. At worst, the problem itself is ignored; the continuing failure to impose bipartisan sanctions on Russian agents for their interference in the American political system by Rex Tillerson’s State Department is the most pertinent example.
The highly conflictive nature of our new public sphere and its implicit impact on our shared political life is certainly a difficult obstacle to overcome. In order to change, the catalyst must come from consumers of media themselves. Although the anonymity of the internet makes it easier to forget, the first step to repairing this broken element of public discourse is remembering that behind every screen is a person. By virtue of their humanity, all people, provided they are not threatening violence or aggression, deserve respect, compassion and understanding of their points of view in the public sphere. Furthermore, a greater emphasis on critical thinking should be consolidated through primary and secondary education. If people hold themselves accountable for the information they present, while also allowing themselves to recognize that they have the capacity to be incorrect or misguided, they will be far more critical consumers of the overwhelming quantities of information that exist in the 21st century. Ultimately, every person has the responsibility to ensure that the manner in which they are consuming and responding to media is to the highest standard. By refocusing on the many implicit biases that construct media, and actively deconstructing stimuli as it appears to an individual, the confrontational nature of our current discourse can be remade from the foundation up. We owe it to our future generations and in particular to ourselves to remember that what unites us, our shared humanity, is far stronger than differences of political philosophy.
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