The Federalist has a spectacular post called “How to Escape the Age of Mass Delusion” that really should be read by everyone — link to it and annoy your friends with it. It dovetails with a few things I’ve been exploring for my coming 400-level class “Wealth and power in America” at the university I teach at. We’ll be dealing with some influence networks — not just the “rich”, as the original content was designed at the home base — money, fame, and other factors influence public opinion, public policy, and empower certain sectors of the American society.
Recently, I made a comment on the cynosure of internet evil, the social media site, Face
fuckbook, to the effect that the creation of the comment button contributed to the collapse of civility and rational thought in the last ten years or so. That ability to quickly, reflexively, vent on a story anywhere around the interwebz has been instrumental in the rise of the Outrage Industry™, where ginning up anger and response to an issue or story gains a site more clicks, more advertisement dollars. Worse, it allows what were once fringe groups to network and get more effectively offended at some comment, imagined slight, policy issue, or social trend, and have out-sized influence socially, where years ago someone would have slapped the shit out of them and told them to grow up. Case in point, every college student whinging about trigger warnings and being psychologically threatened by differing opinions.
If anything, the internet shows us the dangers of true democracy, the rule of the mob, where transitory shifts in public opinion can lead to devastating consequences on ordinary folks just going about their daily lives. This was precisely the sort of reactionary response to events that led the Founding Fathers to create a republic, not a democracy. In a democracy, all you need is a plurality — not even a majority — of people to agree to criminalize something and turn an otherwise law-abiding citizen into a pariah.
It also illustrates the dangers of party allegiances, and social cliques with money and power. The ability to wield a worldwide bullhorn, to seed mimetic capital throughout societies small and large, near and far, allows a hazardous concentration of power in the hands of people with access and control over the new media platforms. Witness the sudden shift in public opinion in the United States toward free speech, as just one such example; those who are most at risk from free speech are those in power — the political class, if you will — and they seek to quiet those they compete with for your ears and minds with hate speech codes, censorship of ideas or speech that might incite a response from other outraged and offended groups prone to violence, and use the courts to prosecute those with unpopular ideas. The use the force multiplier of the comment button to do what shouting contrarians on news programs have done successfully since CNN was launched — shift discourse from rational discussion and thought, to emotion and response.
One way to stop the madness might be to ignore all those comments at the bottom of a news piece, and not to join the fray yourself. Stop watching televised news and talk radio — both feed on anger and fear, and rarely foster rationality. Stop letting the offenderati into your head.
Now feel free to comment below.