Defenders of liberal democracies are currently faced with a disorientating amount of critical threats, but I believe the most important is our inability to have a healthy, honest debate. I believe that until that problem is rectified, it is impossible to sort the rest. I therefore wanted to write about what we can do as citizens and as Fabian Society members to fix the tools that can in turn fix the environment, inequality, populism, Covid-19 and anti-intellectualism...
With just six months left to live, President Kennedy laid a challenge before American students: ‘the educated citizen knows that … only an educated and informed people will be a free people – that the ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.’
Today, more than ever before, the struggle against rampant ignorance has become a national security issue.
While our militaries endlessly train for a form of expensive, expansive state-on-state open warfare that is likely redundant, warfare itself has radically evolved. The so-called ‘Forever Wars’ prove that even complete military dominance means nothing if the populace cannot be persuaded. In turn, we need to think to think carefully about who it is that persuades us in the UK.
Professor Timothy Snyder noted that Russia’s entire annual budget for cyberwarfare was less than the cost of a single F-15 fighter jet. As we trace the evolution of the cult of Qanon back through pizzagate and Wikileaks, and back still to the original Cozy Bear attack on the DNC email servers, the answer as to which weapon stands taller in modern warfare is clear.
And it goes on - this month alone, Putin was accused of interfering in referendums that will have repercussions in our country for centuries, while turning once again to Cozy Bear affiliates to strike out at British research on the Coronavirus. And in the States, we can only expect that Joe Biden’s recent warning that ‘Russia was absolutely intent on interfering with our elections’ in 2018 was made with the expectation that that aim hasn’t changed.
Yet this isn’t the first propaganda war, or even the first time Moscow has launched propaganda at Western democracies. Some of it was more art than propaganda, haunting and beautiful - not to mention psychedelic. Today, propaganda is crude, hysterical and often blatant. Yet following the 2016 Presidential election, Public Policy Polling found that 32% of Trump voters weren’t sure if Hillary Clinton was involved with an international paedophile ring and 14% were completely sure she was. ‘B.I.D.E.N. = Biggest Idiot Ever Nominated’ is hardly Triumph of the Will, so why does it tear into us like never before? How do we prepare ourselves against it?
Our public debate, as Kennedy warned, is dangerously polluted. We need to spark change across each of the triumvirate who define that debate – across the public, the politicians and the media who mediate between them.
For the public, the inclusion and prioritisation of critical thinking, debate and source analysis onto school syllabuses is absolutely key to our long-term health, but too long-term to have the urgent effect we need.
Politician’s must be more honest, but with a weakened media it is no wonder that they aren’t.
The immediate answer is massive media reform. We must restore the power of the press.
The academic Zeynep Tufekci argued ‘Mr. Trump’s rise is actually a symptom of the mass media’s growing weakness’ and she is right. But that power hasn’t disappeared, it has migrated and focussed in the hands of social media oligarchs.
As Covid-19 threatens newsrooms already made weak by decades of marketisation and media fragmentation, social media oligarchs must be made to come to the rescue. These men have enjoyed the spoils of news publication, without the responsibility. They have prioritised attention above integrity, and by taking vital ad revenue for themselves - they have forced many desperate papers to do the same.
Facebook and Google are currently holding $175bn in cash reserve. As the media teeters once again towards collapse it is time they paid substantive licensing fees back to the newsrooms for the privilege and profits of delivering the news.
But more than just sharing their money, they should share their valuable data. They should share the data profiles of their visitors. Facebook and Google watch us constantly. Why should it only be Facebook that knows the history and nuances of a reader, why shouldn’t the papers themselves know? Perhaps with close enough knowledge of who their readership truly is, papers could move to suit their readership.
Today, as Western democracies cannot shield their people from sleazy, hostile propaganda, as the fuse on climate catastrophe burns ever shorter, as the populist marches and the gap between rich and poor gapes every wider, as our electorate turns on an establishment that has failed them and as social media billionaires ponder what it means to be the custodians of healthy debate – we must again remember Kennedy’s far-seeing and prescient speech: ‘of those whom much is given, much is required.’
Oliver Longworth is a communications professional currently working in PR. He has experience in the Scottish Labour Party, environmental campaigning, social media and advertising. He recently won the PRWeek award 30 under 30: Newcomer
He tweets at @olongworth1.