Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
Without institutions and practices that can establish and preserve the credibility of information, there is no solid ground for democratic discourse. What we will see instead is an “arms race of ploy and counterploy” in which the whole notion of objectivity is a casualty of the battle of truths, as Daniel Dennett, the philosopher of consciousness, has put it.
Indeed, we are already seeing all that is solid melting into information we no longer know if we can trust. As another philosopher, Byung-Chul Han, observed in an interview with Noema, democracy requires a common narrative of binding values, ideals and shared convictions. But “the informatization of reality leads to its atomization — separated spheres of what is thought to be true. … Bits of information provide neither meaning nor orientation. They do not congeal into a narrative. They are purely additive. From a certain point onward, they no longer inform — they deform.”
Today, he argues, democracy has given way to “infocracy” as peer-to-peer connectivity “redirects the flows of communication. Information is spread without forming a public sphere. It is produced in private spaces and distributed to private spaces. The web does not create a public.”
Writing in Noema, Renée DiResta of the Stanford Internet Observatory points out that the elite gatekeepers of yesterday’s mass media were often castigated for “manufacturing consent” among a “phantom” public by leaving too many voices out. What may be worse is that the structural fragmentation of today’s digital media ecosystem is manufacturing a level of dissensus detrimental to the possibility of arriving at consensually agreed truths necessary to hold any society together.
DiResta brilliantly exposes the dynamic behind this splintering at scale. She shows how the incentive for siloed social networks to monetize attention has empowered a new kind of distributed propaganda crafted to fit niche audiences living in their own reality.
Niche Propaganda Thrives On Distrust
“Propaganda,” says DiResta, “is information with an agenda, delivered to susceptible audiences to serve the objectives of the creator. Anyone so inclined can set up an account and target an audience, producing spin to fit a preferred ideological agenda. … Rather than persuading a mass audience to align with a nationally oriented hegemonic point of view … the niche propagandists activate and shape the perception of niche audiences. The propaganda of today entrenches fragmented publics in divergent factional realities, with increasingly little bridging the gaps.”
As DiResta sees it, the new propagandists thrive on the trope of being excluded and persecuted to attract audiences of the alienated who believe they have “exited the Matrix” of the mainstream media, government and Big Tech conspiring to silence the people.
“Sustaining attention in a highly competitive market,” DiResta argues, “practically requires that niche propaganda be hyper-adversarial, as often as possible. The rhetorical style is easily recognizable: They are lying to you, while I have your best interests at heart.”
These “media-of-one,” she continues, “are incentivized to increase the fracturing of the public and perpetuate the crisis of trust, in order to ensure that their niche audience continues to pay them.” Their success has propelled Davids into Goliaths of influence that are eclipsing the old channels of information.
As these new niche propagandists overshadow any bridging media, Aviv Ovadya of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center fears we are headed into “a catastrophic failure of the marketplace of ideas” with “no one believing anything or everyone believing lies.” He calls this “the infopocalypse.”
As Dennett and Han have understood, democracy cannot survive this failure of the marketplace of ideas because it disables the formation of any shared ground where competing propositions can be tested against each other in the full gaze of the body politic as a whole.
What can be done? The cat of distributed social networks is out of the bag and can never revert to a media ecosystem where custodians of perception edit out voices they don’t want to hear in order to manufacture phantom consent. The point of challenge must be where information meets the political space.
As we have written in Noema, new mediating institutions, such as citizens’ assemblies, that encourage and enable civil discourse and consensus formation at the same virtual scale as social networks, are more necessary than ever because the forces of fragmentation have never been greater. Mending the breach of distrust between the public and institutions of self-government in the digital age can only happen by absorbing the wired activation of civil society into governance through integrating connectivity with common platforms for deliberation.
Just as republics have historically sustained themselves by creating countervailing institutions to check power when too much of it is concentrated in one place, so too such checks are needed in the digital age when power is so distributed that the public sphere itself is disempowered.