So let our message to Ottawa’s itchy controllers be absolutely clear: ‘Hands off’
Throughout what’s coming to be a very long lifetime. much of it spent covering and watching politics, I think the strangest and most improbable thing I’ve ever seen is the phenomenon known as the “social media.” It’s strange because it represents an endeavour in what can accurately be described as “pure democracy.” It’s improbable because officialdom to date has not found a way of suppressing it, or even touching it.
Meanwhile it is wreaking ruin on the whole public communications industry. Look at the record: Within the first two decades of the twenty-first century, the Web has terminated the existence of scores of daily newspapers, small and large. Mighty fortresses have fallen: The print version of the Seattle Post Intelligencer is gone. So is Denver’s venerable Rocky Mountain News. The Minneapolis Star and Tribune, is in continual financial trouble. The renowned San Francisco Chronicle suffered a major loss in circulation, and laid off a quarter of its staff. The Tribune Company which published the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times has filed for bankruptcy. In Canada, the Calgary Sun effectually merged with the Calgary Herald, and the Edmonton Journal with the Edmonton Sun,
Two Canadian giants, Torstar and Post Media, have announced an agreement that will see at least forty small dailies and weeklies close, Meanwhile, the New York Times, role model for much (not all) of American journalism, announced the lay-off of one hundred editorial employees. The TV networks, once regarded as a license to print money, have been likewise damaged, though not as severely as the print media.
The cause was the Web generally, which usurped nearly all the classified advertising. life blood for many newspapers. But the social media (i.e., Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) stole both their readers, and even challenged their editorial integrity. Note that Donald Trump totally bypassed them by resorting to the social media.. Almost unanimously, the Big Media raged against him. He was elected anyway.
Among other things, people began realizing that news communication had become something of a closed shop. Different viewpoints were always present, of course, yet all cherished common assumptions. To use a contemporary term, they all had much the same World View– similar attitudes on life, death, sickness, health, societal values, “appropriate” and “inappropriate” conduct, This World View was rarely articulated, but it was there, Those who offended against it soon found themselves shunned, at first quietly, later with loud derision as bigots, full of hate, intolerant, narrow, ignorant. Their numbers included most practicing Christians. Prior to the Web, the Christians had to make their own company and usually did.
But that was to change. The Web made them aware that they were far from alone. Through the Web, anyone could become a communicator. Anyone could run a blog. Suddenly, the media belonged to everybody. What they said on it was limited only by the libel and slander laws. Has democracy ever been so unfettered? Not within my memory
Now this development was most distressing to the national media set, the dozen or so major voices designated to tell us what is going on. Rudyard Kipling, himself a journalist, describes the great media voices thus:
The pope may launch his interdict,
The empire its decree,
But the bubble is blown and the bubble is burst
By us and such as we.
The “us and such as we” was now to include half the country. Everyone seemed to be getting his own blog, or playing a role on Twitter. Even a long-time media man like the National Post’s Andrew Coyne– obviously one of Canada’s “us and such as we” set– confessed himself as concerned. “It’s entirely possible,” he writes, “that social media has plunged us irrevocably into a dark and frightening age of unreason. And it’s entirely possible there is nothing we can do about it. I don’t say either is necessarily true. I only say we should not assume both are untrue, as I fear we are inclined to do. We only have to confront the possibility that things can get worse as well as better.”
A lot of people will not understand what he means, and I’m one of them. Where exactly does this threat exist of a “dark and frightening age of unreason?” He cites the perils of the social media as discerned by some unnamed “pessimists.” •The Social Media are “polarizing” our society. •They are “coarsening” debate (Meaning that they’re being too blunt.) •Some are “censoring” themselves “on controversial subjects.” (Meaning that they aren’t being blunt enough.) •They’re also “dumbing down complex subjects,” and •spreading “false information, bigotry, lunatic ideologies and conspiracy theories.”
Whether any or all of these criticisms are true, Coyne doesn’t pretend to know. But one thing that I know is this: If we are going to have a democracy then this kind olf thing is what we’ll get with it, and always have got with it. But I worry far more about what Coyne calls the “pessimists” who want to “cleanse” the Web of these dreadful things. These are the authoritarians who inhabit the Ottawa government. For once, something has escaped them. and we should do everything we can to leave the Web free of them.
God help us, we don’t want another army of bureaucrats telling us what we can and cannot say on the Web, what words we can use and cannot use, what stories we can tell, what new pronouns we must adopt, what new moralities we must observe, and on and on. Our message should be: “Leave the Web Alone! Go away!”
Ted Byfield was founder and publisher of Alberta Report news magazine, general editor of Alberta in the Twentieth Century, a 12-volume history of the province, and general editor of The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years, a 12-volume history of Christianity. His column on education appears in The Christians.com, a web journal. He has recently authored two little books on modern pedagogy: Why History Matters and The Revolution Nobody Covered. You can order both copies here.