Friday, September 22, 2017

The divisive power of the virtual world

It is tragic how social media, in addition to creating consumer comfort of some sorts, is acting as a psychological primer for nurturing hate towards others.

Has internet got more power than people to undermine or divide democracy? The way in which media has gone ‘social’ in creating echo-chambers of like-minded voices; the chance for such an upturn may not be remote. Conversely, the world of algorithm is fuelling efficiency in the way we make choices and connect only with those whom we like. Why would then like-mindedness be such a threat when in effect it strengthens identity and solidifies views? Cass Sunstein, the celebrated author who proposed Nudge hypothesis for fresh thinking on managing health, wealth and happiness, lets the pigeon out of his thinking hat to suggest that hidden behind the purportedly consumer comfort is a subtle transformation which acts as a psychological primer for nurturing hate towards others.

As social media increases people’s ability to hear echoes of their own voices and social media technologies help them conform to their limited choices, people are pushed into excessive self-insulation that leads them to believe in falsehoods. Self-insulation does offer a degree of comfort though, and possibly a way of life too. But creation of a limited argument pool based on constricted viewpoints ends up undermining the ability to be engaged citizens. As these self-insulated groups continue to churn limited ideas, falsehoods are inevitable outputs which eventually contribute to a politics of suspicion, distrust, and even hatred. A vote in favor of ‘Brexit’ could not have been possible any other way, opines Sunstein.

Social media has come handy for politicians to create political polarization effects, Donald Trump used it effectively and so did Narendra Modi in their respective election campaigns. Curiously, it is now clear that the ‘likes’ on Facebook and the ‘followers’ on Twitter are not the best measure of popularity. The numbers don’t really add up, but do show the use of social media in engineering political polarization among electorates. However, the bottom-line is that the followers create a virtual constituency that adds a wide range of arguments in their leader’s favor, and often shift to a more extreme position against those opposing it. Trolling is the logical next step, built over the cesspool of guarded opinions.

Drawing from research in the fields of behavioral science and social psychology, Sunstein unfolds the implications of the subtle but powerful phenomenon of polarization. The trouble is that much before people get to know it, they are sucked into the prison of their ‘like’ group. Little is realized that such group identity not only undermines individual freedom, but has implications for democracy at large. After all, democracy needs proactive voices and not ‘inert’ citizens who have been silenced into submission for holding divergent views.  One of the most pressing obligations of a citizenry, according to Sunstein, is to ensure that ‘deliberative forces prevail over the arbitrary.’ In dissent lies the strength of democracy.

Sunstein actual experience of working in the Obama administration, however, was to the contrary as his Facebook page was filled with views that fitted with the interests of the administration. This was bound to be so as Facebook’s algorithms construct a picture of who you are, and what interests you. With social media becoming central to peoples’ search for news, however, their worldview is becoming restricted with a liberal dose of fake news finding a place of legitimacy. It is a threatening fact of life in the networked sphere. It is this change during the last ten years that prompted Sunstein to address the dangers that the internet poses for politics following his previous two books, in 2001 and 2.0 in 2007.

Invoking Amartya Sen’s remarkable finding that there has never been a famine in a system with a democratic press and free elections as a metaphor, #Republic suggests that freedom of expression is central to social well-being precisely because of the pressure that it places on the governments. If we value freedom, we must value the free exchange of ideas. It not only demands a law of free expression but also a culture of free expression, wherein people listen to what their fellow citizens have to say. Sunstein doesn’t acknowledge social media as enemy but provokes the readers to seek out diversity in order to fulfill the promise of ‘e pluribus unum’– out of the many, one.

To doubt if danger of polarization will ever materialize is to ignore the writing on the wall. At this time when false news is guiding predominant media discourse, and when outrage by cyber-polarized communities against dissent has taken a toll on unsuspecting lives, there could be nothing more close to truth than what Sunstein has propounded. If we do not fight against the closing-down of our minds to critical thinking, a deeply divided democracy fueled by hate will be our destiny. The risks of the ongoing evolution of social media are too difficult to ignore.

Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
by Cass R. Sunstein
Princeton University Press, Oxford
Extent: 310, Price: $29.95

This review was first published in wekend BLink of the BusinessLine on Dec 01, 2017

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