The world is witnessing a wave.
The wave has many names: Chauvinism, right-wing populism, proto-fascism, contempt for morals and the common good, hatred of the disadvantaged, hostility towards groups, pride in stupidity. It calls itself Tea Party, Alt-Right, Brexit, Lega, Identitäre, nationalists or worried citizens.
Their most visible symptoms are governments made up of an all new class of politicians. They are loudmouthed, deliberately uncorrect, anti-intellectual, deliberately ignorant, openly corrupt, anti-semitic, anti-muslim, anti-liberal, depending on their mood. They do not even try to make good politics, it is enough for them if their fanbase is enthusiastic and the money keeps coming in.
The wave apparently originated from a well-oiled, constantly self-confirming opinion machinery, that mainly takes place in the social networks. There are people who specifically feed this machine, who have learned what works best in this cosmos. But troll factories and the sowing of vicious fake news would be pointless in networks that somehow rationally correct themselves. The thing is, they don’t.
So how exactly did this culture medium develop? Is it a brown swamp that has always been there and now articulates itself here? Or is it the social media that made this darkish brew ferment in the first place? Is the medium the message, as Mashall McLuhan once put it? Or are we dealing with a new form of democracy — with results that we simply don’t like?
The history of the media can be described as a history of ideological occupations.
“Television makes us stupid.”
“Journalists live in a leftist filter bubble.”
“The yellow press lies.”
“Facebook polarizes our societies.”
“Muslims are radicalizing themselves on YouTube.”
“All of Germany ist listening to the Führer.”
Public opinion spaces are created and shaped by the media. As a carrier of ideas, the media could originally be neutral in ideology. In a mysterious way, however, they seem to be promoting tendencies by their nature: the media themselves sometimes change our values, norms and ways of acting. And then there is simply the question: Who owns the revolution? Who is brutal and presumptuous enough to overtake it?
At different times, different media have developed different characters: enlightening or dulling, radicalising or mediating, progressive or reactionist. If we don’t like this character, we tend to blame the medium. “Facebook’s algorithms fuel everything that emotionalizes us — hatred, scandals, sensations.” That is true and that should change! But we shouldn’t make it that easy for ourselves.
For in addition to the inner constitution of a new medium, it was always a struggle for the contents that determined the progress of history. A look at media history reveals how each new medium has been ideologically occupied in its own way and has lived through its own (implicit or imposed) history of ideas. If you like, you can take a detailed look at it here – afterwards the text continues.
Balladeers and Songlines: Oral Culture
Sometime in the last 300,000 to 60,000 years man began to speak. Words describe the world in traditional terms. Phrases, songs or rhymes reinforce the effect and help to remember more complex things. The resulting memes can be very lasting, especially if language is the only medium in which knowledge is passed on. Grimm’s fairy tales give an impression of it. From the Australian Aborigines we know the Songlines, which anchor a mythical map of all Australia in memory. Until the 19th century, balladeers had the function of spreading stories and news in an entertaining way. Despite all tradition, oral culture has something anarchic about it – the thoughts are free. Mockery and turmoil take place here, as does conservatism.
Knowledge is power: Writing
Writing is an ancient cultural technique, but we constantly see how laboriously it has to be passed on. Societies that have only the minimum can often not afford it. So one can assume that writing was a medium of the educated and rulers over most of human history. The illiterate people could only marvel at the superior knowledge and defining power of the scribes. Shamans and healers, religions and state administrations used scripture to cement their power. At the same time, the written testimonies of the past are unbelievably valuable for our present understanding of history. What the Renaissance experienced through the detour of Arab archivists from antiquity became the starting point for a philosophical renewal that the world had not yet experienced.
Revolution and control: Book printing
The easier the reproduction of fonts became, the more dynamic and uncontrollable the dissemination of the ideas contained in them became. The Reformation, but also the spread of antisemitism in Europe, would not have taken place without book printing in this form. The completely religious mindset of the Middle Ages was confronted with new answers – from Luther’s Bible to the “Hexenhammer” (a witch hunters brevier). Since pluralism was unthinkable in this climate, Europe sank into the struggle for the valid faith, which was also mercilessly stretched before the carts of feudal power interests. It was only Frederick II of Prussia who finally decided that “everyone should be merry after his own manner”. The book became an enlightened philosopher, but was also subject to censorship. Books by Shakespeare or Balzac, Darwin or Marx, Heine or Neruda became milestones in cultural history.
Spread the news: Newspapers, flyers and billboards
As paper (from about 1600) was produced on a larger scale, printed matter became affordable for everyone and also more up-to-date and diverse. Caricatures, agitation and strong comments were the result. Newspapers provided information and developed a journalistic, often enlightening self-image. The struggle for a valid interpretation of the truth became a lively daily business. It was not uncommon for state to impose censorship. And quite often tensions arose between editors with a rather progressive attitude and the tightly conservative owners of their newspapers.
Document and beautiful fiction: Photography
The paradigm of photography is to objectively depict an object and yet only show a section of the world. Just the selection of a motif can already be a manipulation. Or the selection of the moment: Boris Johnson impudently places his foot on a table in the Elyseé during the state visit. The picture persists, but it shows only a tiny moment of a silly joke among powerful men in a flurry of flashlights. Retouching was also common practice from the very first hour of photography. Though it’s reputation as objective proof did not last long, yet effective photographs (e.g. from war reports) repeatedly shaped the social debate.
The orchestra in a tin can: Vinyl record & Co.
After the reign of the (printed) word, sound recording offered a completely new media field. It should belong above all to music and spread comfort, contemplation, a good mood and a very special kind of eroticism at the push of a button. Anyone who believed that this kind of entertainment was harmless and free of values was taught better from the 1920s onwards: Jazz became the driving factor behind a new lifestyle. The youth movements of the 1950s to the 80s would be unthinkable without music spread on an industrial scale.
What dreams are made of: Cinema movies
Hardly anything is more appealing for human sensory perception than moving images. In just a few years, the funfair attraction cinema turned into a news and dream factory with powerful potential. The credibility and memorability of what one saw with one’s own eyes — and soon heard with one’s own ears — was overwhelming. The telling of stories shifted from the campfire to the cinema hall; the cinema became the intersection of all the arts. Values, attitudes and truths were subtly packaged. First Hollywood and Babelsberg, then Southern Europe, Bollywood, Japan or China developed into independent schools with their own worldview and ideological character.
The voice of the world: Radio
The ideological struggle for this medium is exemplary for the Internet (more about that here). Here, too, the technical hurdles to going on air were comparatively low. The idea of state licensing was originally anything but self-evident. The revolutionary potential of the new medium could only be banished after the massive influence of conservative circles. The enforced conformity of broadcasting in Nazi Germany (the death penalty was sometimes imposed on listening to “enemy stations”) is a sin that has had a lasting influence on media history. The principle of the free press and public broadcasting (publicly controlled but not committed to the government, such as the BBC) has since been regarded as a characteristic of liberal democracies.
Boob tube between education and fascination: Television
At the beginning, only few could afford the cinema for home, but at the latest since the mid-1970s television has belonged to every household. The medium was determined by high production costs: close state control with a corresponding agenda (depending on the system, liberal or totalitarian), a strict eye on audience ratings and the soon obligatory advertising characterized the broadcast program – and thus society. Educational programs such as Sesame Street and documentaries were often juxtaposed with trashy entertainment. The more commercial it became, the more the quality seemed to decline. The somewhat outdated claim of public television to bring relevant content to the people at certain times of the day continues to have an effect in the Internet age.
Guided information: manipulation, advertising and propaganda
Controlled (dis)information is as old as mankind. But in the age of the mass media, a science has developed that not only uses media, but becomes a category on its own. Advertising and communication agencies compile a convincing framing for products and opinions. In their totalitarian counterparts, in the ministries of propaganda, secret services and troll factories, things go a more robust way. As long as it is obvious where and in what interest a message is spread, the damage is manageable. But the more political and conspiratorial it becomes, the greater the distrust. After all, conspiracy theories do have a serious background that they can refer to, with flagrant examples – from Stalin to George W. Bush – in which conspiracies actually determined information policy.
Exchange in real time: Telephone and internet
Telephone, hypertext, e-mail and SMS have changed and accelerated our way of communicating. Newsgroups and forums, file sharing and websites, comparison portals and dating — the shift in paradigms is diverse. Examples are the abolition of the sender-receiver principle and the immediate global availability of information for everyone. In the network of thought- and information exchange, the World Wide Web, opinion spaces, swarm intelligence or even a “world spirit” have formed. Associated with great hopes for emancipation, education, democratization, transparency and smart control of our world. And some of them have even been fulfilled.
Cacophony in the opinion space: Social media
The spread of social media was worth its own version number to the Internet: the Web 2.0. First it was dominated by a smart and idealistic youth who developed new forms of exchange and had big fun doing so. Commercialisation was an issue. And soon, in interaction with the rise of the right-wing populists, an ideological struggle broke out to occupy the social networks. Conspiracy theorists, ultra-nationalists, right-wing populists and antisemites hijacked the forums and to this day there isn’t much we can do about it. After all, full-time inventors of fake news, rabble-rousers and troll factories also find a fertile breeding ground in these peer groups. Initiatives such as OCCI, HateAid, Ich bin hier, correctiv.org, factcheck.org etc. go the hard way of reclaiming the virtual streets and squares.
Despite all differences – all media have one thing in common:
The winning messages are those that touch us, stir us up, entertain us and / or offer conclusive explanations. This is not a phenomenon of the tabloid press or social networks, but rather what we humans react to. Whoever wants to dominate the opinion space must adhere to these laws.
When Barack Obama made the social media the backbone of his presidential election campaign, there was much euphoria about the new (in a double sense) “democratic possibilities”. Conservatives and ultra rights, people like Murdoch, Bannon, Prigoschin entered this arena a little later, but now occupy it with force.
And as ever, conservatives and ultra rights do what conservatives and ultra rights do: the former hold on to the status quo. And the latter are stirring up resentments in order to push through their identitary agenda. The social networks are an extremely effective and powerful resonance ground for this. But moaning is pointless: It is up to us enlighteners, liberals and leftists to dispute this ground with right-wing populists – above all with clever content.
And yes, we should also see whether we can improve the state of the media. The structures and algorithms, so that they no longer serve the lowest instincts in us, but promote knowledge and common sense. Education and media literacy can and must also help (keyword: anti-bias education). But we won’t change anything about the way people react, how they are fundamentally seducible and radicalisable through media in general.
The question of what was there first, the hen or the egg, becomes less interesting once you understand the interplay.