By Joseph Bedard
Electronic media manipulation is impacting our current epistemology and has left our democracy flawed.
Charles Metts, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at CSUSB. He has been a researcher in the areas of contemporary critical theory, visual culture, media criticism and aesthetics. His paper, “Reclaiming the Typographic Mind in an Age of Authoritarian Aesthetics and Bliss” was presented at the Union for Democratic Communication Conference, Media, Resistance, and Justice: The Fight for Humanity. Being a concerned professor for our democratic future, Dr. Metts provides his outlook on the promotion of pro-authoritarian ideologies through social media platforms.
Q: During our conversation, you regard social media to be anti-social media, can you expand on that and why you feel social media is not as social as it seems?
A: Yeah, so we are in the midst of another communication revolution, and there is a new epistemology in town. It is more correct to say anti-social media because if you think about it, the very thing that was meant to bring us together, is pulling us apart. This can be explained, and we know what’s happening. For example, Neil Postman was researched what would happen to society when it shifts from a typography-dominant epistemology to electronic media and television. Postman was concerned about the tenor and tone of public discourse in the age of television–he was afraid that television would render it absurd and ridiculous. Which it did as we know but unfortunately there is a whole new game in town on top of television, and it is social networking sites.
Q: How has electronic media affected our epistemological views?
A: Shoshana Zuboff has written about this and what is happening inside what she calls an epistemological coup, and she talks about this epistemological chaos that comes with this new form of media. So, just like Hitler was able to use radio and film as new media technology for propaganda, we are now in the throes of another kind of communication revolution, where new electronic and now digital media yet again are being used at the service of authoritarian impulses.
Q: How does social media benefit from this chaos?
A: Well, this chaos is bred by profit-driven algorithms through these social networking sites and we are seeing a conflation of free speech with for-profit algorithmic amplification. For example, Facebook makes a lot of money off this division and anger, because they know that you are more likely to stay on their platform if you are angry. They have done tests and know which emotion will keep you on longer,
is anger. These systems are designed for profit, not democratic purposes, and people are buying in because they prefer fear to calm, falsehood over truth, and outrage over empathy. These platforms provide all of that, get them hooked, and then authoritarian figures take advantage of that. They are taking advantage of this new epistemological chaos that’s taking place in and under what Zuboff calls, surveillance capitalism.
Q: Are we already seeing decline in our democracy as a nation?
A: Not only our nation, but worldwide. Since 2006, the whole world has been sliding away from democracy and democratic institutions to authoritarianism. The Economist magazine ranked us twenty-fifth in their 2020 yearly democracy index, so we are no longer considered a full democracy, we are a flawed democracy. And part of that, not all, but part of it has to do with the money that these social networks can make of off anger and angst that they stir up themselves, and then authoritarian figures come in and take advantage of that confusion and epistemological chaos.
Q: What can be done? What can we do to protect ourselves?
A: We are in dire need of regulations and new laws that will prevent companies from making profit off the anxieties of others. They are making money off anti-democratic tendencies and it is concerning. Companies like Facebook know there are ways to control your anger and emotions, and so they know when to shut things down as well as how to shape responses from people. We need to try to educate our youth earlier on social media literacy to better understand these profit-driven algorithms. And finally, probably most important, you got to get the money out of politics. Lobbyist for companies like Facebook are using millions of dollars to protect people like Zuckerberg when he goes up in front of congress. We can get smarter and understand social media as much as we want, but if politicians are being bought off by lobbyists from those $1,000,000,000 corporations, it’s going to be very hard.