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Agora: The shrinking public square

agora the shrinking public square - Agora: The shrinking public square

Agora social media - Agora: The shrinking public squareThe 2009 film Agora depicts the tragic fate of Hypatia, the female philosopher and mathematician (portrayed beautifully, if historically inaccurately, by Rachel Weisz) who lived in Alexandria in the 4-5th century CE. Even under a Christian Roman emperor, Hypatia’s Alexandria was still the pluralistic, bustling, cosmopolitan Greco-Roman city it had always been, where various pagans (including Neo-Platonists like Hypatia herself) coexisted and transacted with Christians of varying stripes, Jews, and people of other religions. Hypatia’s school itself, although a pagan establishment where she taught philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy, catered to both Christian and non-Christian students. The agora, the traditional Greek public square and market-place, was a metaphor for this pluralism of ideas and beliefs.

The tide turned against Hypatia because she had become a close adviser of Orestes, the Roman (but likewise Christian) governor of Alexandria, who came into conflict with Cyril, its new bishop. Cyril’s less tolerant and more militant brand of Christianity had caused civil disorder and did not shy from weaponizing mobs of fanatic Christian monks to shut down opposition to orthodoxy. These Christian mobs — much like the Taliban — publicly harassed and suppressed Christian “heretics,” drove the Jews out of the city, and closed down synagogues, and at some point even assaulted Orestes himself. They ultimately set their sights on the pagan Hypatia, who though pagan, enjoyed a high social reputation.

Rumors were spread that her advice and influence over the governor were turning him away from Christianity and that she was to blame for the discord between governor and bishop. She was even alleged to have engaged in witchcraft and satanic practices. In the midst of such calumnies, which she largely ignored, she was ambushed in 415 CE by a mob of fanatic Christian clerics. The details of her murder are horrible: dragged out of her carriage, stripped naked, stoned, eyeballs cut out, body torn apart, pieces dragged through town, then set on fire outside the city limits. Thus ended the life of the editor of Ptolemy’s Almagest and the great commentator of Diophantus’ Arithmetika.

Through the ages, Hypatia’s fate has served as a cautionary tale of how easily reason and science can be snuffed out by a wave of lies and false rumors, fed by a rich subsoil of intolerance and superstition, leading to tragic extremist violence.

One-thousand six-hundred years later, we must wonder whether a similar phenomenon is not upon us.

Various trends — both political and technological, and not only in this country — have shrunk the public sphere of tolerance and reasoned discussion.

The political scientist Shawn Rosenberg [2020] recently attracted attention for his pessimistic prognosis of the survival of democracy in the present era. His pessimism is grounded in the difficulties involved in fulfilling even the minimal requirements for liberal democratic governance, which demands a lot from a society’s institutions, culture, and citizens. One such requirement is the peculiar way citizens in a liberal democracy ought to engage with each other in the public sphere.

What Rosenberg terms “communicative engagement” aims at arriving at “a shared understanding of issues and circumstances so that the individuals involved can come to agreement on the actions they should collectively take” (my emphasis). While citizens may differ in their personal frames of reference, they are still required to understand the bases for others’ positions (that moral sentiment Adam Smith called “sympathy”) and indeed remain open to the possibility of incorporating some elements of the others’ viewpoint in one’s own understanding. Hence, for example, Delawans should ideally not simply deny but seek to understand the Dutertard concern for the local peace and order and the drug problem. Conversely, the latter should appreciate the former’s concern that an indiscriminate drug war would violate human life and dignity, particularly among the poor and marginalized. In the ideal outcome, collective action could have resulted in addressing the drug addiction problem in a manner that respects human rights. Whatever shape of policy is finally adopted, however, what one seeks to avoid is a gravitation to extremes, encouraging instead a willingness to learn from errors and adjust future actions.

This is a far cry from today’s political discourse, much of which consists of brickbats lobbed from a distance (e.g., through social media) by hostile camps that question each other’s sincerity, mental competence, and fundamental honesty. To begin with, a “shared understanding of issues and circumstances” is hardly even possible when information is fragmented, manipulated, or even suppressed. The reasons are partly political, and partly technological.

Until some decades ago, the clear venue for “shared understanding” — the modern equivalent of an agora — was the mainstream media, curated and arbitrated by elites consisting of career journalists, political pundits, academics and other experts, governed by their respective Weberian professional ethics. Verified facts, structured political discourse, and informed commentary were commonly experienced by the public at large through “newspapers of record” (e.g., the New York Times, Le Figaro, or the Times of India) and major networks of television and radio (e.g., NBC or CBS in the US, ZDF in Germany, or ABS-CBN and GMA here at home).

A common trend in most countries that have drifted towards authoritarianism, however, has been the delegitimization and vilification of mainstream media. Trump in the US rails incessantly against the “lamestream media” for being systematically biased against him. Brazil’s Bolsonaro and Hungary’s Orban sing the same tune, accusing their countries’ independent press of spreading “fake news.” Here at home the continuing campaign of Duterte and his supporters against the “yellow press” needs no long discussion. The greatest success of this campaign was reached with the shutdown of the country’s largest radio-TV network with the widest nationwide reach, thus depriving millions of their source of news and thus the opportunity for “shared understanding.” (Especially deprived has been Mindanao, since TV coverage was limited to begin with: while 85% of adults in Metro Manila obtain their news from TV, it is only 69% for those in rural Mindanao.)

Even without its active suppression and denial, however, the influence of mainstream media (e.g. print, broadcast) was already being vitiated by the rise of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. This has coincided with the almost universal diffusion of smartphone technology and broadband access. Pew Research reports that some 62% of Americans already get their news primarily from social media. The corresponding figure for the Philippines is far less (8% nationally but 15% in NCR; for that blame the slow and expensive broadband access), although it is significant and growing among the youth, the college-educated, and the more affluent — in short, the socially influential.

Offhand, one would have expected the availability of multiple sources of information and the ability to interact directly with one’s fellow citizens (i.e., in contrast to the one-way experience of a TV or radio broadcast) to widen the chances for “communicative engagement” and to raise the quality of discourse. In practice, however, the commercial model underlying much of social media has proved an obstacle to the demands of liberal democratic governance.

The value-proposition of such platforms is to heighten the engagement of the individual consumer by indulging and amplifying her biases and preferences — which can be achieved only by gathering ever more information about the person. Amazon’s “recommends” and “also-bought” strips are an innocent enough application (although Netflix’s Social Dilemma has a more sinister take). Such a granular model of the customer is obviously more potent than advertising through mainstream broadcast, which at best addresses itself to the modal person or some broad demographic and is therefore diluted by diversity. Facebook’s news feed feature, for instance, uses an algorithm that puts a premium on sites that you — or your FB friends similar to you — have “liked” or commented on in the past. This is quite unlike the plain old newspaper delivered to your door, or the linear evening newscast you must sit through that is curated and pitched to EveryPerson and contains both stories you may like or dislike. The big difference is that while the latter provides heterogeneous news and opinion (or at least tries to), the former cuts out diversity via algorithm. Thus, while sensible — if addictive — from a marketing perspective, granular marketing applied to politics runs counter to the cause of democratic engagement, whose purpose is not to reinforce biases and preconceptions but to see through and overcome them.

The marketing literature also recognizes a reinforcement of engagement from the creation of “brand communities.” Community members built around certain brands or products derive benefits such as hedonic enjoyment, getting information, connection (to something bigger than themselves), self-expression, and getting validation, and others [Baldus et al. 2015]. It becomes obvious then that engagement — and therefore potential ad revenue — increases when like is combined with like (not a pun). A similar principle is involved in Kremer’s [1993] “O-ring” theory of production, where assortative matching of workers with the same skill levels produce more output than when mixed. This insight is harmless enough when implemented to stoke, say, a virtual community of Dyson hair-care device enthusiasts or of Montblanc pen owners.

Applied to political discourse and communication, however, the same algorithms for engagement encourage the formation of sectarian and highly opinionated groups that reinforce each other’s biases and prejudices. As shown by recent experience (Facebook’s removal of fake accounts associated with government and the military) it then becomes that much easier for political operatives and malicious state actors to “seed” the formation of such groups through fake accounts and troll farms that manufacture lies and propaganda. But as the adherents to the infamous QAnon conspiracy theories in the US show, the tendency is organic to social media and to human psychology and can thrive even without purposive encouragement by political operators. The net effect is the same however: the drawing of sharp battle lines between groups and the stoking of mutual animosity — which after all is clickbait nonetheless.

Here at home, Dutertards and Delawans on social media may “engage” each other by constructing the wittiest insults, jokes, memes, rumors, and fake news that provoke the opposite side and earn applause, likes, and retweets in their respective digital bubbles. (Earning clicks both ways.) But, for all the noise, and much like two mobs shouting at each from opposite sides of the street, these do little to serve democratic governance, much less “communicative engagement.” Heckling is not persuasion; quarrels are not debates.

The public sphere is being narrowed by direct suppression of its traditional venues — made even worse by the physical isolation imposed by the pandemic — and their superficial replacement by algorithmic engagement in social media. The net result is to foster social division and, worse, to make the majority of citizens lose interest in and turn away from substantive political issues altogether. This can only serve those whose agenda is to deprive ordinary citizens of initiative — and to maintain the monopoly of information and power for themselves.

Reference:

Baldus, B., C. Vorhees, and R. Calantone [2015] “Online brand community engagement: scale development and validation,” Journal of Business Research 68(5): 978-985.

Kremer, M. [1993] “The O-ring theory of economic development,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 108: 551-575.

Rosenberg, S. [2020] “Democracy devouring itself: the rise of the incompetent citizen and appeal of right-wing populism” in: D. Hur and J.M. Sabucedo (eds.) Psychology of political and everyday extremisms. Brazil: Editora Vozes.

 

Emmanuel S. De Dios is professor emeritus at the University of the Philippines School of Economics. Like Marx who wrote about capital but possessed none of it, he observes but does not do social media.

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