‘Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own Government.’
That’s Thomas Jefferson. It’s a nice, inarguable idea. You cannot trust an ignorant population with a democracy. Or, to rephrase it slightly: If you wanna have a democracy, you MUST make sure everyone is educated, and the children of poorer people must have their education paid for by the community. Jefferson went on:
‘…whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied upon to set them right.’
Yeah, so we’ll decide who runs the place, and if they screw up, or start looking after their own interests over those of the wider population, we’ll bin them. So today I will analyse how that’s going.
But first, a trip in my time machine! Hop in, move the Marathon bar wrappers and betting slips and sit on the bench there. Here we go, hold on tight…
Right I’ll just open the door and… Here we are in the Rhondda Valley in 1934! Look at those forbidding mountains looming over us. And see those pit head wheels whirring all down the valley. It’s mid-morning, so most of the men in the valley are hacking away down those mines. This enormous building in front of us is the Parc and Dare Miners Institute, home to the Treorchy Male Voice Choir. Inside is a library, a bar and a spectacular theatre. In fact, they’ve recently installed a cinema screen now that talkies have been invented. But we’re going into the library…
Now THIS is a library. Floor to ceiling oak-panelled glass bookcases, stuffed with books on poetry, religion, politics. And here, at the tables in the centre of this grand room, we see what we came for.
A dozen people, some unemployed, some injured, some just not on shift yet. But all of them are in here to learn. This community has a battle on its hands with the evil coal owner, ‘The Devil With A Big Moustache’, who has been effectively murdering coal miners for decades, whether by blowing them up, drowning them, or burying them alive. Just last week, 266 miners were burnt alive in a coal mine near Wrexham. These people are tired of being murdered, so they are here devouring knowledge, learning about their rights, gaining an understanding of the laws. Every day this library is full, and it will remain full until they are armed with the knowledge, and hence the power, to succeed in their ambition to have the coal industry nationalised.
Right here in this Miners Institute library in Treorchy in 1934, we are seeing Thomas Jefferson’s words in action. A community is under attack from the people who rule it. They are sufficiently well informed to SEE that they are under attack, and they are educating themselves, arming themselves to topple their evil oppressors. I’m happy to report that these people will succeed too. 12 years from now, the coal industry will be nationalised, pay will be increased and working conditions improved. Slightly.
‘Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own Government.’
What exactly does ‘well-informed’ mean in Jefferson’s quote? When he wrote those words in 1789, he’ll have meant, you know, they read books… they read newspapers… they go to school. In 1934, our friends in the Rhondda were becoming well informed by studying in the library on days off. In 2021, the notion of being ‘well-informed’ has become tricky to pin down. Today, we receive far more information through ‘Apps’ on our little devices than we do through books. The great thing about this new type of information is that we receive it in tiny chunks, because the owners of these Apps have realised we cannot concentrate on anything for more than 8 seconds. (This blog article might be read all the way through by about 7 people, whereas I could easily tweet something that’ll be read all the way through by a thousand people.)
Tiny chunks of information is cool though. I’ve got no problem with that.
The problem is, whereas a book does not know anything about its reader and will not earn more money the longer you read it, The App knows EVERYTHING about its reader and will make more money the longer you read it. The App also knows that the way to keep you scrolling is to feed you chunks of information that 1) make you angry, and 2) come from people you agree with. If Dairylea Dunkers make you angry, The App knows this and it will bombard you with articles, accurate or not, that rail against Dairylea Dunkers. You will be at once furious at the Dairylea Dunkers and in thrilled agreement with the author of the articles. This will make you feel ‘part of something’, you will keep scrolling and The App will make more money.
Or maybe you hate immigrants. The App knows you hate immigrants, so it will bombard you with articles, accurate or not, railing against immigrants. You will be at once furious with the immigrants and in thrilled agreement with the author of the articles. This will make you feel ‘part of something’, you will keep scrolling and The App will make more money.
By itself, this system would still leave a population at about 50/50 in any election, Lefties raging against The Right, The Right raging against Lefties. But there is a second factor. You can pay money to The App to feed more of YOUR information into this ingenious algorithm. And it is incontrovertibly true that the campaigns by The Right are backed by the richest people, as they have lots to lose in any election. They lose Brexit, they gotta stick by stricter EU financial regulations… They lose the 2019 General Election, they got Corbyn coming in and hiking corporate taxes… The App, which knows everything about everybody, can tell The Rich exactly which people in key seats are most vulnerable to being converted. So The Rich say, ‘here’s a few million quid, go for it!’.
And this is the big difference between 2021 and 1934. I would never be arrogant enough to say ‘Gah, people are not interested in learning about the world any more’ (as lots of people do say). Nonsense! These people voting for the Tories in Hartlepool, or voting for Brexit in Ebbw Vale, or voting for Donald Trump in South Carolina, are probably reading more words per day than our heroic off-duty miners in 1934!
It’s just that less of the information they are absorbing is coming from a neutral, accurate place. It is being fed to us by algorithms created solely to keep you on The App. In the build up to the 2019 General Election, I had close friends state to me with certainty that Jeremy Corbyn is a terrorist. They were not speaking from a place of ignorance. They had done their research! They had read more articles about Jeremy Corbyn on their devices than any miner did about employment rights in that library in 1934. And every single one of those articles stated that Jeremy Corbyn was a terrorist.
A lady on the Jeremy Vine TV show this week on why she’s voted for the Conservatives: ‘They’ve done so much for this country. Stopping families going hungry. Food banks. Goodness knows what else. Boris Johnson has done so much, to me he’s unbelievable.’
A gentleman from Hartlepool on BBC news: ‘We’ve had enough of labour, they’ve wrecked it. The hospital’s gone. The Magistrates Court has gone. All the police have gone…’ Again, these two are not speaking from a place of ignorance. They’ve probably read dozens of articles about how Boris has created food banks to stop families going hungry and how Labour have just cut Police numbers and shut the hospital and court.
They have taken the time to become informed. They just don’t realise that the information they’ve been reading is spectacularly, mind-bendingly incorrect.
So, is social media killing democracy?
If we accept that a democracy needs a well-informed population, and that the vast majority of the information we receive now comes through The App, and that The App is just feeding people WHATEVER it needs to in order to keep them scrolling… then yes. It is certainly eroding it. And while The Right have more money to give The App, only tragedies like the George Floyd murder can swing these huge elections away from them. Cos one thing is for certain, no government will be clamping down on The App and telling it to keep to the truth, because the truth is no longer a definable thing.
Right, one more trip in my time machine. Come on, hop in. Move the Holy Grail and Turin Shroud and sit on the bench there… Careful with those, they’re gonna make me rich.
Right I’ll just open the door and… We’re in London in the year 2121! Look at that incredible white edifice being constructed across the river. Stunning. We can just make out the giant lettering being fastened to the front… ‘WAR IS PEA’. Hmm, ok. Dietary advice? But this country is obviously thriving. The people seem… happy. There is a family enjoying a picnic on the grass. There is a young couple walking dreamily along the river path. Here’s Big Ben just about to strike fifteen, and the Houses Of Parliament, still open and in session. Maybe I’m wrong about the destruction of democracy? And look at all these information screens! There’s one every ten yards! Let’s have a listen to this one… ‘The House Of Commons is the democratically elected house of the Oceania parliament, responsible for making laws and checking the work of Government…’. Ok. Perhaps social media is not eroding democracy. This London is clearly thriving, and the people are happy. And if it weren’t for those rhythmical booming thuds coming from the far distance, way down south of the river, there’d be very little to distinguish it from the London of 2021.
Well, I’d better take you home, I need to post this blog on my social media feed and make a bet on the 2022 FA Cup final. Thank you for joining me on my little adventure!
See you in a couple of weeks.
6 thoughts on “Is social media killing democracy? (And a trip to the Rhondda)”
Thank you for this. I read it to the end and feel better informed and educated.
Thank you Jan! And well done making it to the end 🙂
Beautifully written and yes, I read to the end. George Bonbiot’s tweets are worth reading today too
Thanks Sue. Ah George Monbiot is awesome, slightly shouting into the abyss though like all progressive writers.
Beautifully written and yes, I read to the end. George Monbiot’s tweets were well worth reading today too
Well said ( well read )
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