The BBC have uploaded a video to YouTube entitled ‘a nuanced discussion on migration’ featuring a panel of prominent commentators and politicians discussing the nuances of global migration and the increasing numbers of people being displaced around the world. One of the speakers is far right ethno-nationalist Beve Stannon. The conversation mumbles along with reasonable disagreement between the panelists on how to balance our commitment to human rights with other competing concerns.
The head of Amnesty International argues that there is a humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean and that Britain has a responsibility to take care of vulnerable people fleeing war. Suddenly Beve Stannon interrupts, turns toward her direction and points his finger ‘If this country is flooded with migrants it will be YOU who will be held responsible for the acid attacks, the terrorist attacks and the rapes of the British public!”
A teenager sitting in his bedroom flicking between tabs watching the Facebook live stream sees this and decides to clip Beve Stannon’s twenty second outburst and upload it to YouTube as a new video entitled “Beve Stannon DESTROYS BBC snowflake on Rapefugees”.
The video goes viral. YouTube’s algorithm quickly recognizes the increasing traffic and amplifies it around the world through it’s “recommended videos” section to millions of mainstream users. Within hours the video has 1 million views and is flooded with frightening comments with left wing accounts writing “this video is sick. You should be ashamed, nazi scum!” while right wing trolls respond with “triggered snowflake wants our country turned into a muslim hellhole. Britain for the British!” Russian bots seize on the polarisation and share the video far and wide on Twitter and Facebook delighting in the emotional frenzy.
The original BBC video ‘nuanced debate on migration’ has garnered 600 views and has quickly been forgotten. But Beve Stannon’s face is everywhere. The newspapers the next day emblazon headlines entitled “Beve Stannon makes controversial remarks on refugees”, right wing outlets and blogs write comment pieces “Beve Stannon Speaks Truth to Power” while the algorithms of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube work overtime to spread the clip far and wide hoovering up as much monetizable attention as possible.
The ‘nuanced discussion on migration’ doesn’t happen. The extreme soundbite goes viral. This is political debate in 2018.
Liberals believe by debating extreme views you expose them. When fascists or communists are challenged, bigotry and prejudice is revealed, idealism is confronted with realism, and liberalism is triumphant and vindicated.
Yet mounting criticism says debating extremists actually serves to elevate rather than undermine their ideas. The digital media platforms which have become our new public squares were not built to host a good faith battle of ideas. Interviews can be cut and clipped, challenging questions filtered out and rather than observe and deliberate, audiences are encouraged to spar with each other in comments and quote tweets for the best hot take that can claim tribal victory.
The new digital battleground of ideas is fundamentally different to the one that existed just ten years ago. In The People v Tech Jamie Bartlett describes how the toxic environment for discussion and debate we all witness online is not explainable through a rise in ‘polarization’ of society writ large, but a natural manifestation of how our brains are interacting with the design of the internet’s fast and fleeting format.
The idea that technology merely reflects rather than actively creates a lot of society’s problems is a common myth promulgated by many. But a landmark 2018 study in Germany found the opposite. In every German city or town, the more time citizens spent on Facebook the more likely they were to attack refugees. Social media wasn’t reflecting the hostility it was actively creating it.
And a Wall Street Journal investigation of YouTube content found that the platform often “fed far-right or far-left videos to users who watched relatively mainstream news sources”.
Digital platforms feed us extremism to extract our attention. Extreme views and conspiracy are far more engaging and stimulating than reason and fact. Nuanced information, facts and statistics cannot compete with drama that can cynically grab our attention and manufacture outrage, anger and fear.
This digital deterioration of reasoned debate is a crisis for liberalism. Liberal ideology is fundamentally underpinned by the enlightenment values of scientific reason and a universal commitment to freedom of expression protecting the right of speech even for those you vociferously disagree. But the game today has changed. The marketplace of ideas, if it ever existed, has been swallowed by the algorithms of attention.
The writer Laurie Penny who pulled out to the Economists Open Future Festival upon hearing Steve Bannon had also been invited to the event, argues that liberals today face an almost impossible choice: betray their stated commitments to free, open debate by refusing to debate extremists or give a platform to the illiberal trolls who wish to see liberalism fall.
If we deny the far right a platform, they feed off the narrative of victimhood and censorship, but if we give them a platform, they’ve also won by being respectfully invited into the mainstream and amplified in the digital realm. Either way, what we get is not a battle of ideas but a battle for airtime and attention where the most emotional, extreme soundbite wins.
Until information is valued for the quality of it’s content and not it’s capacity to attract attention, liberals cannot keep debating extremists and putting faith in a battle of ideas that no longer exists.