Social media is no more a nemesis to democracy than books

Posted on January 6, 2018 in Education History – Opinion – When a new form of communication is invented and becomes popular, it creates uneasiness. It’s like a tool without an accompanying manual
January 5, 2018.   Robert Fulford

The scholar and journalist Anne Applebaum, in a National Post interview on Tuesday, joined with those who increasingly consider social media a danger to society. She thinks it makes people impatient with democratic institutions because they become accustomed to the speed of social media. In Applebaum’s view this method of communication makes it easier to create anti-democratic movements.

Recently the editors of the Economist magazine drew up an even more severe charge sheet. Social media, they said, spreads untruth and outrage, creating a “politics of contempt” in the process. “Once considered a boon to democracy, social media have started to look like its nemesis.” Far from bringing enlightenment, it spreads poison.

Gary Mason in the Globe and Mail on Thursday declared Donald Trump should be deprived of his Twitter feed because his bellicose tweets threaten a nuclear war with North Korea. But is that the fault of Twitter? In the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, long before Twitter was invented, the U.S. and Russia came extremely close to hurling nuclear bombs against each other.

A historic pattern lies behind these troubled accusations. When a new form of communication is invented and becomes popular, it creates uneasiness. It’s like a tool without an accompanying manual. It may be used by people with dangerous ideas. It presents a threat.

In the 16th century the development of books raised this kind of alarm. It was focused on Martin Luther and his critical approach to the practices of the Roman Catholic church. Luther’s writings appealed to the new audience of book readers and many loyal Catholics suspected the rise of publishing helped create the Reformation and the rise of Protestantism.

But it seems likely that Luther’s ideas were not entirely new to his readers. It seems likely that many readers were doubters, already resenting church regulations and the power of the priests. Perhaps he simply codified already living ideas and anger that were waiting for a means of expression and a charismatic spokesman. Certainly that’s the way the Luther revolution would be explained by those who agree with one of the most widely accepted modern theories on how public opinion emerges.

In 1960, Joseph T. Klapper of Columbia University, in his book The Effects Of Mass Communication, claimed that people usually don’t serve as passive targets of propaganda. The truth, Klapper wrote, is that political and commercial mass media merely reinforce convictions. Propaganda must be able to ignite some already existing type of cognitive activity while expanding its message. Klapper argued that most of us form opinions in our families and peer groups, then search out media that bolsters our feelings — “Klapper’s selective exposure theory,” it was called.

Radio, for instance, has often been blamed for the rise of Hitler. But his hysterical ranting did not convert millions of happy democrats into fascists. He spoke to an angry audience embittered by Germany’s failure in the First World War, by a ruinous level of inflation, and by the perceived unfairness of the peace treaty the victors had imposed. Germans felt cheated, which made them listen to Hitler when he promised to give them the revenge they wanted.

As movies became popular in the first half of the 20th century they were perceived as a threat to public morals. Censorship boards were set up all over North America to protect the masses from sexual stimulation. A Catholic organization, the National Legion of Decency, tried with some success to regulate the contents of Hollywood movies. The film studios, terrified by the thought of a Catholic boycott of their movies, fell into line. They not only eliminated sexually explicit scenes but also banned certain conceivably dangerous words; a famous example was “virgin,” which could not be uttered in an American film till 1953. It was many years before the era of the censors ended. No one ever established that movies had shaped sexuality; the birth-control pill probably played a larger role.

In 1961, president John Kennedy’s new chairman of the federal communications commission, Newton Minow, gave a speech about network TV, installing in the American language his appalled description of its content as “a vast wasteland.” For years newspapers loved to quote that mantra, but the size of the audience showed no signs of declining. In fact, television didn’t radically change until the appearance of a new development, cable TV.

The worry about social media reminded me of something Margaret Atwood said recently while appearing on a panel at the Vancouver Writers Festival. The panel moderator asked her a question: “I think some of us who are politically active, want to know: Is now the time to be very, very worried?” Atwood replied with a question: “When was the time not to be very, very worried?”

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