My last book was about the ways in which knowledge, and learning, has become ‘open’. My next book is going to be about the power of us: how ordinary people can punch above the weight of corporations and the so-called ‘elite’ (you know the elite, those very rich people who complain about a handful of people having all the power). And there’s probably never been a better – or more confounding – time to be looking at this. I freely admit that I’m struggling to get a handle on 2016, but I’m in good company, as the events of last week demonstrated.
Paul Mason, author of Post-Capitalism and Channel Four news journalist, did his best to make sense of the world turned upside-down as he curated the Meaning Conference in Brighton, but even he is still processing where we might be headed.
The year’s two seismic events – Brexit and The US election – are flag-bearers for something far more widespread, and it’s not clear how any of this will pan out. 2016 may well go down as the year when the power of social networks was wrested from the hands of the liberals, by the conservatives.
Consider the man who, until now, made the most of collaborative networks: President Obama. His 2008 campaign marked him as a man who galvanised millions of young, well-educated liberals to organise themselves. They got the youth vote out, raised unprecedented amounts of money and countered media smears – all while the republicans were wondering what this Facebook thing was. The digital gap was even bigger by the time of the 2012 campaign, with Obama’s social media views outnumbering Romney’s by 2 to 1.
Up to this point, the establishment of social networks was, in the main, the prerogative of the good guys – one of the reasons why OPEN had such an optimistic.demeanour. Peers all over the world were self organising for the common good. They were tracking and reporting the disappearance of political activists; they collectively paid for medical procedures for those who couldn’t afford them; they harnessed the incredible power of open source platforms to build everything from continuous glucose monitors to low-consumption cars, to malaria cures. Most of these movements embodied the Indian principle of ‘jugaad’ (good enough) and some, like Occupy, were without leaders (and – to all intents and purposes – a plan). It was all intentionally amateurish but well-meaning and highly infectious – and it was a giant leap forward from piano-playing cats.
Then along came ISIS. We seemed shocked that the same platforms that had been used to help our neighbours, could be commandeered by the bad guys – and with brutal efficiency. Twitter, once the great social connector, started to feel like a much more polarised, shouty, space, and middle-class liberals began to abandon it to the cynics and the intransigents.
But the events of November 8th have pressed the panic button among liberal media sources – and it isn’t just because they didn’t get the president they wanted. The bedrock of any traditional journalism is fact-checking: insisting that if you speak truth to power, you at least need to have your facts right. It was their USP. Now, with the arrival of ‘post-truth’, even that seems to have gone up in flames. And Zuckerberg, Bryn and Page were found asleep at the wheel as the alt-right juggernaut ploughed into the electorate.
In the same calculated way that two well-educated British journalist-politicians – Michael Gove and Boris Johnson – knowingly told lies in order to frighten enough people to vote ‘leave’ in the Brexit referendum, so Donald Trump has used social media to devastating effect in quoting ‘authoritative’ sources for his views, knowing all the while that his ‘facts’ were sourced from fake news sites. Hell, we didn’t even know that ‘alt-right’ was even a thing until earlier this year.
Meanwhile Hillary Clinton was relying upon neoliberal cliches and the support of Beyonce and Jay Z. Trump’s celebrity endorsements were restricted to Mike Tyson and Tila Tequila, but it didn’t matter because he had a bunch of teenagers in Macedonia on his side.
Yes, hip-hop’s royalty were out-influenced by a group of young men living in Veles, a tiny town in Macedonia. From here they launched over 100 US political websites publishing, well let’s not call it ‘fake’ news, it’s just lies. Headlines like Hillary Clinton In 2013: ‘I Would Like To See People Like Donald Trump Run For Office; They’re Honest And Can’t Be Bought. or claims that the Pope, Harrison Ford and Taylor Swift had all endorsed Trump – all made up. But they provided some significant pocket-money for our young entrepreneurs. That fake Clinton story? 480,000 likes on Facebook. And these stories were plagiarised and spread around social media like a bad smell.
Of course, it wasn’t just the alt-right that was peddling lies masquerading as facts. There are left-leaning fake news sites too, but in significantly smaller numbers. Why? Because they didn’t have Clinton or Bernie Sanders driving people toward them, as Trump did, on a daily basis.
Shortly before the election, President Obama saw the danger in these sites, saying “if they just repeat attacks enough, and outright lies over and over again, as long as it’s on Facebook and people can see it, as long as it’s on social media, people start believing it,” he said. “And it creates this dust cloud of nonsense.” Well, it turned out to be a poisonous, toxic cloud of nonsense. No-one can say that Clinton lost the election because of lies, but in the hands of Steve Bannon, Breitbart chairman, Trump’s campaign manager and soon to be chief strategist in the White House, it was clearly a well-organised, well-executed part of an overall strategy, inherited from Brexit.
One of the great democratising aspects of social networks is that no individual’s views count for more than another’s. The depressing part is that ‘the bubble’ has also led to a disdain for accurate and informed opinion. As Gove said during the Brexit campaign ‘I think this country has had enough of experts’. When such stirrings of emotions over evidence were voiced by Trump’s beloved ‘poorly educated’ they were condescendingly, catastrophically, dismissed by the left. When this stuff comes out of the mouths of those who may well be part of the next administration, then it’s far more sinister, as witnessed by last week’s interview with Breitbart’s Senior Editor, Milo Yianopoulis:
So, how should the left respond to this shift towards polarisation, nationalism and populism? Leftist UK journalists like Paul Mason, John Harris and Owen share a widely held view that the party political left is in crisis. But they are less clear on the way forward, not least because, as Owen Jones says “we know that stating the facts and hoping for the best will not blunt the right”. Some have said that you have to fight fire with fire – the left needs a form of emotional populism that Trump tapped into, and to hell with the facts.
My own view is that Clinton’s defeat has given the last rites to top-down party political dominance, and good riddance. But progressive politics is far from dead. We’re witnessing a surge in grass-roots progressive activism, and that offers not just hope, but also a way forward. And it has a powerful figurehead – a man who is re-discovering the importance of community activism, and the power of self-organising networks: Barack Obama.
“we’re going to have to redesign the social compact in some fairly fundamental ways over the next twenty years. And I know how to build a bridge to that new social compact. It begins with all the things we’ve talked about in the past—early-childhood education, continuous learning, job training, a basic social safety net, expanding the earned-income tax credit, investments in infrastructure—which, by definition, aren’t shipped overseas”
Personally, I can’t wait to see how he will support the next phase of self-organising networks to rebuild that social compact.
The left has been consoling itself since Nov 8th with a phrase, often – though incorrectly – attributed to Martin Luther King (it was originally coined by Theodore Parker): ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ But there’s no immutable law that says that it will. We will need to bend that arc to our collective will – away from the new cynicism, and back towards social justice. We won’t be able to achieve that through the broken hierarchical political party system – instead it will have to be in challenging abuse wherever it appears, through the power of networked, distributed, self organisation.
I said in my book that the fight for OPEN was ‘ politically and commercially contentious. In reality, it marks a battle for for the control of knowledge’. Trump’s hyperventilated response to the cast of Hamilton shows just how politically contentious that control is, and that the fight for civilised and truthful debate will be long and bitterly fought for. But it can be done.