The internet has dramatically transformed the way individuals receive and share information; and thus make choices. But how exactly? (Spoiler alert: it has made us dumber)
During my morning social media perusing in the wake of Brexit, I stumbled upon a tweet from my favourite musician/inadvertent philosopher, Yannis Philippakis, which read “Livin’ in a post-factual democracy”. I clicked the red heart and moved on, until the phrase “post-factual democracy” popped up again in the FT, which got me googling (I love when pop culture icons and the in-depth analysis of the FT come together!!) I was led to an interesting article, which, although written in 1999, remains quite relevant in many facets
The article points out that in the past “theories of the press and modern democracy rest on the foundation of the informed citizen who makes decisions based on rational, objective criteria and that the news media are perhaps the most crucial source of this information.” Yet today, this has changed.
In the US, Republicans watch Fox and democrats watch CNN. That’s how it is. So, surely this demonstrates the biases of news media alone. But online it is even worse.
Most prominently, the blurring of lines between opinion and fact are seen in every media outlet, and widespread speculation has inundated even the most up-to-date, well-read individual with fears of the unknown and hypothetical. While the use of propaganda isn’t new, it now has the ability to shape our viewpoints by physically seeing friends and loved ones all over the world shaken by events through their statuses, sharing articles, or worse: memes.
Indeed, I cannot count the amount of times I get online and see highly sensitive and passionate issues such as gun control, police brutality, immigration, or an array of other topics be reduced to a photo captioned by a dozen or so words that make the issue seem glaringly obvious – often insulting or isolating the other side. While many of these issues may seem obvious to us, nothing as serious as the Brexit, for instance, can effectively be reduced to one meme in a serious setting. Yes, memes were created for our entertainment, but the oversimplification of these matters has some serious consequences.
One consequence of “catch phrase” or “meme” politics is that it has divided – and ultimately – conquered us. For instance, I find myself guilty of disregarding people’s opinions simply by glancing at the links they share – making my own opinion about the story before I even read it. This occurs on a wider scale as we make assumptions about individual’s entire identities based on simplified, and often over-opinionated, stories or profiles by someone else. The most obvious examples of this are black male victims of police brutality or Syrian refugees, for example.
So, as our ideas are formulated by short, sharp headlines deeming something or someone “good” or “bad”, we rush to back up our ideals and beliefs with similar information from similar sources, which seems like the natural thing to do. However, it is far too convenient to ignore the other side or to even find factual information about anything anymore, which reinforces the “us” vs. “them” scenario.
And how does this play out? It is gripped tightly by those who have something to gain from this, which just about beats these ideas into our fucking brains as far as it will go. Don’t believe me? Tell it to Donald Trump, who has campaigned on fear-mongering and blaming “them” for “our” problems. And tell it to the 39.4% of voters backing Trump today. Tell it to Nigel Farage, who awkwardly forgot/ignored that a woman was brutally murdered by a Britain First Neo-Nazi, as he proclaimed the success of Brexit “without a bullet being fired” (while also using Nazi propaganda posters to promote his campaign, and won).
So, what is the solution to this sea of seemingly pointless and incorrect information? More information! (Plot twist!)
While the internet and social media have given us the opportunity to insult, degrade, and separate ourselves, it has also given us the opportunity to connect with individuals all over the world, and see how politicians vote, rather than tweet.
The point is, we can always find information that fits our beliefs or backs up our (mis) understanding of something, but doing this prevents us from growing as individuals, communities, and ultimately global citizens. This doesn’t mean engaging in heated debates with others in comment sections or on Facebook, but engage with others by listening rather than speaking. Ask questions and get many responses. Most importantly, don’t stop if you hear something you don’t like, because it might actually be true or important to someone else.