July 18, 2018, 7:48 pm
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Democracy’s double edge

IT used to be that the only way the people - and I mean both the High and mighty and the low or lowly - could and would get information about the world around them was through the mass media. That, in the beginning, meant the town crier, who would stand at some pre-determined corner at a pre-determined time to read to the world some announcement that the powers-that-be wanted the world to hear.

And then newspapers then radio came along, followed by television — and soon there were competing versions of a story about one single event, seen from different angles. Media became big business - and was owned and controlled by big business. The High and the Mighty and the low or lowly got to see, read or hear about what the powers-that-be wanted them to.

Satellite and cable made news possible globally and on a 24-hour basis, every single day of every single year.

But now the world has turned on its head, as the mass media is democratized radically in a way no one could have predicted even twenty years ago. With he advent of the Internet and the social networking apps that go with the latest smart phones and tablets, the High and Mighty often find out that the low or lowly know much more than what maybe in some respects they are supposed to know. And because any and every individual becomes a “news outlet” (so to speak) -- a generator of content as well as a broadcaster or distributor -- the locus of power in the previous relationships between town crier and town or radio and listener is shifted dramatically.

One netizen with a video or an audio recording can cause a Politician to kill himself, a corporation to collapse, a Government to fall, or a whole region to plunge into uncertainty.

The High and the Might now sit uncertainly atop their thrones.

And that should be good, yes? In a way.

Democracy as a social political system is a never ending balancing act - a dance engaged in by different sectors of society in a constant calibration and re-calibration of relationships that define the benefits (or lack of) that a certain sector gets to enjoy sometimes at the expense of someone else. It is a dance where the tube are specific rules of engagement that include responsibility and accountability, without which abuse of power results. The rules are meant to keep the worst aspects of human nature (such as putting self interest or family above everything else) in check while allowing its best side (like sharing with, caring for and giving to others) to flourish .

At any given time in the dance of democracy someone is on the shorter end of the stick. And this is actually what makes democracy dynamic - because those in such a situation strive - again within the rules and always within the rules - to make sure that sooner or later when the wheel turns they’ll end up with the better end of the bargain.

Dynamic. Never ending.

The democratization of mass media and its reemergence in the form of social media at its best fuels this dynamism. But at its worst, it upends it. Especially when the world is engulfed in fake news that is too hard to verify (assuming the effort is ever undertaken) and human emotions are tapped — some would use the word manipulated — by a skilful and calculated use of social media. When people read something “on the internet”, they hold it to be Gospel truth if it fits their biases on a certain issue or about a certain person - thereby solidifying that bias even more. And if it contradicts their belief? They shun it. No different from the era of traditional newspapers or radio commentaries, you could say, except that today a flick of a finger to press a button can send that item one just read “on the Internet” to hundreds and hundreds of others in a split second. When done by the recipients, whatever information was shared spreads, like a virus, long before anyone even has had a chance to test its veracity.

Thus the double edge of democracy as manifested in the Age of Information and the Era of Social Media. The world is not only turned on its head; it is also spinning like a top. No wonder so many seem to be going crazy these days!
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