The lumpen commentariat

We may have acquired the right to speak freely, but what good does it do if nobody’s listening?

Dale Lately
7 March 2014


We are, as internet commentator Clay Shirky puts it, collective witnesses to ‘the largest increase in expressive capability in human history’. An estimated half a billion tweets are sent per day. 181 million blogs were recorded by Neilsen in 2011. More written text is produced in a single second now than was published in an entire day in 1814. In a timeline of political evolution, the early twentieth century expanded the voting franchise; the early twenty first is doing a similar thing for our right to talk. The battle for free speech has been conclusively won, at least in the part of the world with Wi-Fi and smartphones. Or has it?

‘The right to express facts and opinions subject only to reasonable limitations,’ is how the Merriam Webster dictionary defines freedom of speech. Nobody could argue that today’s masses are easily silenced,  especially in an era when social media not only disseminates but helps to define the news agenda. The previously assumed right of governments to censor the press is well behind us – in fact, despite the best efforts of the NSA and other shadowy agencies, nobody could ever hope to even read a tiny fraction of what’s published online today, let alone act upon it. But is there a danger that such overwhelming verbiage can have another kind of dampening effect on our right to express ourselves? That we are all, in one way or another, being drowned out in the din? 

Attention please

We’re all aware of the punishing demands of the attention economy. Aspiring artists, entrepreneurs and writers have to devote part of their day to social media simply to be noticed at all. The gargantuan blogosphere, most of it lost in the long tail and barely read at all, dwarfs the material that makes it into print many times over. Everyone from art curators and journalists to students and scientists are encouraged to regularly blog, on top of meeting what may be punishing written production quotas. Websites that sell washing machines publish online articles about, well, washing machines. And that’s leaving aside Twitter, comment threads, feedback forms, web forums, Facebook, spam…

Of course this is all the inevitable by-product of a world in which bandwidth has become all but infinite, where the old technical constraints (relay cost, the effort of delivery and duplication) are largely invisible online. People will communicate more when they’re given the opportunity, but the value of what’s communicated falls as volume increases. Few spam telegrams were sent in the nineteenth century. Twentieth century postal junk mail would go on to be eclipsed many times over by its twenty first century email successor. Today an entire industry exists in simply filtering out the web’s incessant babble; we’ve gone from information scarcity to terrifying over-abundance in less than a generation. So are all these tweets and retweets, these user comments, these incessant blogs, really helping to make this a more enlightened and democratic world?

Lost in the long tail

Though any of us theoretically has the potential to make our thoughts available to a third of the planet, it’s worth remembering that most people online, as offline, talk to very small audiences of people. Twitter is regularly touted as a democratising tool, but the majority of users boast a follower count that barely reaches into the hundreds. There as in the real world, the only real hope for attaining a wider reach (the kind that a newspaper or a radio would give you) is by attaching yourself to a more influential player and swimming in their slipstream. A few celebrities, super nodes and brand-names with millions or even tens of millions of followers, a few crumbs doled out to the rest: not so very different from the pre-internet world. In the age of micro-blogging many struggle to be micro-popular.


Why, then, the casual conflation between the rise of social media and democracy itself? In this vision of geopolitical liberation--‘iPod diplomacy’, to use Evgeny Morozov’s phrase--the West, particularly America, gallantly unlocks the gates of popular revolution by granting the grateful oppressed citizens access to smartphones. The 2011 Arab Spring was endorsed by pro-western media as a ‘Twitter revolution’, so much so that you’d be forgiven for thinking it had been personally masterminded by Jack Dorsey’s executive board. Just as the twentieth century saw the export of McDonald’s and Hollywood as a form of political and economic soft power, so today are Apple, Google and the giants of the information age--subconsciously or not--associated with freedom of speech. The popular metaphor of the ‘great firewall of China’ is useful in propagating the notion of the western internet as a giant folk samizdat, an opportunity for unpoliced self expression that can help to crumble tyrannies in faraway lands if only we can get them all to sign up to Facebook.

In fact the reality is much more complex. While authoritarian regimes are certainly flustered by the web, they’re also more than happy to employ its potential for spying, censoring and misleading. Twentieth century censorship may have functioned largely through the suppression of information--Orwell’s 1984 powerfully evoked the mechanics of a centrally controlled propaganda organ--but in the twenty first century it can work as much by multiplying rather than suppressing the information supply. So far from universally ‘resisting’ the government, the decentralised blogosphere is actually another tool in the hands of the Chinese state. Take the case of a 26 year old foot soldier in the army of government-paid online commentators in what has been nicknamed “the 50-Cent Party”--because they’re paid 50 cents for each post they make--and whose remit, far from being the simple propaganda we’ve come to associate with One-Party states, is to blur, obfuscate and steer debate away from actual issues.

"Usually after an event has happened, or even before the news has come out, we’ll receive an email telling us what the event is, then instructions on which direction to guide the netizens’ thoughts, to blur their focus, or to fan their enthusiasm for certain ideas… You must conceal your identity, write articles in many dif­ferent styles, sometimes even have a dialogue with yourself, argue, debate. In sum, you want to create illusions to attract the attention and comments of netizens." (State-paid Chinese blogger interviewed in The New Statesman)  

Might this be the future of authoritarian censorship:  a ‘spamizdat’ of mis-information and redundant commentary? A pantomime of bureaucratic managerialism where the most appropriate metaphor, as Chinese scholar Li Yonggang has suggested, is not a firewall but rather flood management?

You have been frictionlessly shared

Obviously democratic governments don’t employ such programs in the same way (though astroturfing, where a co-ordinated barrage of ‘grassroots’ user comments attempts to shape public opinion, is frequently used throughout the murkier ends of the political and corporate spheres). But these utopian visions of the web as a trojan horse for democracy need to be tempered by bearing in mind the darker aspects of the age of Big Data – claiming openness while data-sharing with dictatorships; trumpeting transparency while handing data over to PRISM; singing catchphrases like ‘do no evil’ while sourcing your manufacturing inputs from sweatshop labour and hungrily monopolising markets. The source code at the core of Google’s search engine is more closely protected than the Coca Cola patent. As Steven Poole puts it, ‘Apple, which sells physical products, jealously guards its patent hoard and is about as “open” as Fort Knox’. Apple manufactures its iPhones--an emblem of liberation technology--in a Shanghai plant famous for abusive work practices, according to the NGO China Labor Watch. Does all this really herald an age of freedom?

Perhaps free speech is only as noble as the society that enjoys it. Even in the supposedly more enlightened West, the web continues to preserve a kind of digital Sharia Law that seeks to silence women by the usual threats of rape, violence and ‘slut shaming’. Take away the traditional barriers to self expression, and prejudice and bigotry are all too happy to fill the gap, leading to what Aleks Krotowski has called a kind of ‘emotional anaemia’. In a recent large-scale Swedish study, a quarter of all respondents said they felt ‘ill at ease’ if they failed to log in to Facebook regularly, while over half reported that it made them more conscious of their own bodies. For younger people, of course, such non-stop public exposure can take on more sinister dimensions, bringing all the hierarchy and exclusion of the school playground into their bedroom. Since 2009 the Family Lives charity has seen calls to its cyberbullying helpline increase by 77%. There is a steadily mounting list of teen suicides prompted by abuse on social networks. All this begs the question: when it comes to freedom of speech, is this a case of freedom to or freedom from?

Click ‘Like’ to change the world

"And she would tell him about the lovely music that came out of a box, and all the nice games you could play, and the delicious things to eat and drink, and the light that came when you pressed a little thing in the wall, and the pictures that you could hear and feel and smell, as well as see, and another box for making nice smells … and everybody happy and no one ever sad or angry, and every one belonging to every one else…" (Aldous Huxley, Brave New World)

In his perceptive Atlantic essay Nicholas Carr suggested how keeping an audience in a state of perpetual, infantile distraction by bombarding them with links, suggestions and moving images is central to the profit motive of the information age, the ‘guiding ethic’ of data overlords like Google. The web is undoubtedly a step towards democratic engagement, and social networks are as instrumental in modern activism as they are for marketing Shell or BP, but they’re also an invitation to relentless narcissism and the other myriad options for digital timewasting. Social networks are building tracking software into their user structure, so that users can spend more and more analysing the progress of their posts and pages like unpaid web marketers. We should ask how far this technology genuinely makes us enfranchised citizens or simply part of a ‘lumpen commentariat’, granted the right to endlessly talk about the world while doing little to change it. How far does a blog with twenty readers actually shape public opinion? Remember the last time a one-click Facebook petition actually made a real difference?


We should not, however, conclude that this babble is without its dangers. Leaving aside misogynist Twitch-mobs and far-right groups on social media, the very transparency of our words online may work against us. In Digital Vertigo Andrew Keen compares the web to a global panopticon – everyone on show, except for the people watching in the shadows. Much has been made of spying from security services, but the web of suspicion need not be covert at all; today’s Stasi would halve its workload simply by looking up the Twitter followers of its suspects, a tactic frequently employed by modern dictatorships. Another interesting question is how far the viral nature of social media leads its users to effectively incriminate one another, even unconsciously, in a kind of volunteer surveillance state. The ‘stream-of-carelessness’ that characterises online speech is bound to claim victims in our noisy echo chamber, such as the man who found himself under threat of criminal prosecution when he tweeted an ill-advised joke about blowing up an airport. Smartphones and social media erode the old distinction between private and public discourse, and if the result of these brain-to-blog outbursts can cost us our job or land us in court, we may learn to increasingly censor ourselves. 


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