Finding ways to articulate the flow of political and personal power online is inherently complex because it takes place across numerous contexts and at the intersection of many conceptual territories. Identity, gender, culture, class, to name a few, which then have to be considered within, or through, the lens of networks, hierarchies, communities, factions, nations, and so on.
Nevertheless, it’s crucial that we don’t let this complexity obscure the actions of those that seek power through manipulation, fear and coercion. Recently we have seen these modes of power acquisition move into the public, some would say civic, spaces of the Web. This post introduces a paper I co-wrote with Richard Reynolds which explores the visible, or surface, aspects of manipulation and control via the network. It does not deal with the undertow of algorithms and bots but with ‘magical’ modes of rhetoric which the disintermediated orality of Social Media makes effective at a scale we haven’t previously witnessed.
Last year Richard invited me to speak at his ‘Politics and Social Media’ event at Central St Martins which is part of the University of the Arts London. Richard opened the day with a talk on ‘Politics, Social Media and the Practice of Ritual Magic’ focusing on Trump’s use of Twitter and I followed by discussing ‘Trust and Digital Politics’.
There was an obvious resonance between our talks, so after the event we put together a paper combining our positions. We have struggled to find a home for this paper through traditional academic or journalistic routes as it doesn’t sit well in either camp so we humbly offer it here in its current, tidy-but-not-peer-reviewed state:
We have attempted present some of the shifting relationships between reason, belief and power in the networked era without falling into hard definitions real or fake. We are simply exploring ways of understanding the complex interplay of politics, celebrity and power as they are played-out through Social Media.
Recently I have been strolling around the fringes of the Engagement in a time of Polarization ‘pop-up MOOC’ course, facilited by Dr. Natalie Delia Deckard and Dr. Bonnie Stewart. Through this I have found some great readings, including The Problem with Facts by Tim Harford. His article is a good companion piece to our paper as also discusses the way we tend to respond to certain modes of language in a non-rational manner:
“Several studies have shown that repeating a false claim, even in the context of debunking that claim, can make it stick. The myth-busting seems to work but then our memories fade and we remember only the myth. The myth, after all, was the thing that kept being repeated. In trying to dispel the falsehood, the endless rebuttals simply make the enchantment stronger.”
I think it’s important to accept that we all respond to the mythical as some level and that, unchecked, this can lead to intolerance and polarisation. Personally, I celebrate faith-based forms of understanding, wonder and fellowship. I hope by acknowledging that I’m not especially rational I can be more conscious of the ideological and belief-based manner in which I construct my worldview.
For me, this isn’t about not holding a position, it’s about being aware of my position and respecting those that differ. Crucially, it’s also about being able to identify when you are being sold a line which allows you to negatively stoke your identity (I’m in the right because I’m not like them, for example) while simultaneously feeding the power of those doing the selling.
Richard, myself and others will be continuing our exploration of power in the digital era at ‘The Search for Privacy and Truth’ Steamhack event on 23th March. If you are near Central St Martins then do come along. (contact me for details)