Law in the Internet Society

Politics in the internet age: making the truth great again

-- By JeanBaptisteLeca - 10 Dec 2016

‘‘In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally’’.

This is what 17 million people, following President-elect Donal Trump on Twitter, could see on their timeline on November 28th. A personal opinion, without any factual basis. And yet, the message has been widely retweeted throughout the social network.

What is the "and yet"-ness of that? Personal opinions are pushed about on that platform all the time, and it is hard if not impossible to give a reason consistent with our constitutional commitments why they shouldn't.

It is no more than common sense to say that truth and politics maintain, for the less, a complicated relationship. However, it is not so much the individual politicians’ lack of integrity that is at stake here. The problem relates to a more global phenomenon, the so-called ‘post-truth politics.’ This paper will seek to define the challenges that it poses (I.), how social media has contributed to its rise (II.), and what could be done to fight it (III.)

What is the truth in politics and why does it matter?

Defining the concept of ‘truth’ is by no means easy. Hannah Arendt has provided some guidance in Truth and Politics, where she made a distinction between two types of truth: rational and factual truths.

Rational truth is the product of the ‘‘relative permanence of the human mind’s.’’ It refers to the kind of truth that science, mathematics, and philosophy seek to achieve as it transcends temporality and particularity. Being the product of ‘‘speculative mind,’’ rationale truth has no place in the political debate. Factual truth, in contrast, is the product of ‘‘events and circumstances in which many are involved.’’ It refers to historical and social events and is therefore temporal and particular. Factual truth is political by definition: it must be validated by the community and ‘‘exists only to the extent that it is spoken about.’’ Those two types of truth play a major role in their own realm: while rational truth informs scientific, mathematical, and philosophical reasonings, factual truth informs opinions and political judgments.

You could not afford 155 words, more than 15% of the space available, for this paraphrase that in the end offers a distinction that could be explained in a sentence and given a working link, instead of the inoperable citation here.

Post-truth politics refer both to factual and rational truths. In fact, its very nature is to create ambiguities.

First, it blurs the line between facts and opinions. In a post-truth society, opinions do no inform facts: they are facts. Yet, this distinction is central to healthy democracies. While factual truth is the product of a social and collective construction, opinions are merely ‘found’ by individuals who are carried away by their own perceptions. It precludes any form of debate or dissent. Citizens stop confronting their views and, without the opportunity to develop their reasoning skills, are not able to form valid assertions anymore. The risk at play is that individuals become easy targets for misinformation and demagoguery.

Second, it blurs the line between factual and rational truth as it tends to promote one single truth, seen as universal and absolute, rather than historically and socially specific. This undermines critical thinking by imposing a homogenized set of values.

Truth matters in politics because it supports pluralism: denying truth can lead to what Hanna Arendt calls ‘organized lying,’ a defining feature of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. It consists in the deliberate and systematic misrepresentation of a situation to justify controversial policies through propaganda campaigns, often based on nationalist rhetoric. An increasing number of examples can be found throughout the world: in the United Kingdom, the successful ‘Brexit’ campaign was based on the assertion that Turkey’s accession to the EU — claimed to be imminent — would give rise to a massive flood of immigrants. In Turkey, to justify Erdogan’s purge, national authorities repeat that the U.S. are behind the recent military coup.

How is social media reshaping the truth?

The digital revolution has had significant implications for the news industry: social networks have overtaken traditional media and forced them to adapt to the new environment.

Social media have become people’s main source of information. A recent study from has shown that the Facebook platform accounts for the major part of the traffic to news sites, before Google. This monopoly is due to the fact that Facebook is embracing every aspect of people’s life — covering politics, leisure, education… As explained by Emily Bell, Director at the Two Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University Facebook has literally 'eaten the world'.

What nonsense. Lots of us, not trivial people in our own right, have never used it, and won't. The outpouring of newspapers and other forms of public information in free societies that permit such niceties has never been higher. Wikipedia, and hundreds of millions of open educational resources have threatened the basic bottlenecks in human learning, as they were designed to do. The Web, of which Facebook is just a small walled-garden subset, has changed humanity without eating the world. Here you are just relying on an opinion, and some cherry-picked facts, to create a post-truth, in your vocabulary. Where's the critical rationality?

Social networks are then in a position of strength because they are the ones that determine what information people should get access to. However, unlike traditional media, they consider themselves as tech firms and have no interest in journalistic integrity. The news industry has slowly lost control over the information diffusion, as it is now completely determined by obscure algorithms.

Completely? Nonsense again. Inflation of opinion into fact.

The main consequence of the use of such algorithms is the rise of a filter bubble effect. Social media provide users with information tailored for them. Such information is not meant to challenge their beliefs or to broaden their personal views. In fact, there is no room for contradiction: individuals are only exposed to information they are likely to appreciate and that support — and thus strengthen — their own judgment. The ‘wide-open web’ is today a myth rather than a reality.

Nonsense again. I live in it, and you could too, if you wanted. The absence of a question is being asserted on the basis of the "there is no other answer" rhetoric we have called, since Gramsci, hegmony.

This phenomenon is followed and amplified by the traditional media as they seek to adapt to the new economic model that social networks are imposing, primarily based on online advertising. As a result, the number of clicks that an article obtains (or 'click-through rate') is more valuable than its quality and accuracy. As Katharine Viner wrote: ‘‘The digital advertising model does not discriminate between true or not true, just big or small.’’

Rebuilding media credibility and citizens' responsibility

Social networks refuse to be considered as media companies. However, they have become, as a matter of fact, a news platform on their own right and shall accept the responsibility that goes with this evolution. They have a key role in promoting citizens’ awareness and responsibility when dealing with post-truth politics. They have the duty to fight the rise of ‘fake news.’ But this is not enough: they must be encouraged, though regulations if necessary, to put more emphasis on the source of the information that is shared rather than on the person who is sharing it.

However, social networks cannot be let unchallenged and must be counterbalanced by responsive, diverse and independent media. In fact, restoring confidence in the traditional media is of the utmost importance as it remains the best defense against populism and post-truth politics.

The credibility crisis that news industry is currently facing is rooted in economic factors: digitalization has led to a drop in advertising revenues. It appears increasingly apparent that this business model is unsustainable. There were 41.500 full time daily newspaper journalists in the U.S. in 2010, there were only 32.900 in 2015.

Meanwhile, local journalism is slowly dying. Newspapers have entered into controversial alliances through ‘native advertising,’ that is, promoting adverting content while pretending it is editorial content. This path is a dangerous one. On the contrary, a redefinition of their business model, and most notably their ownership — six American companies control almost all the forms of mainstream media — is necessary. The media industry must learn to come closer to individuals and the internet offers great tools for that purpose, which could be a way to develop another form of participatory journalism though projects like ‘citizen journalism’.

The best route to improvement here is to reduce both the length and the intensity of the first part, which overhypes one aspect of a problem it never fully engages or describes, while making the second part, which now absorbs only the last two paragraphs, the center of the piece's thinking. What, precisely, do you want to do to make more effective and more attractive the form of privately-owned, allegedly "objective" publishing that you think used to provide "the truth" in politics?

I must say in addition that this draft seems to me as thoroughly embedded in naivete about the past as it is in overhype about the present. Readers of 20th century newspapers may not have been eaten by Facebook, but the idea that they consumed more factual and rational truths about politics is unestablished, to say the least. A reading of any of the wonderful work of AJ Liebling over three decades at the New Yorker should help dispose of that forever.

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r3 - 12 Feb 2017 - 17:56:47 - EbenMoglen
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