Will Cox on the culture of agreement and the reductive effect of Facebook.
You might have noticed one picture that has been showing up a lot in your Facebook feed lately. It’s a picture of a relatively new figure of popular left-wing disgust, Attorney-General George Brandis, and it’s attached to various news stories about his passionately held but ultimately batshit stupid opinions—like the ‘people have the right to be bigots’ one, and the ‘refusing to argue with climate change deniers is unfair’ one. It’s a link to an article on a Respected News Source, and the headline is something like ‘Brandis confirms compulsory race hate for under 35s.’ You can’t tell what he’s saying, as it’s only a photograph. But Christ, he looks awful, doesn’t he?
Don’t click on the article. It will only make you sad. Instead, scroll down, click on the little comment symbol and express your contempt for all that this man stands for. I mean, whatever it is, it’s probably reprehensible. After you’ve registered your disgust, go back and read the other comments, which express similar disdain. God, that feels good, doesn’t it? Everyone agrees. You didn’t even have to read the article. Time saved! High five yourself.
There have been a lot of recent rumblings about restrictions on freedom of speech. George Brandis is attempting to repeal legislation that restricts hate speech. The Victorian parliament has passed laws that will severely limit the right to protest in a public space. The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet have tightened their social media policy to apparently Orwellian levels of control. On the face of it, things don’t look good for the future of healthy debate.
Is that new? Not really.
In recent years, social media has come to dominate the way we share information. News sites use advertising algorithms to tailor content to the sort of thing you’ve already read before. Cultivating and trimming your Facebook friends list operates the same way. It has become easy to pick and choose exactly whose truths and opinions you are exposed to. Debate is stifled not just by the implementation of new laws and the repealing of old ones, but by the ignorance and complacency that online discourse facilitates.
Increasingly, people simply don’t care to absorb the facts before they comment. A few weeks ago, when the government rolled out their new social media policy, the news was picked up by a number of outlets. Reporters emphasised the ‘dob in a mate’ clause, which encouraged public servants to report colleagues who criticised the government online. This move understandably terrified and appalled all reasonable people who don’t want their opinions hindered by government. Abbott! Hate that guy! Thought police! People flocked to the Internet in droves to passionately agree with each other.
The only problem was that this wasn’t strictly true. The policy was only rolled out within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, meaning that members of the Prime Minister’s office, in the interest of being seen to be doing their jobs properly, are restricted as to what they can publish on the Internet. It is a department, after all, which describes one of its primary roles as: ‘…to support the Prime Minister and the Government to manage the business of government in an efficient, effective and coordinated manner’.
One public servant, who wished to remain anonymous, explained the thinking behind the legislation to me. They described it as equivalent to any ‘don’t be a dick about your job online’ company policy, and described the media discussion around it as a “beat up”. But on Facebook, this article was merely more fuel for a bout of smug mutual agreement.
This is the reductive effect that Facebook and other media have had on our critical faculties. The result is that vital discussions, such as the one around freedom of speech, have become mired in dangerous incomprehension. Headlines are read, but details are ignored and confusion reigns.
In April, America’s National Public Radio ran an inauspicious bit of clickbait through their Facebook page with the grabbing and infuriating headline ‘Why doesn’t America read anymore?’ Of course, if you went to the trouble of clicking on the link you’d find a note from your friends at NPR, which starts:
“Congratulations, genuine readers, and happy April Fools’ Day! We sometimes get the sense that some people are commenting on NPR stories that they haven’t actually read.”
Exactly as they’d anticipated, over a thousand people bypassed the article to express their righteous anger, to pour their vehement fury upon the unworthy—at either the American public for being so ignorant, or at NPR for stooping to the level of alarmist clickbait. Hey now, let’s not generalize. “Some of us read books daily,” commented Internet user Timothy Alexander. “I read about a book per week,” said hardened book-reader Annette K Piper. Everyone loves something to scowl over during their morning coffee. This headline provided it in spades.
Meanwhile, back in Australia, as the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ become more and more entrenched behind opposing battlements, people choose their sides, surround themselves with likeminded voices and put up blinders to all else—and our ability to reach sane, reasoned opinions spirals into decline. During the speech in which George Brandis argued passionately for the right to be an arsehole, he went on to say “the left has adopted a reasonably comprehensive secular morality of its own, which it now seeks to impose upon society… and it’s prepared to impose that secular morality on society at the cost of the freedom of speech which it once espoused”.
This is obviously laughable on several counts—it reeks of the kind of paranoid entitlement tailor-made to appeal to the Liberal voter. But it’s also drawing those clear battle lines between the ‘left’ and ‘right’. It is an obvious tactic, but one that social media propagates. It’s a statement that will provoke the ire of the left, and the agreement of the right. Spokespeople on the left are often guilty of the same tactic. The gap between ‘them’ and ‘us’ is only getting wider, as is the gap between fact and opinion. The danger is that, aside from the occasional peer over the wall, the freedom of speech debate is in danger of becoming lost somewhere in the no-man’s-land in between.