Remember Malcolm Turnbull’s dog blog? Back in 2008 or so, that, his iPad, and his use of Twitter were proffered as signs that an admittedly ambitious man was nevertheless savvy, forward-looking and possessed of a human touch.
His use of various platforms offered channels of direct communication that weren’t overseen by media gatekeepers. Back then, ‘Web 2.0’ signified an opportunity for politicians like him, operating in a familiar, careerist mode.
Or remember the first Obama campaign? Back in 2008, it was received not only as an astute political use of new media technologies, but as the apotheosis of the internet itself as a liberalising force.
One op-ed published right after the election captured the tone shared not only across the mainstream media, but within much of progressive politics. Obama’s masterful leveraging of Web 2.0 platforms marks a major E-ruption in electoral — in America and elsewhere — as campaigning shifts from old-style political machines toward the horizontal dynamics of online social networks.
The Web, a perfect medium for genuine grass-roots political movements, is transforming the power dynamics of politics. There are no barriers to entry on sites like Facebook and YouTube.
Power is diffused because everybody can participate. Notice that the technologies are understood in this passage as progressive and transformational in and of themselves. Structural features like easy access are seen, ipso facto, as a challenge to entrenched power.
Every new technology attracts optimism; this is related to a deep, abiding, and seemingly unshakeable idea that scientific and technological advancements lead inexorably to moral and political progress. This tendency is at least as old as the Enlightenment.
But the internet, even before the World Wide Web, was a particular locus for dreams of civic renewal, and the repudiation of corrupt institutions. The advent of social media put all of this optimism into overdrive.
Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and all of the usual suspects were credited with powering uprisings from Iran, to the Arab Spring, to Occupy. Eight years after Obama’s victory, talk like this has been turned inside out.
Excitement about online people power has been disappeared; now there is only horror about the “alt-right’s” online army, and confusion about how to even cover them.
Prominent commentators have been howling like Birchers about Russian hacking. Major mastheads are giving over their front pages to coverage of groups who make apps that would blacklist journalists. Something akin to panic has arisen about the easy diffusion of “fake news” by uncredentialled actors who have managed to game Facebook’s algorithms.
In general, truth seems like a hard thing to get any traction on. And Trump’s Twitter game — which breaks every risk-averse rule of political communication — is not celebrated as a new model for campaigning, but rightly feared as a new model for demagoguery. There’s also an emerging, queasy recognition that his campaign employed new kinds of analytics and social media outreach that left his shambolic opponents for dead.
Suddenly, it looks like social media is a perfect fit for the far right. Suddenly, “grass roots organising”, “lowered barriers to entry”, and “horizontal dynamics” seem to have acquired newer, darker meanings. At the same time, we find Malcolm Turnbull beached, and gulping the unfamiliar air of failure. The erstwhile dog blogger and great small-l liberal hope seems maladapted to the times. The new year promises to be worse for him than this one.
Extremists within and beyond his own party have taken advantage of social media, its affordances for grass roots organisers, and the decay of our own institutions of media and government to organise their own right wing insurgencies. If people like George Christensen have moved in from the obscurity where they might in earlier times have dwelled, it is because they are more capable of seizing the opportunities that a chaotic, affectively charged environment presents.
Now is not a time that favours moderates. And the convulsions are likely to continue for a good while yet. In 2017, the progressive response to all of this need not be a retreat into pessimism. We just need to face a few facts. Communications technologies have no inherent political orientation or moral weight. The idea that they might be inherently liberalising is given the lie by, among other things, the fact that the far right has been successfully using ICTs since the 1980s to create their own counter-publics. They’ve been at it for a long time, and they’ve always been good at it.
Our brief seasons of optimism just led us to forget that. The recent, broad revival of repellent ideologies that were once presumed dead should tell us something. No technology, let alone the internet, bends human values in desirable directions. They are rather tools that human beings use to realise their values, for good or ill. The right are succeeding right now because their ideas, however awful, are clear, and their tactics resolute.
Technology will not do the work of honing or promoting our ideas for us.