Category Archives: Information and the public sphere

Long-term erosion of trust

Interesting article on Slashdot about the historical roots of the weaponization of doubt and scientific disagreement by special interests.

It is notable that these phenomena start at scale with the pervasive political engagement of corporations with American politics in the 1970s and ’80s: this is the moment in which business as a whole detaches from automatic support for a particular political party (choosing its battles and the champions for them –whether financing an insurgent movement, litigation, legislative lobbying, and so forth– on a case-by-case basis), and also the dawn of the end-of-ideologies era. These themes are well discussed by Edward Walker in Grassroots for Hire (2014).

As for the present predicament, one is reminded of an NYT op-ed from last year by William Davies, “Everything Is War and Nothing Is True” on public political discourse:

Social media has introduced games of strategy into public discourse, with deception and secrecy — information warfare — now normal parts of how arguments play out

or of a similarly-dated piece by Z. Tufekci on the commercial side of things:

The internet is increasingly a low-trust society—one where an assumption of pervasive fraud is simply built into the way many things function.

There definitely seem to be systemic aspects to this problem.

Inter-institutional trust deficit

Piece in Axios about tech companies’ contingency planning for election night and its aftermath. The last paragraph sums up the conundrum:

Every group tasked with assuring Americans that their votes get counted — unelected bureaucrats, tech companies and the media — already faces a trust deficit among many populations, particularly Trump supporters.

In this case it is not even clear whether a concurrence of opinion and a unified message would strengthen the credibility of these actors and of their point of view or rather confirm sceptics even further in their conspiracy beliefs.

Ideological balance in banning

Interesting article in The Intercept about Facebook’s attempt to achieve ideological balance in its banning practices by juxtaposing its purge of QAnon-related accounts with one of Antifa ones. Whether such equivalence is at all warranted on its merits is largely beside the point: FB finds itself in exactly the same situation as the old-media publishers of yore, desperate for the public to retain the perception of its equidistance. Antifa was merely the most media-salient target available for this type of operation.

It is unclear to me that there still is a significant middle-ground public who cares about this type of equidistance in its editorial gatekeepers, so perhaps the more cynical suspicions, such as Natasha Lennard’s, that this is simply a move to curry favor with the current Administration in the middle of an election might not be off-track. What is more significant in the long term is that the content-moderation scrutiny FB now undergoes, chiefly because of its size, will only intensify going forward, forcing it to conduct ever more of these censoring operations. This restriction on debate will, in turn, eventually and progressively push more radical political discourse elsewhere online.

On the whole, I think this is a positive development: organizations that think of themselves as radically anti-establishment should own up to the fact that there is no reason they should count on being platformed by so integral a part of the contemporary establishment as FB. Public space for political mobilization is not confined to the internet, and the internet is not confined to giant social media platforms.