Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Gaming the System: Social Media Undermines Climate Action and Threatens Democracy

The climate crisis represents an unprecedented threat to human civilization. We have known about the looming danger for decades but we have not done anywhere near enough to address it. Although we have seen progress in countries like Sweden and Denmark, countries like the United States and Brazil are moving in the opposite direction. This paper explores how the public has been influenced to make this possible. It specifically explains how governments and private interests have hijacked public narratives to serve political and corporate agendas. This approach is employed by the fossil fuel and other industries. as well as political parties and political leaders like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

"Today around the world, demagogues appeal to our worst instincts. Conspiracy theories once confined to the fringe are going mainstream. It’s as if the Age of Reason—the era of evidential argument—is ending, and now knowledge is delegitimized, and scientific consensus is dismissed. Democracy, which depends on shared truths, is in retreat, and autocracy, which depends on shared lies, is on the march. Hate crimes are surging, as are murderous attacks on religious and ethnic minorities. What do all these dangerous trends have in common?All this hate and violence is being facilitated by a handful of internet companies that amount to the greatest propaganda machine in history.”

- Sacha Baron Cohen, excerpt of a Keynote Address at ADL's 2019 Never Is Now Summit on Anti-Semitism and Hate. (November 21, 2019)


a) Introduction
b) Cornerstone of democracy
c) Exclusive public spheres
d) Media controls public spheres
e) Social media has changed public spheres

a) Multiple publics
b) Reticulated spheres
c) Sphericles and micropublics
d) Consensus
e) Cyberbulkanization

a) Conflation/annexation
b) Private and public use of the technology of persuasion
c) Democracy as a marketplace
d) Propaganda and despotism

a) Transnational public spheres
b) Social media misinformation and deception
c) Conspiracy theories muddy the discourse
d) Fossil fuels and climate confusion
e) Fossil fuel industry at war with truth

a) Rework the public sphere
b) Value diversity
c) Protect democratic institutions
d) Reign-in social media





1.1 Introduction

I will explore how media has changed the public sphere fundamentally altering public discourse. I will look at how the emergence of multiple fragmented publics makes it difficult to reach consensus and I will assess the implications this has for climate action and democracy. I will also review how social media has made it easier for the state to assume control of public spheres and I will illustrate my points by citing examples using contemporary media.

1.2 Cornerstone of democracy

Jurgen Habermas’ public sphere is a space in which people come together to engage each other on societal problems. While public discourse includes people’s opinions about social, economic and cultural issues, it is the public sphere that brings these ideas to light (Habermas, 1989, p 4). The agreements we reach in public spheres inform political leaderships. Public spheres are essential to democracy because they articulate the needs of society to the state (Habermas, 1989, p 176). As such they contribute to democratic outcomes and define the powers given to elected officials. The conclusions reached in the public sphere can be best understood as a guide to the affairs of state.

The public sphere is an intermediary between private individuals and government authorities. Debates in the public sphere shape public opinion which according to Habermas are a “critical judge” that adjudicates on questions of meaning (Habermas, 1989, p 2). Key to this construct is the idea that the public sphere is an inclusive space.

1.3 The exclusive public sphere

In theory, consensus on key cultural, political and economic issues emerges through inclusive discussions in the public sphere. In practice public spheres have never been inclusive domains. Habermas premised his public sphere upon historical data related to the 18th century European bourgeoisie. In this context the public sphere is the realm of a small slice of society, namely propertied white men. Gender is but one level of exclusion. Participation in Habermas’ public sphere is also restricted by economic factors since it is controlled by capitalists (merchants, bankers, entrepreneurs, and manufacturers).

Fraser points out that there are other significant exclusions in the public sphere including people of color (Fraser, 1993, p 10). She also says the idea that these exclusions have been corrected in recent years is a fallacy. Although it may appear that many of these formal exclusions have been eliminated, informal impediments continue in the form of “protocols of style and decorum” (Fraser, 1993, p 10). As explained by Fraser, informal pressures like social inequalities infect deliberation and this denies equal access and equal participation to subordinated social groups (Fraser, 1993, p 11). The public sphere has been an exclusive space from its inception in the Greek city state (polis) where slaves were excluded, and only free citizens were permitted to participate. I will explore how recent incarnations of the public sphere have become even more exclusive in recent years.

1.4 Media controls the public sphere

Ivanova characterizes mass media as the ‘master forum’ of the public sphere” (Ivanova, 2014, p 211). Rutherford described the media as playing the role of a gatekeeper that serves what Habermas called “authorized opinions” which limit access to the public sphere. (Rutherford, 2000, p 263). Media plays a powerful role in public discourse; it can create and recreate public spheres. As explained by Habermas, media both constitutes and maintains the public sphere and media professionals are key actors in the public sphere (Habermas, 2006, p 416). Media and politics are intimately intertwined. Media’s influence over the public sphere is rooted in its critical role in the transmission of information (Habermas, 1989, p 136). As Habermas said, “publicity continues to be an organizational principle of our political order” (Habermas, 1989, p 4).

The public sphere is a space that is framed and structured by the operations of the mass media. It is a place for mediated political communication by the elite (Habermas 2006, p 416). It is composed of journalists as well as of those public actors whom journalistic gatekeepers deem worthy of the opportunity to be heard.

1.5 Social media has changed public spheres

Social media has radically changed the landscape. People no longer share common sources of information as was the case during the reign of traditional media. Social media has contributed to media fragmentation and this is growing at an exponential rate. Social media algorithms give people news and information that feeds their biases. This fractured media environment means that there are fewer overarching narratives that tie people together.

Social media has revolutionized the highly hierarchical, top-down mass-media model that defined the 1950s and 1960s. Social media increasingly dominates the media space which Bruns describes it as a “diverse, complex and even confusing media ecology” (Bruns et al, 2016, p 57).


2.1 Multiple publics

Bruns says social media has caused “fragmentation of the unified public sphere into a range of diverging yet potentially over-lapping publics.” (Bruns et al, 2016, p 59). According to Fraser there have always been multiple competing publics and she adds that the relations between these public were always conflictual (Fraser, 1993, p 8). As explained by Bruns, “multiple coexisting and competing public spheres at the same time, are not new, even if they appear to have grown more insistent as a result of the increasing importance of global and digital media spaces.” (Bruns, 2016 p 58). While this is not a new phenomenon it has increased exponentially due to social media. Subordinated social groups (women, workers, peoples of color, and gays and lesbians) benefit from their participation in alternative publics. (Fraser, 1993, p 14). Fraser explains that, “insofar as these counterpublics emerge in response to exclusions within dominant publics, they help expand discursive space” (Fraser, 1993, p 14). While inclusiveness benefits the public discourse, as I will explain later in this paper, the proliferation of publics and the fragmentation of public spheres may not serve the interests of democracy.

2.2 The reticulate public sphere

Gerard Hauser’s rhetorical model of a reticulate public sphere adds more complexity. Hauser envisions a living exchange among a plurality of publics. While he references the importance of forging of common judgements where possible, this becomes increasingly difficult given the multiplex of interactions. In theory multiple publics feed and alter the larger conversations of a reticulate public sphere. Each public is woven into the latticed network of other publics that forms the reticulate public sphere. Multiple publics are not necessarily agonistic in Hauser’s model, instead they are construed as “associational relations across permeable boundaries” (Hauser, 1999, p 71). However, in practice the interactions envisioned by the reticulate public sphere devolve into an anarchic array of endless permutations. Simply put, they become unwieldly and this can generate confusion that is antithetical to the formation of shared judgements.

2.3 Sphericules and micro-publics

As we descend deeper into this theoretical rabbit hole, we encounter more divisions and subdivisions of the public sphere. This includes intersecting and overlapping constructs in the form of a countless number of sphericles and micro-publics. These subdivisions dynamically replicate and they coexist in multiple forms like an infinitely bifurcating fractal. Sphericules are small thematic debates, and while they do not possess critical mass, they do share many of the characteristics of the Habermasian public sphere. (Bruns, 2016, p 61). Although sphericules further fragment the public sphere they offer some powerful benefits. The shared interest and knowledge of participants who take part in sphericules may improve the quality of deliberations and the lower barriers of entry for social media sphericules may increase the inclusivity of participation in the public debate. Social media affords further divisions in the form of micro-publics. These personal publics are composed of egocentric networks which Bruns described as a, “global patchwork of interconnected micro-publics, tying together social media” (Bruns, 2016, p 62). In the next section we will see that rather than being interconnected these subdivisions are often isolated.

2.4 Cyberbalkanisation

The highly fractured social media landscape makes it difficult to find commonalities between all or most members of society. As Bruns explains, “rather than as a unified, mass-mediated space through which public debate is conducted, the public sphere is thus revealed as a complex combination of multiple interlocking elements that sometimes counteract, sometimes amplify each other, and that each possess their own specific dynamics” (Bruns, 2016, p 63).

These divisions can lend support to dystopian characterizations. Bruns refers to this as a, “multitude of 'filter bubbles' that are each caught in their own feedback loops of self-reinforcing 'groupthink' and actively defend against the intrusion of alternative, oppositional points of view.” (Bruns, 2016, p 63). The siloed insulation of these filter bubbles precludes a meaningful exchange of ideas. This is what Bruns refers to as 'cyberbalkanisation'. This is the situation where we see divisions into ever smaller mutually hostile groups. As described by Bruns the danger is that ideological viewpoints cluster together and “never become exposed to, or communicate with, opposing views”. (Bruns et al, 2016, p 70).

2.5 Consensus

The divisions created by multiple publics make it difficult to achieve consensus in the public sphere. Fraser mentions societies with diverse values that contain multiple publics and she expresses concern that such societies would not share enough commonalities to reach agreement (Fraser, 1993, p 17). It is the participants themselves that decide what is of common concern and Fraser concludes that there is no guarantee that they will agree (Fraser, 1993, p 19). Social media places people in siloes with less permeable boundaries and according to Hauser this decreases the possibility of achieving consensus. (Hauser, 1999, p 77). Sphericles further fragment and narrow the debate. These debates become increasingly obscure and they often take place in specialist niche media that rarely make their way into public consciousness. Social media has fundamentally altered the mechanism by which we arrive at shared visions of common interest, and this undermines efforts to forge consensus. We no longer rely on the same basic facts and this makes consensus building difficult. (Cohen, 2019).


3.1 The annexation of the public sphere by the state

The failure to achieve consensus also diminishes the guidance that the public sphere has historically provided to the state. This in turn makes societies vulnerable to powerful forces, including state actors and their cohorts. In this vacuum self-interested parties can exert their influence and effectively hijack the public sphere. Public spheres have traditionally been defined by their opposition to a state or a given policy perspective. However, this changes when the state exerts undue control over public opinion. Fraser expressed concerns about democracy due to “the conflation of the state apparatus with the public sphere of discourse” (Fraser, 1993, p 2). Rutherford also expressed concern over what he calls “the expanding scope of governance” which he describes as the collapse of what was once private into the public sphere (Rutherford, 2000, p 19). As we will explore, there is evidence to suggest that the state and their supporters are leveraging social media to control the public sphere.

3.2 Private and public use of the technology of persuasion

Rutherford points out that governments have adopted corporate practices employing the technology of persuasion and they are leveraging this technology for political purposes (Rutherford, 2000, p 262). Public and private interests are also working together crafting advertising campaigns to achieve common aims. This often includes self-serving narratives which actively disinform the public and further undermine consensus.

There are numerous examples of advertising campaigns that illustrate how public and private interests coalesce behind specific projects (Rutherford, 2000, p 262). One of these projects involves the collusion of government and the fossil fuel industry to diminish support for climate action. In Canada we have seen this under the leadership of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and in the U.S. under the leadership of President Donald Trump.

3.3 Democracy as a marketplace

The media are the gatekeepers of information and they are driven by profit motives. They pander to audiences because they are beholden to ever diminishing profits. Public service ethics and societal responsibilities are luxuries that most media cannot afford. This is especially true of social media which Zittrain describes as a “bankrupt system of click-based advertising.” (Zittrain, 2017)

The commodification of news has profound implications because stories that appeal to our baser instincts have more market value than real news. As explained by Cohen, “It’s why fake news outperforms real news, because studies show that lies spread faster than truth”. (Cohen, 2019). Rutherford asks the question: “Is there any public discourse left, or has advertising, with its aggressive sales techniques, usurped the role of democratic, civil debate?” (Rutherford, 2000, p 18). Rutherford makes the point that the public sphere has been transformed into a marketplace where the authority of marketing controls politics, social behavior and public morals (Rutherford, 2000, p 18).

Habermas counted on the “mass public to resist or refashion the messages of authority” (Rutherford, 2000, p 19). However, the introduction of the marketplace of state propaganda corrupts the process. Such propaganda has far reaching implications. As explained by Rutherford it sets the agenda and determines the issues that are deemed important. It also primes the discussion, excites controversy and generates support. (Rutherford, 2000, p 268).

Rutherford, said we are becoming “marketplaces of democracy [where] Advertising as propaganda has colonized the public sphere with styles of rhetoric and imagery, a way of perceiving problems and solutions, derived from the operations of the marketplace…everything is commodified including politics, learning and even dissent (Rutherford, 2000, p 268).

3.4 Propaganda authoritarianism and despotism

Governments deploy “tailored propaganda” that makes full use of the media’s persuasive power (Rutherford, 2000, p 262). The state’s use of such propaganda is highly correlated with authoritarianism and despotism. Rutherford quotes Walter Benjamin who states: "The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life,” and Rutherford adds, “the thrust of the aesthetic into the public sphere fosters a brand of despotism” (Rutherford, 2000, p 272).

Rutherford says the use of propaganda has corrupted the practices of democracy by shaping and suppressing debate (Rutherford, 2000, p 275). Rutherford quotes Habermas as saying authoritarianism constructs “what amounts to a moral hegemony in the public sphere, to ensure that their conceptions of good and evil, right and wrong become the official norms, if not common sense.” (Rutherford, 2000, p 272).

The use of propaganda in the absence of consensus is a form of post-modernist gaming of the system. Rutherford writes propaganda is about illusion more than substance (Rutherford, 2000, p 275). Nowhere is the artifice of illusion more prevalent than on social media which Cohen has referred to as the “greatest propaganda machine in history”.


4.1 Transnational public sphere

An analysis of climate change coverage by Ivanova and her colleagues revealed that there is evidence for a transnational public sphere in the Western world particularly Europe and North America (Ivanova, 2014, p 219). However, Ivanova concludes that there is no evidence to support a globalized transnational public sphere on the topic of climate change (Ivanova, 2014, 220). I will explore the reasons why we are not seeing the emergence of a transnational public sphere on climate change. I will show how this may be linked to media misinformation and outright deception. Although some media sources do present the facts, there are a wide range of diverging media representations, especially in online media, that make it difficult for members of the public to understand the scientific consensus on climate change.

4.2 Social media misinformation and deception

There was a time when media was serious about communicating the facts as they understood them. An attempt to ascertain the truth was sewn into their master narratives. Today we see numerous examples of contemporary online media that deliberately push agendas that flatly contradict the facts. The implications are concerning, as Cohen said, “Just think what Goebbels could have done with Facebook.” (Cohen, 2019).

Social media is fraught with issues that complicate the public’s access to information. These issues include the fact that there are a relatively small number of aggregators and there is a lack of transparency. Zittrain adds Facebook and Twitter use “crude levers of user interaction that have created a parched, flattening, even infantilizing discourse” (Zittrain, 2017). Hauser found that non-permeable boundaries make lying easier (Hauser, 1999). The low level of discourse on social media makes it easier to disseminate disinformation. This point is illustrated by Donald Trump who is arguably the world’s most prolific liar. He has relied extensively on social media to lie a total of 13,435 times (Washington Post, 2019). Trump’s digital deceit is the key to his gaming of the American electoral system (Diggit Magazine).

Unlike traditional media and other publications there are no standards that apply to social media and as such it is a platform that is conducive to mendacity. People have trouble discriminating between facts and falsehoods online because as Cohen said, “on the internet, everything can appear equally legitimate. Breitbart resembles the BBC” (Cohen, 2019).

4.3 Conspiracy theories muddy the discourse

A recent Breitbart article by John Nolte helps to explain how certain media platforms have muddied the discourse on climate change. Nolte’s article is titled, “Scientists Prove Man-Made Global Warming Is a Hoax”. The author supports this patently inaccurate claim by citing irrelevant facts that could resonate with those unfamiliar with science.

Articles like the one cited above not only flout science, they profess contempt for science and scientists. Many invoke the absurd conspiracy theory that scientists support the facts about climate change because they get paid to do so (BaerbelW, 2017). Flat earthers illustrate the scope of absurd conspiracy theories. As many as 1 in 6 Americans think that the Earth is flat (Picheta, 2019). These people are deeply entrenched in their convictions and they are not easily convinced otherwise. While the outlandishness of many of these conspiracy theories may seem laughable, this is no laughing matter. As Voltaire said, “those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities” (Voltaire, 1765, p 691).

Given their common reliance on deception it should come as no surprise that those who believe in conspiracy theories also tend to support populist leaders like Trump (Picheta, 2019). "They kind of feed each other ... it's a slippery slope when you think that the government has been hiding these things. All of a sudden, you become one of those people that's like, 'can you trust anything on mainstream media?'"(Picheta, 2019). According to a recent poll Canadians are no better with 44 percent saying scientists are ‘elitists' and many of these people say they discount scientific evidence when it doesn't align with their personal beliefs (Weber, 2019).

Conspiracy theories are now commonplace on Fox “news” and sites with political agendas. Media that disseminate conspiracies are trying to muddy the waters of fact blurring the distinction between what is true and what is false. This lays a foundation that makes it possible for self-interested parties to step in and control the narrative with disinformation.

4.4 Fossil fuels and climate confusion

Inaccurate climate narratives may be pervasive in far-right media, but these narratives have found their way into the wider societal discourse. They can even be found in the discourses of communications “experts” that are taught to undergraduate students in universities. Rupindar Mangat’s fossil fuel divestment discourse is a case in point. Mangat starts off by appearing to suggest that casting the fossil fuel industry as the enemy is part of the reason why we have not seen significant political action. While he pays lip service to competing views Mangat comes to several flawed conclusions. Mangat seems to advocate strategies that “avoid conflict…[by]…focusing on 'breakthrough technologies' that might address climate change but avoid dramatic social and economic change.” (Mangat, 2018). His conclusion ignores his own acknowledgement of the urgent need for dramatic social and economic change.

In this and other statements Mangat ignores the fossil fuel industry’s decades long track record of malfeasance (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2015). Mangat pushes back against the “intense othering” of the fossil fuel industry and he appears to be concerned about references to their moral inferiority. He conspicuously ignores the fossil fuel industry’s history of obfuscation and deceit while supporting a civil discourse that buys time for the industry. If Mangat is deliberately trying to help the fossil fuel industry he would not be the first academic to do so. The fossil fuel industry uses their financial might to control academia (Matthews, March 1, 2019). They also buy politicians and political outcomes. (Matthews, February 27, 2019). A science-based assessment reveals that the near-term elimination of fossil fuels is a critical part of serious climate action (Matthews, February 25, 2019).

Mangat resists what he considers to be simplifying climate change by seeing it as an existential struggle (Mangat, 2018). However, this is exactly what climate change represents (Ramanathan 2017). Mangat then goes on to accuse supporters of divestment of being hypocrites and he muddies the waters with an unnecessarily complex summary of decarbonization. He also challenges the idea that there is a consensus on how to deal with climate change, despite the fact that the IPCC and others have made it clear that reigning in emissions to combat climate change necessitates that we stop burning hydrocarbons (Taylor, 2019).

The UK medical research charity the Wellcome Trust has cited Mangat's work in its decision to increase its portfolio of fossil fuel shares and ignore calls to stop investing in fossil fuels. (Kmietowicz, 2015). While purporting to study the issues, wittingly or unwittingly, Mangat is actively contributing to false narratives. 4.5 Fossil fuel industry at war with truth The fossil fuel industry needs to dispute the facts to retain their moral license to operate and social media is the perfect platform from whence they can wage this war against truth. This idea is explored in an article by Andy Rowell titled “Facebook Hires Koch-Funded Climate Deniers for 'Fact-Checking”.

Many of the fossil fuel industry’s lies get posted on social media sites like Facebook, which do a very poor job of checking their veracity. In fact, it may be a case of the fox guarding the henhouse. Facebook is teaming up with CheckYourFact.com, which is an offshoot of the anti-science media site, The Daily Caller. As explained by Rowell, the Daily Caller regularly publishes dishonest statements and misinformation about climate science. It was co-founded by science-denying Fox News host Tucker Carlson and is backed by major conservative donors, including Charles and David Koch, the billionaire oil barons who are the single biggest funders of climate science misinformation (Rowell, 2019).

Facebook has also joined forces with other climate denial websites including the Weekly Standard, a highly partisan right-wing “fact-checker”. Environmental sociologist, professor Robert Brulle, described this as part of the “right wing echo chamber" (Rowell, 2019).


5.1 Redefine the public sphere

Addressing some of the problems we have reviewed in this paper starts with reworking Habermas’ conception of the public sphere. As stated by Rutherford, in the public sphere, “popular participation is restricted”. (Rutherford, 2000, p 275). This is arguably the starting point of a cascade of adverse consequences. Fraser demonstrates that Habermas’ bourgeois conception of the public sphere, “is not adequate for the critique of the limits of actually existing democracy in late capitalist societies”. (Fraser, 1993, p. 26). Bruns asks how the public sphere can be adjusted and whether it is relevant at all. He also quotes those who suggest Habermas’ public sphere is “a convenient fantasy" that should be abandoned. (Bruns et al, 2016 p 58).

Haberman himself foresaw the decay and collapse of the bourgeois public sphere: “[F]or about a century the social foundations of this sphere have been caught up in a process of decomposition. Tendencies pointing to the collapse of the public sphere are unmistakable, for while its scope is expanding impressively, its function has become progressively insignificant.” (Habermas, 1989 p 4). Bruns concludes that the orthodox formulations of Habermas’ public sphere need to be augmented or replaced (Bruns et al, 2016 p 58). According to Bruns the singular public sphere should be extended to include inter-connected and overlapping publics (Bruns 2016, p 70). As we will explore in the next section inclusiveness allows a diverse array of individuals to participate in the public sphere and this can have the paradoxical effect of countering fragmentation. It may even help to protect democracy from those who would destroy it.

5.2 Value diversity

A truly accessible and diverse public sphere may resist the kind of fragmentation that impedes consensus building. Habermas suggests that as "a larger number of people tend to take an interest in a larger number of issues, the overlap of issue publics may even serve to counter trends of fragmentation" (Habermas, 2006, p 422). Columbia Business School Professor Katherine Phillips explains the value of diversity with a study on of the impact of diversity on organizations. Researchers found “the mere presence of diversity increased engagement and another study suggests diverse groups of people are better able to detect differences in information while homogenous group gloss over those differences. (Philips, 2019). Philips also found that diverse groups did a better job of assessing their own performance compared to homogeneous groups which tended to be confident about their performance even if they were wrong. Philips interprets these results as suggesting homogeneous groups are a little “delusional”. (Philips, 2019). These results suggest that diversity not only offers opportunities for creative problem solving, it also has the potential to curb the worst excesses of homogeneity.

Fraser argues that the concept of a counterpublic, “militates in the long run against separatism” (Fraser, 1993, p. 15). However, to avoid the rabbit hole of fragmentation and division we need to bring people together. In the next section we will consider the unifying potential of democratic institutions.

5.3 Protect democratic institutions

To ensure that diversity contributes to consensus building and not merely an endless succession of publics we need to have a unifying frame. That frame can come from bolstering democratic institutions both within government and in civil society. As explained by Rutherford, free access to open debate is dependent upon the "institutional core of a civil society" (Rutherford, 2000, p 19).

Fraser recognized the need for institutional arrangements that ensure the accountability of democratic decision-making bodies (Fraser, 1993, p 25). Fraser succinctly lays out the challenge in the following quote: “The problem for liberals, thus, is how to strengthen the barriers separating political institutions that are supposed to instantiate relations of equality from economic, cultural, and sociosexual institutions that are premised on systemic relations of inequality” (Fraser, 1993, p 12).

5.4 Reign-in social media

Finally, we need to hold social media companies accountable. Rather than giving hate a platform under the guise of free speech we need to apply standards and practices to social media like we do with other published materials. We need to prevent the dissemination of blatantly inaccurate statements especially political ads that subvert free and fair elections. We need to see legislation and regulation that will reign-in social media companies. In the absence of such actions we will not see significant change. “[T]h ese companies won’t fundamentally change because their entire business model relies on generating more engagement, and nothing generates more engagement than lies, fear and outrage.” (Cohen, 2019).


The public sphere’s ability to facilitate consensus is dying and along with it the means by which our democracies work towards the common good. We are faced with four major problems, the first is that the public sphere is not accessible to everybody. The second is the confusing array of publics and the third is state control over the public sphere. These issues are compounded by social media which is the fourth and final issue. Together these four problems make it almost impossible to achieve consensus. In the absence of consensus misinformation thrives and governments become untethered to public opinion. Democracy suffers and as a result of the vacuum that is created governments are granted the latitude to ignore urgent issues like climate change. These dynamics are what give traction to Trump’s firestorm of fake news and the disinformation from Brexiteers. What we are dealing with is nothing less than the subversion of reality. As Trump has blatantly stated: “What you're seeing and what you're reading is not what's happening” (BBC, 2018).

I have suggested four approaches to counter these four threats. Reworking the public sphere in a way that makes it truly accessible, supporting diversity, protecting the institutions of democracy as a bulwark against fragmentation and holding social media companies accountable.

Powerful forces have gamed the system, undermined the operation of the public sphere and made it possible to ignore the public good. We have reason to be concerned about the implications for democracy and our planet. As Cohen says, “Our pluralistic democracies are on a precipice...and the role of social media, could be determinant...A sewer of bigotry and vile conspiracy theories threatens democracy and our planet (Cohen, 2019).

All is not lost, “if we prioritize truth over lies, tolerance over prejudice, empathy over indifference and experts over ignoramuses—then maybe, just maybe, we can stop the greatest propaganda machine in history, we can save democracy.” (Cohen, 2019). The pressure is building, and we are seeing some action from social media companies. Google and YouTube recently removed 300 Trump campaign ads for making “misleading claims” (Rosenberg, 2019).

It may be unrealistic to hope that social media companies can shake their propensity to prioritize profit. The best hope may come from teaching the general public to discern between online fact and cyber fiction. We are seeing a rise in organizations that specialize in fact-checking and open-source intelligence. However, the lies are both pervasive and pernicious. Combating them will require coordinated action on multiple fronts. The urgency of these issues cannot be overstated, failure to act jeopardizes our hard-won democracies and planetary well-being.

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