Reading Neal Gabler’s piece, “Farewell, Democracy,” in reaction to the presidential election, I was struck by his quoting the end of W.H. Auden’s poem, September 1, 1939:
“Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.”
As an English teacher decades ago, I had explicated that poem with many high school juniors who didn’t have any real-world experience with fascism or demagogues. It was often difficult to get them to understand the nuances in such phrases, as “defenseless under the night” and “ironic points of light.” They weren’t giving much thought to how the common person with uncommon courage could “show an affirming flame.” For teachers and students today, I would hope that those phrases, and the poem in its entirety, would take on more real-world significance.
When I taught this poem, I had no social media reference for:
“Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages…”
We now have global connected platforms where the populace can exchange their messages. And in those exchanges we receive bundles of information every hour to sift through, usually keeping us preoccupied and overwhelmed. We make split-second decisions to share or not to share each message exchange. If we don’t decide to share, we may decide to keep it somewhere on our devices to read and possibly share, later, “when there is time.” Often there’s isn’t enough time to read all we want to read; to share all we would like others to know about.
In the constant exchange of messages on social media we would like to think we are making a difference. Yet information, even if accurate, isn’t knowledge and it certainly isn’t wisdom.
Obviously, both written and spoken words hold influential power, especially when others are ready for that information—Mein Kampf comes to mind right now.
Information given and received is always tempered with readiness and other factors that either makes the message exchange successful at influencing others or not so successful.
The blatant ignoring of important facts in the recent presidential election by both candidates and populace comes to mind right now.
Within the “delivery system” of social media and mass media our message exchange is vulnerable in three important ways that severely limit their power to influence others.
1. The message exchange we do on social media is mostly addressed to people who already think like us.
In sharing information across social media platforms we usually do no more than affirm others’ beliefs in what they already believe in. In the article cited above, Neal Gabler addresses this point:
“Among the many now-widening divides in the country, this is a big one, the divide between the media and working-class whites, because it creates a Wild West of information – a media ecology in which nothing can be believed except what you already believe.”
Jaron Lanier wrote convincingly about the power of the “siren servers” like Google and Facebook to keep us trapped in pat-ourselves-on-the backs-feedback-loops in his book, Who Owns the Future? We think we make a difference in the world but all we do is recycle the same ideas to the people who already agree with them. In an eye-opening expose of the intentionality to create algorithms that keep us confined and constrained to accept what is dished to us by advertisers through siren servers, Cathy O’Neil, Ph.D., a data scientist who earned her doctorate in mathematics from Harvard has written Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increase Inequality and Threatens Our Democracy. The New York Times Book Review stated, “O’Neil’s book offers a frightening look at how algorithms are increasingly regulating people… Her knowledge of the power and risks of mathematical models, coupled with a gift for analogy, makes her one of the most valuable observers of the continuing weaponization of big data… [She] does a masterly job explaining the pervasiveness and risks of the algorithms that regulate our lives.”
If you think you think social media can play a major hand in a cultural revolution like the Arab Spring, think again. Social media platforms have changed dramatically since 2011. Revolution via Facebook today, is a naïve, obsolete notion.
2. The message exchange we do on social media is often comingled with our all-too-human need for peer approval.
And the more immature our egos are, the more our messages seek first to convey superiority and faux wisdom, and second any message exchange for inspired action. Consider the trend of making quote posters of one’s own words graphically appealing on a display to share with your network. Instead of quoting Einstein or Mother Teresa, you quote yourself. These poster selfies are usually meaningless to affect significant change. Even if we craft them exquisitely, beautiful blips of words without contexts are nothing more than alien fragments that can make others who read them feel less-than. In crafting and sharing these self-promoting quotes, it’s easy to get caught in a myriad of wrong assumptions about what really influences other people, resulting in endless telling rather than focused actions more likely to result in significant changes. The trap goes something like this:
You shared your wisdom with your network in a beautifully designed poster of your elegantly crafted words. Lots of your followers “like it” as they read it. Some share it with their network. And others soon decide, “I have to do this, too. My quotes are just as important, after all. I have something to say, too.” You respond with more such quote selfies, as others respond to you. Pretty soon what we read on many Facebook pages, for instance, are long lists of these quote posters, little more than a shout-down match of who says it better.
3. Since we live in an “attention economy” competing for our brainstems, the message exchange we do on social media is limited by the ability to attract and engage the primitive brain’s sensibilities.
Who captures your attention are those that most rouse and incite. This is one of the major challenges in living in a mass media society. I have written about and tried to explain this to parents and to the family support professionals I work with for thirty years, now. And because I still flounder with this message exchange, I very much understand the limitations of words to explain it!
Let me start here with a quote from Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985). (If you haven’t read this book, I urge you to do so because he methodically lays out the hazards inherent in an image-based society that makes it quite easy to be captured by hype and the sensational at the cost of thoughtful discernment. If you want an answer to how Trump’s presidency could happen, this book has insight into the role mass media plays into creating such a presidential candidate.)
Postman states the crux of the matter succinctly: “Television’s strongest point it that it brings personalities into our heart, not abstractions into our heads.” (p. 123)
That’s the best reason I know of to explain why so many people who voted for Trump ignored his racists, misogynist, fascist views and behaviors and chose to focus instead on what they hope he will do for them. Trump supporters easily confuse their primitive brain response to his hyped celebrity personality with the abstract concepts necessary to equate Trump’s evidential views and behaviors with values they detest. They can’t understand that what he says is who he is. When a relative defended Trump, I asked, “Don’t you see how mean he is? Aren’t you appalled at how he made fun of that journalist with a disability, for example? Or how he has spoken of blacks and Hispanics?”
The response from a person who I know to be compassionate, caring, and non-racist, was: “He’s not really like that.”
“Really! And how do you know that?” Silence. She couldn’t explain. She just “knew.” The cult of celebrity, the hype of a pseudo personality had “trumped” her rational thought. And it seems that of millions of others, as well.
In a democracy it is very dangerous to allow the primitive brain CEO functions. Mean and Ignorant is a deadly combo for us individually and for society collectively, making us vulnerable and gullible to fake news that if believed, could determine our future fate.
Those of us with the cortex at the helm won’t be able to speak with, reason with, or influence those with the primitive brain in charge. So who will get heard in the future if no one is listening? Who will influence when logical, measured influence isn’t capable of influencing real life choices and behavior anymore for masses of people? In order to listen carefully and compassionately to another’s viewpoint that is not our viewpoint, our brain must be influence-able. That is only possible if the cortex and thinking functions are highly developed.
You and I know that there are distinctions between truth and belief. It is obviously possible to believe many things that are not true. But many people today no longer operate from this recognition. And, when so many agree via social media with their beliefs, then they must be true. Right? This takes me full circle back to point 1 above. And warrants one more quote from Postman:
“Tyrants of all varieties have always known about the value of providing the masses with amusements as a means of pacifying discontent…But most of them could not have even hoped for a situation in which the masses would ignore that which does not amuse.” (p. 141)
One Way to Make Our Message Exchange Most Effective
Influence by ordinary people in a mass media society is a tricky business. I have been thinking about it a lot lately. Obviously understanding the constraints of message exchange on social media won’t keep you or I from posting or writing blogs. But the gift in knowing the limitations of message exchange in such a bizarre industry-generated and mass media/digital tech society as ours, is remembering that real, sustainable influence still comes from being the message ourselves. Our modeling bears the most fruit.
Of course, we still have to use our words—especially with our children. We have to speak our values, explaining every chance we have that Trump’s hate filled barbarism isn’t a free pass to become uncivilized ourselves. But it’s no use to speak our values, if we don’t live them, as well.
And since Trump’s model of hate is “out there,” to the masses in overarching ways every day non-stop, it means we have to be ever more vigilant to model who we are to our children, friends, relatives, and even the strangers we come across daily. We truly must be the image others see each and everyday doing good, helping others, keeping a compassionate outlook and a rationale thought process—especially when others inflame our fears, consciously or unconsciously urging us to be without hope or personal agency.
So my bottom line message to you is: Our message exchange on social media or anywhere, is much more effective when we embody our messages. Therefore, the old adage, “Actions speak louder than words” applies in giant ways when media giants choose what we attend to, trying their best to make their priorities, ours. We can’t let them.
In his inspiring book, Change the World: How Ordinary People Can Accomplish Extraordinary Results, Robert Quinn calls us all to become the change, reminding us:
“If we want the relationship, family, group, unit, organization, or society to perform at a higher standard, the change agent must become a model…When we exercise the courage to close an (integrity) gap, we experience victory over the self and become connected to a deeper reality. We also gain increased moral power. People see and are attracted by our increased integrity. Our state of being and our reality change.” (p. 193)