We live in a shrinking world. As early as the 12th Century, the development of the Mongol Yam, a series of post-roads and an early pony express, efficiently moved information about the Mongol Empire, shrinking the Mongolian world, allowing the Khans in far-flung Karakorum and later Khanbaliq (Beijing) to administer the largest contiguous land empire in history. Further technological developments such as new types of ships and sail rigs allowed European traders to bypass those same Khan’s trade routes along the Silk Roads, shrinking the world further: taking away some of the Khan’s power while further expanding the political influence of European colonialists, shrinking the European world. Later, the development of the steam ship and railroads further shortened the lines of communications between and within polities. The list of technological innovations that contribute to the shrinking world is immense; telegraph, telephone, television, airplanes, jets, rockets, and satellites, all contribute to the shrinking world and its ever-changing political landscape. None of these innovations has had the impact on that landscape more than the development of worldwide, instantaneous, personal digital communications coupled with a global social media.
The short answer to the question, ‘are digital technologies making politics impossible’ is, ‘maybe.’ The long answer is of course, a bit more complicated – potentially maddeningly so. So perhaps we should just give up and go mad now. The question is so expansive that we must discard the parts of the question that are not useful, and define the parts that are.
“Impossible is a word found only in the dictionary of fools.”
The idea that anything as common, and broadly defined as politics is impossible, that it is unable to be done, ever, as an absolute, is at best unlikely. To quote the author, Marty Rubin, “If you want absolutes, you have to invent them yourself.” Thus if politics are impossible for any reason, it is an absolute that we ourselves invented. This is not impossible given that we are speaking of the effect of digital technology – an invented thing – on politics. Nevertheless, absolutes that people invent can be un-invented. As such, we must put the subject of impossibility aside, and discuss probability.
So that now the question is, “are digital technologies making politics difficult”. The short answer is still, ‘maybe’, possibly even ‘likely.’
In defining what we mean by politics, there are perhaps as many – or more – definitions of politics as there are political and social scientists, political structures, or grains of sand. The word politics comes from the Greek πολιτικός, or politikos meaning “of, for, or relating to citizens.” In this instance, it is the process by which decisions are made applying to all members of a group (a polity).[i]
French philosopher Michel Foucault’s definition of politics is highly influential on modern political thought; it is also a bit more “slippery” than others are. Foucalt started life as a Marxist, but disillusioned with his experience with Stalinism, he soon left the party. After numerous twists and turns, Foucalt’s philosophy on politics became described as “governmental rationality,” or “governmentality.” Governmentality deals with power, first with political power, and then evolving into a subjective power of individual actions. Foucault while important does not provide a clear definition of what politics is because his politics involves any sort of negotiated relationship.[ii]
Earl R. Kruschke, Ph.D., in his article “Toward a Brief Formulation of a Definition of Politics” argues that politics is, “…a process of attempting to maximize one’s value preferences in various arenas by use of relevant available resources, in competition with others and their resources.”[iii] Kruschke then goes and broadly defines politics as relations amongst people no matter in what context that relationship occurs.[iv] Like Foucault, Kruschke argues that nearly all interactions are political. If we used Foucault and Kruschke’s schools of thought, for many people the negotiation related to “what restaurant would you like to go to?” is the epitome of political negotiation. This may be true, but it is not helpful.
On the other hand, Sir Bernard Crick focuses on politics related to governance. Crick argues that politics is a –
‘distinctive form of rule whereby people act together through institutionalized procedures to resolve differences, to conciliate diverse interests and values and to make public policies in the pursuit of common purposes’.[v]
As such, politics refers to the way in which free citizens govern themselves though public debate, discussion, and persuasion. Crick also postulates that “…if there were a natural unanimity in any society on all great issues… politics would, indeed, be unnecessary.”[vi] Crick’s views can best be summarized as “politics is ethics done in public.” This perhaps overly unfairly boils down the work of 44 years to a simple, pithy statement.
However, according to Crick, when debate, discussion, and persuasion becomes coercion, violence, or intentional deceit, politics breaks down into ‘anti-politics’.[vii] Unethical ideologically driven leaders practice anti-politics, driving the populace towards their own goals —by whatever means necessary. The unethical leaders are not restricted to honest debate, discussion, and a persuasion, but instead open the door to the use of violence, coercion, falsehoods, propaganda, cults of personality, etc. Thus, if you ascribe to Crick’s views, what we are seeing executed in the United States today, and possibly for some time now, is not politics, but anti-politics.
Using Crick’s definition of politics as a basis avoids, without making general value judgments on, the complications and expansions of political behavior that one finds in power-centered political thought such as found in Viroli, Lasswell, Luke, or Easton.[viii] Additionally, Crick’s definition avoids the politicization of nearly all social interactions, as is found with Kruschke and Foucault. Furthermore, Crick argues, not every decision is political and we should limit ourselves to those debates with the ultimate goal of governance.[ix]
In the end, Crick’s definition is the most useful. Politics is the honest (or ethical) undertakings related to the governance of a country, region, or group, pertaining to the debate or conflict among parties of differing governance philosophy within that country, region, or group, with the goal of gaining, maintaining, and growing power.
Using Crick’s view that politics is public ethics, we must then address exactly the ethics about which speak. Hopefully, without getting too philosophical. ‘What are ethics?’ The simple answer is; ethics are moral principles that govern a group’s behavior. A group can be ethical, unethical, or any combination thereof. The group can be ethical one moment, on one subject, and unethical the next. A group may also have more than a single ethical code, both internalized and external that they follow depending on circumstances. It is equally possible that there are as many different ethical standards as there are divisions within a population or polity.
Given the universe of potential combinations and variations of ethical structures, it will be nearly impossible to address the question of whether technology makes politics impossible on a global scale. Therefore, one must focus on one polity and seek examples globally where politics is either facilitated or hindered by technology, applying those examples as lessons to the polity in question. While we could choose any nation to study, given events of the past year the obvious place to start is the United States.
The United States is one of the, if not the most diverse nations on the planet. As such, a plethora of ethical standards exists. However, is there a universal political ethic upon which is founded an ideal United States? There is. The founding fathers of the United States defined this universal ethic in the founding documents of the United States. Starting with the Declaration of Independence, we see the establishment of a core value structure from which we can set our baseline;
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness.” [x]
Unfortunately, we have not really done ourselves any favors in terms of simplicity here. The question now is; “Do digital technologies prevent the ethical resolution of differences and the conciliation of diverse interests and values to create public policies in the pursuit of common purposes.” The answer is again, at this point a very unsatisfying, ‘maybe.’
A discussion of digital technology encompasses much more than a single universe of possibilities. Where does one start? Surely not with the Mongol Yam, that would be the height of ludicrousness. Do we start with the Z3, the world’s first fully automatic digital computer designed by Konrad Zuse in 1941? While one cannot ignore the genesis of a technology without risking misunderstanding its contemporary incarnations, this seems a bit too removed from the present-day. While this is the point from which we see the beginning of the evolution of the digital world, to credit or blame our current benefits and challenges on these paleo-processors would be akin to blaming Cro-Magnon man for our current social ills.
Fast forward – ignoring the invention of the integrated circuit in 1958, the launch of Telstar in 1962, the founding of Apple Computers in 1976, all important, even critical developments leading up to today’s state of affairs.
One critical event we cannot avoid discussing is this; on August 6, 1991, the World Wide Web, the Internet opened to the public for the first time. Evolving from Arpanet, with just four computers active in 1969, today the Internet hosts upwards of 75 million servers with over 3.4 billion users, in every country on the planet. The internet and its concurrent global connectivity is perhaps the greatest influence on the shrinking world since the development of the steam ship, the steam locomotive or Samuel Morse’s telegraph in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries.[xi]
In 1973, Motorola launched the first handheld mobile phone, the DynaTAC 8000x. Martin Cooper’s 2.5lb “brick” was then used to make the first commercial wireless call in 1983. This event represents a turning point in personal digital communications. While the DynaTAC, at $3995.00[xii], would never be a marketing success, it opened the door to a technology that today permeates our lives. The smart phone, first released in 2007 by Apple, kicked open that door shrinking the world further and forever changing the political landscape.
In 2008, the presidential campaign of Barrack Obama kicked that door off its hinges. Facebook was three years old; Twitter only a year old, social media was in its infancy, a brand new continent. Barrack Obama was the first politician to explore that landscape effectively.[xiii] Unlike the current President, Obama and his team knew that the goal was not simply to send out as many tweets or posts as possible, but to engage. This was a new paradigm; it was digital hand shaking and baby kissing on a massive scale; peer to peer public discourse. In this case, digital media not only made politics possible, it encouraged it. Social media encouraged discourse, encouraged voting, and reported voting behavior. In 2008, the Obama campaign used social media to instill a feeling of empowerment in voters, particularly younger voters. He did it again in 2012, though by then other politicians had their own game plan, even if they were not truly ready to compete with the machine that Obama had created. In the case of the Obama campaigns, digital technology facilitated the practice of politics as defined by Crick.
Nevertheless, while instant communication via social media was a boon early on, there are always those who game the system. The 2016 presidential election was marred by the propagation of fake news via social media. While the existence of fake news was nothing new, the delivery methods, and volumes of it were. The exact effects of fake news on the 2016 election will be debated for years, probably without any real resolution. Even so, no one can argue that the reach of fake news though social media today is a worldwide factor in political struggle.[xiv]
Rent-seeking is the practice of manipulating public policy or economic conditions as a strategy for increasing profits, or for the successful implementation of a program of policies. This behavior inlcudes the corruption of the news cycle with false information with the intent of placing a particular party or supporter of policy in power. Politicians running for office, lobbyists and PACs for said politicians, pundits and journalists, as well as individual voters (propagandists) commit this behavior. This propaganda, like the Cuckoo acts as a brood parasite within the news cycle, weakening factual news. Further, rent-seeking propaganda weakens the very political system in which it exists and in extreme cases can cause said system to collapse.
Propagandists further their rent-seeking behavior by targeting particular media markets, thus effectively paying voters to base their voting decisions on false information. Because the voter relies on the validity of information to make a “well-founded” decision, this unethical behavior derails the political process, countering politics with anti-politics, thus making politics impossible. This infiltration of fake news into the voters’ information stream results in an unintentional state of ignorance. It increases the incidence in which the “rationally ignorant” voter believes that they have based their position on “well-founded” facts, when in fact they have not. This is not the “rational ignorance” as theorized by political scientists. “Rational ignorance” is a necessary state wherein voters are simply are unable to absorb and process all the necessary information to make a rational decision about political matters. We are all, in some ways, “rationally ignorant.” With the propagation of digital technology, social media, and instant communications, the pipeline for rent-seeking behavior has grown to massive proportions. Propagandists know that most voters simply do not have the resources, skills, or time to double, even triple check their information sources, leaving them vulnerable.[xv] This ignorance is one that the voter may not even be aware of due to his or her own necessary “rational ignorance.” This becomes of even greater concern when one realizes that by some estimates, by 2020, 70% of the world’s population will be using smart phones to access social media.[xvi] Unfortunately, a Stanford University study on the influence of social media on both high school and college students found that between 40-80% of students believed information they saw on social media without significant critical evaluation. Couple this with early analysis indicating that fake news had a greater market saturation than “real” news during the last election cycle, and we see the beginning of a change of paradigm in digital politics. A world where truth in journalism is not a given.[xvii]
Unfortunately, Facebook’s Abhinav Sharma argues that it is probable that the distributors of fake news are not able, or willing to take steps to halt its dissemination.[xviii] This has caused some governments to lash out. For instance, Germany’s Angela Merkel has considered steps, including the levying of fines on social media companies for allowing the propagation of fake news. This would almost certainly be unconstitutional in the United States, but allowed under German defamation and due diligence laws.[xix] In the United States however, such schemes are not in the works.
Finally, our question becomes;
“Does worldwide, instantaneous, personal digital communication (i.e. the smart phone and concurrent technologies), coupled with social media and its accessibility by rent-seeking propagandists prevent the ethical resolution of differences and the conciliation of diverse interests and values to create public policies in the pursuit of common purposes?”
In the face of overwhelming false and unethical information causing voters to make irrational decisions, it appears the answer, today anyway, is yes, very often it does. However, it doesn’t have to.
Crick, B. 2004. “Politics as a Form of Rule: Politics, Citizenship and Democracy”, in A. Leftwich (ed.), What Is Politics? Cambridge: Polity Press, 67-85.
Crick, Bernard. 1992 (1962). In Defence ofPolitics. 4th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Davison, W. Phillips, “Some Trends in International Propaganda.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 398, Propaganda in International Affairs (Nov., 1971), pp. 1-13. Published by: Sage Publications, Inc. in association with the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1038915. Accessed: 29 December 2016.
Davison, W. Phillips. “Some Trends in International Propaganda.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 398 (1971): 1-13. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1038915.
Declaration of Independence: A Transcription, National Archives. URL: https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript.
Fellows, Erwin W. “‘Propaganda:’ History of a Word.” American Speech 34, no. 3 (1959): 182-89. doi:10.2307/454039.
Frödin, Olle. “The Art of the Possible — The Bullet or the Ballot Box: Defining Politics in the Emerging Global Order.” Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory 58, no. 128 (2011): 1-20. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41802508.
German Press Code. Presserat. URL: https://www.presserat.de/fileadmin/user_upload/…/Pressekodex13english_web.pdf.
Kruschke, Earl R. “Toward a Brief Formulation of a Definition of Politics.” Social Science 48, no. 2 (1973): 93-96. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41959609.
Lasswell, Harold D. “The Theory of Political Propaganda.” The American Political Science Review 21, no. 3 (1927): 627-31. doi:10.2307/1945515.
Meyer, William J. “Political Ethics and Political Authority.” Ethics 86, no. 1 (1975): 61-69. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2379868.
Mozur, Aul and Scott, Mark. “Fake News in U.S. Election? Elsewhere, That’s Nothing New.” The New York Times. 17 November 2016. URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/18/technology/fake-news-on-facebook-in-foreign-elections-thats-not-new.html?_r=0. Accessed: 11 January 2017.
Murphy, Thomas F. “Discourse Ethics: Moral Theory or Political Ethic?” New German Critique, no. 62 (1994): 111-35. doi:10.2307/488511.
Quora, “Did Fake News On Facebook Influence The Outcome Of The Election?” Forbes, 24 November 2016. URL: http://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2016/11/24/did-fake-news-on-facebook-influence-the-outcome-of-the-election/#73acabba22cc.
Rutledge, Pamela, “How Obama Won the Social Media Battle in the 2012 Presidential Campaign.” The Media Psychology Blog, 25 January 2013. http://mprcenter.org/blog/2013/01/how-obama-won-the-social-media-battle-in-the-2012-presidential-campaign/.
Shull, Michael S. & Wilt, David E., Doing Their Bit – Wartime American Animated Short Films, 1939-1945. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, North Carolina, 1987.
Spicer, Michael. “Politics and the Limits of a Science of Governance: Some Reflections on the Thought of Bernard Crick.” Public Administration Review 67, no. 4 (2007): 768-79. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4624624.
The Declaration of Independence: What Does it Say?America’s Founding Documents, National Archives. URL:https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration/what-does-it-say. Accessed: 12/29/2016.
Trautman, Peggy Salz, “A Computer Pioneer Rediscovered, 50 Years On.” The New York Times, New York, 20 April 1994. URL: http://www.nytimes.com/1994/04/20/news/20iht-zuse.html.
Ursprung, Tobias, “The Use and Effect of Political Propaganda in Democracies.” Dept. of Economics, University of Basel, Switzerland. 18 May 1992.
Ursprung, Tobias. “The Use and Effect of Political Propaganda in Democracies.” Public Choice 78, no. 3/4 (1994): 259-82. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30027169.
Williams, Gardner. “Individual, Social, and Universal Ethics.” The Journal of Philosophy 45, no. 24 (1948): 645-55. doi:10.2307/2019998.
Mlot, Stephani, “70 Percent of Population Will Have Smartphones by 2020.” PC Magazine. 3 June 2015. URL: http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2485277,00.asp.
Ericsson Mobility Report; On the Pulse of the Networked Society. June 2015.
Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning – Executive Summary. Stanford History Education Group. Produced With The Support Of The Robert R. Mccormick Foundation. 22 November 2016.
Silverman, Craig, “This Analysis Shows How Viral Fake Election News Stories Outperformed Real News On Facebook.” BuzzFeed News. URL:https://www.buzzfeed.com/craigsilverman/viral-fake-election-news-outperformed-real-news-on-facebook?utm_term=.kwEeE5Blj#.ixgYGr6Az. Accessed: 18 January 2017.
[i] We must not, however confuse politics with governance or administration, these are different concepts.
[ii] Key Concepts. http://www.michel-foucault.com/concepts/. Accessed: 16 January 2016
[iii] Kruschke, Earl R. “Toward a Brief Formulation of a Definition of Politics.” Social Science 48, no. 2 (1973): 93-96. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41959609. 93.
[iv] Kruschke, 94.
[v] Crick, B. 2004. “Politics as a Form of Rule: Politics, Citizenship and Democracy”, in A. Leftwich (ed.), What Is Politics? Cambridge: Polity Press, 67-85. 70.
[vi] Crick, Bernard. 1992 (1962). In Defence of Politics. 4th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
[vii] Crick, 73.
[viii] Viroli , M. 1992. “The Revolution in the Concept of Polities”, Political Theory 20(3): 473-495. Lasswell, H. D. 1958. “Politics: Who Gets What, When, How?” New York:Meridian. Lukes, S. 1974. “Power: A Radical View.” London: Macmillan. Easton, D. 1953. “The Political System: An Inquiry into the State of Political Science.” New York: Knopf.
[ix] Not that the other debates do not have value; “Where do you want to have dinner” is a very important decision that people make on a daily basis. Negotiations of which can be long and arduous.
[x] The Declaration of Independence: What Does it Say?America’s Founding Documents, National Archives. URL:https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration/what-does-it-say.
Accessed: 12/29/2016. Declaration of Independence: A Transcription, National Archives. URL: https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript Accessed: 12/29/2016.
[xi] Steamships began development in late 18th Century France. The Middleton Railway was the first to successfully use steam locomotives in 1812. Samuel F.B. Morse Sent the First Telegraphic Message May 24, 1844.
[xii] About $21,000 in 2016 money
[xiii] Rutledge, Pamela, “How Obama Won the Social Media Battle in the 2012 Presidential Campaign.” The Media Psychology Blog, 25 January 2013. http://mprcenter.org/blog/2013/01/how-obama-won-the-social-media-battle-in-the-2012-presidential-campaign/ Accessed: 11 January 2017
[xiv]Mozur, Aul and Scott, Mark. “Fake News in U.S. Election? Elsewhere, That’s Nothing New.” The New York Times. 17 November 2016. URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/18/technology/fake-news-on-facebook-in-foreign-elections-thats-not-new.html?_r=0. Accessed: 11 January 2017.
[xv] Ursprung, Tobias, “The Use and Effect of Political Propaganda in Democracies.” Dept. of Economics, University of Basel, Switzerland. 18 May 1992. 261-262.
[xvi] Mlot, Stephani, “70 Percent of Population Will Have Smartphones by 2020.” PC Magazine. 3 June 2015. URL: http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2485277,00.asp. Accessed: 18 January 2017. Ericsson Mobility Report; On the Pulse of the Networked Society. June 2015.
[xvii] Silverman, Craig, “This Analysis Shows How Viral Fake Election News Stories Outperformed Real News On Facebook.” BuzzFeed News. URL:https://www.buzzfeed.com/craigsilverman/viral-fake-election-news-outperformed-real-news-on-facebook?utm_term=.kwEeE5Blj#.ixgYGr6Az. Accessed: 18 January 2017.
[xviii] Quora, “Did Fake News On Facebook Influence The Outcome Of The Election?” Forbes, 24 November 2016. URL: http://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2016/11/24/did-fake-news-on-facebook-influence-the-outcome-of-the-election/#73acabba22cc. Accessed: 11 January 2017.
[xix] German Press Code. Presserat. URL: https://www.presserat.de/fileadmin/user_upload/…/Pressekodex13english_web.pdf. Accessed 11 January 2017.