How Trolls Overran the Public Square
Since 1900, human technology and organization have been evolving at a blistering pace. The degree of change that occurs in just one year would have taken 50 years or more before 1500. War and politics used to be the meat of human history, with advances in technology and organization unfolding very slowly – if at all – in the background. Now, the inverse is true.
The impact of technological innovation on the marketplace of ideas has brought about some of the most consequential changes. The shift from the age of handwritten and hand-copied manuscripts to that of the Gutenberg press ushered in the Copernican Revolution (along with almost two centuries of genocidal religious war). Pamphlets and coffee houses broadened the public sphere and positioned public opinion as a powerful constraint on political rulers’ behavior.
As John Adams, the second president of the United States, later pointed out, the “[American] Revolution was effected before the war commenced … in the minds and hearts of the people.” The decisive intellectual battle, we now know, was won by the English-born printer Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense. Still, even during the revolutionary period, the pace of change was far slower than it is today. In the space of just two human lifetimes, we have gone from mass-market newspapers and press lords to radio and network television, and then on to the Internet and today’s social media-driven public sphere. And most of us will live long enough to witness whatever comes next.
There is now a near-consensus – at least among those who are not completely steeped in social-media propaganda – that the current public sphere does not serve us well. “Social media is broken,” the American author Annalee Newitz wrote in a recent commentary for the New York Times. “It has poisoned the way we communicate with each other and undermined the democratic process. Many of us just want to get away from it, but we can’t imagine a world without it.”
Western societies have experienced a similar sentiment before. In the 1930s, my great-uncles listened to their elders complain about how radio had allowed demagogues like Adolf Hitler, Charles Coughlin, and Franklin D. Roosevelt (that “communist”) to short-circuit the normal processes of public discourse. No longer were public debates kept sober and rational by traditional gatekeepers. In the new age of broadcast, unapproved memes could spread far and wide without interference. Politicians and ideologues who may not have had the public interest in mind could get right into people’s ears and hijack their brains.
Nowadays, the problem is not a single demagogue, but a public sphere beset by swarms of “influencers,” propagandists, and bots, all semi-coordinated by the dynamics of the medium itself. Once again, ideas of dubious quality and provenance are shaping people’s thoughts without having been subjected to adequate evaluation and analysis.
We should have seen this coming. A generation ago, when the “net” was limited to universities and research institutes, there was an annual “September” phenomenon. Each year, new arrivals to the institution would be given an email account and/or user profile, whereupon they would rapidly find their online communities. They would begin to talk, and someone, inevitably, would get annoyed. For the next month, whatever informational or discursive use the net might have had would be sidelined by continuous vitriolic exchanges.
Then things would calm down. People would remember to put on their asbestos underwear before logging on; they learned not to take the newbies so seriously. Trolls would find themselves banned from the forums they loved to disrupt. And, in any case, most who experimented with the troll lifestyle realized that it has little to recommend it. For the next 11 months, the net would serve its purpose, significantly extending each user’s cultural, conversational, and intellectual range, and adding to the collective stock of human intelligence.
But as the Internet began to spread to each household and then to each smartphone, fears about the danger of an “eternal September” have been confirmed. There is more money to be made by stoking outrage than by providing sound information and encouraging the social-learning process that once taught net newbies to calm down. And yet, today’s Internet does offer valuable information, so much so that few of us could imagine doing without it. To access that information, we have tacitly agreed to allow the architects at Facebook, Twitter, Google (especially YouTube), and elsewhere to shape the public sphere with their outrage- and clickbait-generating algorithms.
Meanwhile, others have found that there is a great deal of money and power to be gained by shaping public opinion online. If you want to get your views out there, it is easier to piggyback on the outrage machine than to develop a comprehensive rational argument – especially when those views are self-serving and deleterious to the public good.
For her part, Newitz ends her recent commentary on a hopeful note. “Public life has been irrevocably changed by social media; now it’s time for something else,” she writes. “We need to stop handing off responsibility for maintaining public space to corporations and algorithms – and give it back to human beings. We may need to slow down, but we’ve created democracies out of chaos before. We can do it again.”
Such hope may be necessary for journalists these days. Unfortunately, a rational evaluation of our situation suggests that it is unjustified. The eternal September of our discontent has arrived.