Fiddling While It Burns

Has the internet enhanced the quality of political communication and debate? | 25/10/2010

In an age where mainstream media increasingly speaks with one voice, the internet has revolutionised political participation and revivified the public sphere. While there has been much angst and hand-wringing over the state of public debate in the internet age, this dissatisfaction belongs rightly not with the internet itself, but with the flaws of democracy generally, or even the human condition itself.

Independent news organisations like the New Matilda, Crikey!, and Salon, for example, offer genuinely different perspectives from traditional news insiders, most notably demonstrated by Salon’s 2005 role in vaulting the revelations of abuse in Abu Ghraib into the media spotlight, after the story was initially buried within the New York Times.

Meanwhile, self-appointed media watchdogs like Media Matters, Crooks and Liars, and innumerable others subject traditional media to a fine-toothed scrutiny never before imagined. Social media like Facebook and Twitter allow real-time sharing of news stories, and first-hand accounts from anywhere in the world can reach readers in seconds. The ability to store and share source documents online has revolutionised the journalistic standard of truth.

There are, of course, legitimate criticisms of online communication and debate. The legions of bloggers are not necessarily critical thinkers; nor are they necessarily concerned with the professional ethics associated with journalism. Many seek only to confirm their prejudices, and so the mutually exclusive, mutually outraged left- and right-wing ‘blogospheres’ are born, each their own onanistic Ouroboros, endlessly canting new data to fit old myths.

This phenomenon has been widely decried, and the internet has been blamed for an increasingly partisan and antagonistic culture by commentators such as Cass Sunstein, as well as a burgeoning culture of frivolousness preferring Twitter over essays, TMZ over the New York Times. This view, however, is rooted in a fallacious belief in some perfect past.

The fact is, Habermas’ idealised public sphere has never existed for mass democracy. The majority of voters have never been intellectuals; all elections are decided by people who have no idea who John Stuart Mill or Edmund Burke were. Only a privileged educated class has ever possessed a complex understanding of politics; previously, their debates were merely an exclusive sideshow. Now, although it is still far from the main event, the sideshow is at least a far larger and more visible one.

As for the accusation that the internet allows closed spheres of thought, this too presumes a false, glorious past. Think of the classic Australian film Don’s Party, where the drama of blue collars and silvertails plays out on the eve of Gough Whitlam’s election; think of the deeply divided America of the Clinton or Johnson years. Can we really say society is more divided now? No, we are just more aware of the divisions.

Yes, the internet is often an ignorant place – as society is often an ignorant place. But it can’t be denied: the internet genuinely democratises political participation in a way that has never been seen before. It is a uniquely incendiary fuel for any spark of political interest. The mass-movements behind the Obama campaign in the US or GetUp! in Australia are proof enough of this. The internet is imperfect to the extent that we are imperfect; yet, it offers a better prospect of an informed, involved electorate than anything which came before. No doubt it annoys the traditional gatekeepers, who feel their own qualified voices are drowned in an ocean of plebeian chatter – but isn’t that precisely the point?

Note: this piece was written for a Politics & Media assignment, with the title as the set topic. It’s fairly mundane as an opinion piece, but I thought it was worth blogging, at least.

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