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Dublin: 10 °C Sunday 20 April, 2014

Column: Social media has society in a panic. What does that tell us?

There is a political lesson behind the widespread condemnations of social media, writes Gavan Titley.

Gavan Titley

IRISH SOCIETY IS witnessing its very own moral panic concerning social media. While the primal evil being attributed to the ‘tweet machine’ is faintly embarrassing, all such moral panics are politically instructive, and this is no exception.

Following suggestions that anonymous messages may have played a role in the death of junior agriculture minister Shane McEntee in December 2012, ‘cyber-bullying’ has received significant attention. The chairperson of the Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications, Tom Hayes, warned that ‘this thing can’t be left go unchecked, where people can put up vile comments and get away with it’. Hayes is of course correct; if specific threats were made to McEntee they should be investigated. However, more recent statements indicate that the governing class is animated by a patrician disapproval that is far more general, and historically established – a fear of too much democracy.

Liz O’Donnell put it this way earlier this week in the Irish Independent: “the lawyer in me recoils at the notion of random and unguarded mass communications. What is to be gained from such a scrappy, ill-considered dialogue?” In an article in The Irish Times yesterday devoid of a single reference, fact, statistic or case, David Adams informed us that “so-called internet journalism is at a level equivalent to the Stone Age. Its main consideration is attention-grabbing, not accuracy; “hits” matter more than fact-checking.” And today, fresh from participating in a YouTube video aiming for viral status, John Waters argues that a “venomous and toxic social media is out of control”.

Parody

It would be easy to parody the ways in which different media platforms – integrated, of course, with mainstream media – are reduced to something called ‘the internet’ and thus bemoaned (in each of these articles, the writers underline their lack of engagement with the media under discussion, a form of pride not usually associated with informed comment). However, this form of reductive condemnation is established. Historically, the social apprehension of new technologies has always involved a tension between visions of emancipation, and fears of enslavement or anarchy – two sides of the same cyborg (so remember, don’t try to play Twitter backwards).

In the context of modern struggles for emancipation, the democratic potential of communication technologies has always intensified the anxiety of elites. It is no accident that recent discussions of social media’s negative power have regularly featured images of a ‘mob’. In his history of the idea of the mob in political thought, JS McClelland argues that the imaginary of the ‘mob’ – as a way of thinking about peoples and populations – has always been central to anti-democratic thinking and political practice:

…justifications for forms of rule are made that much more convincing if the ruled can be made out to be at best a crowd, therefore needing to be ruled, or at worst a mob, therefore threatening rule…

And so it is with as-yet-woolly calls for social media regulation – the modern mob just can’t handle the power they have unwisely been granted. Or, to paraphrase, “the elitist in me recoils at the notion of random and unguarded mass communications.” This recoil is predictable; columnists paid for comment in a culture awash with comment need to protect their privilege; politicians dependent on the insulating membrane of professional communications require a moral justification for their aloofness. But this is only part of the story.

A central dimension of that story is a rapidly shifting media and communications landscape that cannot be understood in terms of a superficial opposition between old and new, social and mainstream. Social media, as Nick Couldry observes, involves a “constant invitation to discourse”. As Una Mullally discussed in an Irish Times blog yesterday, established media players are heavily involved in issuing these invitations, but in a transitional “media limbo”, are unsure as to how to work with this abundance of digital content. Thus the pessimism/optimism pendulum continues to tock; Irish newspapers celebrate their own extinction by attempting to monetise their tiny stake in the structure of the internet; Frontline abandons basic journalistic scepticism by treating a tweet as an instance of pure public opinion.

Nastiness

The current moral panic may stem from a fear of the messy democratic potential of social media, but this does not mean that critics need to romanticise social media access and interactivity as inherently democratising. It is self-evident that an increased capacity to communicate provides infinite opportunities for nastiness. But a more fundamental question is this; if ‘everyone’ is commenting, who is listening?

Anxieties over the wayward powers of participative media are embedded in a political context where the public is consistently told that there is no alternative to the current dispensation, and that fundamental questions about the nature of this society are not up for discussion. The question, in this context, is what happens when more people can participate communicatively, but their political participation in the decisions that shape their lives becomes increasingly restricted, formulaic and lacking in agency?

The answer provided in this moral panic is that criticism of politicians becomes personalised. In a public culture where Presidents resign over insults and economists are invited to commit suicide, this is hardly novel. But where democratic governance is reduced to a choreographed spectacle of management, and where political success in Ireland frequently depends on cultivating a form of ‘local’ personality that actively repudiates a public function, is it so incredible that personalisation is so prevalent?

Endangered

Similarly, government and commentator denunciations of uncivil media would do well to consider the contemporary scope of incivility. Austerity ideology has prompted many politicians and their media partners – irrespective of Pat Rabbitte’s opportunistic surfing of the bad media zeitgeist today – to collaborate in stereotyping the unemployed, welfare recipients, single mothers and others as undeserving, or a problem, a strategy designed to provide a moralising justification for state retraction. Where is this ‘civility’ in our political culture, so endangered by cascades of angry bytes?

None of this, obviously, is to excuse vicious and threatening communications. But assessments of media power must always take place in social and political context, if only to avoid over-estimating media power. In this moral panic, these inflated assessments are designed to ensure that the context passes without comment.

Gavan Titley lectures in Media Studies in NUI Maynooth. He is the author, with Alana Lentin, of the recent book The Crises of Multiculturalism: Racism in a Neoliberal Age (Zed Books 2011). Information on the book, and further writing, can be found here.

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