Paradox of our time

Published October 2, 2022
The writer is currently researching newsroom culture in Pakistan.
The writer is currently researching newsroom culture in Pakistan.

IS democracy the panacea for all ills? In my avatar as a lecturer, whenever matters of (mis)governance came up, students blamed the establishment for not allowing democracy to proceed. However, we were never able to reach a consensus on what constituted true democracy because it has evolved over the years. The one constant trait we agreed on was the public’s right to express themselves.

It’s understandable why so many folks think of elections first when they think of democracy because voting is one way for people to express themselves. But as Zac Gershberg and Sean Illing write in their book The Paradox of Democracy, that definition is limiting. “It’s better to think of democracy less as a government type and more as an open communicative culture,” they say.

Their work examines how democracy is bolstered when new communication arrives but “the more accessible the media of a society, the more susceptible that society is to demagoguery, distraction, and spectacle”.

The book recounts the media environment over the centuries through communication modes. The printing press led to the Enlightenment in the 15th century but also to religious wars in Europe. The telegraph spread ideas of liberal democracy in the 19th century but it also gave nationalists a platform which helped pave the way for fascism in the 20th century. TV changed political culture in the 20th century and digital is seeing changes at a dizzying speed. They point to how each new medium has been used for good and bad means and there’s no way of knowing which way it will go.

We’re in an era where everyone can claim to be a journalist.

It is through this lens of communicative culture that the authors teach us how to view democracy and understand its paradoxes. How an essential component of a functioning democracy, ie freedom of speech and media — is proving to be its greatest threat.

We’re in an especially unique era as everyone can claim to be a journalist because they have access to publishing platforms — for free. There has never been a period where there were this many platforms to air your views. And that’s where the paradox comes in, because there are as many people/entities trying to shut you down.

There is fear to express oneself; we can see self-censorship across newsrooms, other workplaces, campuses. Those who go against the grain can be hauled up on social media and shamed, fired, doxxed, their lives put at serious risk of harm and of course, they can be physically harmed. (Ask Ahsan Iqbal of PML-N or any woman on Twitter.)

How then does the press navigate this ecosystem where the public doesn’t believe in the media and all they seem to be doing is debunking XYZ’s lies? It’s an enormous challenge.

Jonathan Haidt may have some answers. He is a social psychologist, author and professor of ethical leadership who described social media as “the primary cause of the epidemic of structural stupidity”. He blames social media for undermining democracy and believes that by the time research reaches a consensus on this, a lot of the damage will be irreversible.

The results of this can be evidenced in the decline of all democracy aspects as reported by Varieties of Democracy, a European think tank. “Toxic polarisation” — signalled by declining “respect for counter-arguments and associated aspects of the deliberative component of democracy” — grew more severe in at least 32 countries, it reports.

Haidt argues the younger generations must be better prepared for the “next democratic citizenship”. Media literacy with a focus on communication technologies can teach people how to navigate this wildly changing media ecosystem, flooded with so much noise that it’s easy to get overwhelmed and not know what to believe.

I think it should start at primary school level. I think non-profits should invest in campaigns to teach adults how to tell if they’re being manipulated by leaders and their supporting media outlets — especially ahead of elections.

The book doesn’t offer easy solutions; after all it reminds one that the ancient Greeks had conflicts with free speech limitations so we’ve been struggling with that tension for a long time. I did, however, take away a lot of insight I hope to incorporate into my research and teaching: how can journalists connect with audiences in a way that feels like the work they’re doing is real engagement and discussion.

The authors have shown one possible route which is to invest and boost local journalism, even encouraging the state to invest in it. People care about local issues because it affects them and they are likely to become more active citizens when they see themselves and their problems in local stories. They don’t get that in hyper-national focused news which is entertainment driven and caters to what audiences want to hear, versus what they need to. I hope my journalist friends reading this will see the connect between an engaged informed audience and a healthy vibrant democracy — a goal everyone should want to get behind.

The writer is currently researching newsroom culture in Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, October 2nd, 2022

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