The New Net Delusion

Geoff Shullenberger at the New Atlantis: “…The old net delusion was naïve but internally consistent. The new net delusion is fragmented and self-contradictory. It vacillates between radical pessimism about the effects of digital platforms and boosterism when new online happenings seem to revive the old cyber-utopian dreams.

One day, democracy is irreversibly poisoned by social media, which empowers the radical right, authoritarians, and racist, misogynist trolls. The next day, the very same platforms are giving rise to a thrilling resurgence of grassroots activism. The new net delusion more closely resembles a psychotic delusion in the clinical meaning of the word, in which the sufferer often swings between megalomaniacal fantasies of control and panicked sensations of loss of control.

The shift toward a subtle endorsement of manipulation and propaganda — itself an expression of a desire for control — is a result of the fracture of our information ecosystem. The earlier cyber-utopian consensus overrated the value of information in itself and underrated the importance of narratives that bestow meaning on information. The openness of the media system to an endless stream of new users, channels, and data has overwhelmed shared stable narratives, bringing about what L. M. Sacasas calls “narrative collapse.”

But sustaining ideological projects and achieving political ends still requires narratives to extract some meaning from the noise. In the oversaturated attention economy, the most extreme narratives generally stand out. As a result, open networks, which were supposed to counteract propaganda, have instead caused its proliferation — sometimes top-down and state-directed, sometimes crowdsourced, often both.

This helps to explain why the democratization of information channels has been less inimical to authoritarian governments than was anticipated ten years ago. Much like extremists and conspiracy theorists, states with aggressive propaganda arms offer oversimplified messages to keep bewildered online users from having to navigate a swelling tide of data on their own.

Conversely, legacy media, if it remains committed to some degree of neutrality, offers fewer definitive explanatory frameworks, and its messages are accordingly more likely to get lost in the noise. It should not surprise us that news organizations are actually pivoting toward more overt ideological commitments. Adopting forceful narratives, however well they actually make sense of the world, attracts more eyeballs.

Those who celebrated Twitter and Facebook as vehicles of global liberalization and those who now denounce them as gateways into dangerous extremism (often the same people) have erred in seeing the platforms as causally linked to specific politics, rather than to a particular range of styles of politics. Their deeper mistake, however, is to view freedom and control as opposed, rather than as complementary elements of a system. The expansion of freedom through open networks generates informational chaos that, in turn, feeds a demand for reinvigorated control. We can see the demand for control in the new appeal of extreme, even bizarre views that impose an organizing principle on the chaos.

And we can also see the demand for control in the nostalgia for the old gatekeepers, whose demise was once celebrated. Ironically, the only way for these gatekeepers to stay relevant may be to follow the lead of the authoritarians and activists — to abandon any stance of being neutral and above the fray and instead furnish a cohering narrative of their own….(More)”.