With the 21st century looming on the horizon, digitalization and the Internet, the new mass medium, were welcomed with wide-ranging promises of salvation. In 1996, Peter Glaser treated his readers to 24 Hours in the 21st Century, and determined that: “Humankind is starting to take common control of its intelligence and the broad scope of the human mind.”
Now, some two decades later, the digital future has fallen into disrepute thanks to misappropriation of data, manipulation of public opinion and the hyper transparency that social media brings. The hearing of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg before the US Congress was the preliminary peak of this so-called techlash, hailing the demise of digital party life. When describing this albeit late recognition, business journalist Patrick Bernau hit the nail on the head: “In the areas where digital technology strengthens human weaknesses, many new problems ensue.” One is tempted to add ‘for social media providers and users alike’.
One of the problems arising from the concerted demand-oriented logic of digital online media – one that gives communications management considerable cause for concern – is the move away from divergence and differentiation. In March 2018, MIT researchers Vosoughi, Roy and Aral published a study in Science magazine on news production on Twitter in which they analyzed 126,000 rumor cascades with a combined total of 4.5 million tweets. The results were devastating: on Twitter, false news spreads significantly faster than true news because people’s tendency to share and comment on it generates more attention. Anyone inclined to put this down to the old media adage that “only bad news is good news” and tell us all to chill fails to see the seriousness of the situation. What we are dealing with is an acceleration of false information to an unprecedented degree. Added to this comes the fact that the complexity of political and business relations has significantly increased in recent years.
We live in a world where in both politics and business, the primary task of management is no longer to solve problems in a dichotomy of right and wrong, but rather to overcome dilemmas in which right regularly meets right and wrong regularly meets wrong. If this becomes a media use model in which individual citizens only receive information which meets their algorithmically identified expectations or quenches their archaic sensationalist thirst, it puts the plural social order at risk and with it democratic opinion-forming and value-creating entrepreneurship. Those in the public eye will have no choice but to increase their level of tolerance for critical media exposure and repeatedly recalibrate their dilemma management strategy in the course of direct dialogue with stakeholder groups.
The tragedy behind this trend is evident given the tremendous opportunities to be had in using modern digital (and other) technology for the common good. A new perspective is needed, such as that called for by Ian Goldin in The Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance (2016) and Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now (2018). Both set subjective despondency in the face of actual or alleged crises against verifiable facts with regard to stupendous human advancement in the modern age.
Despite what appears to be crystal clear confirmation of the improvements brought to people’s lives, including in Germany, we do not need social media to have our eyes pried opened now and then. When asked why, in the public arena, so little is heard about the improvements experienced in German life, Gert Wagner, who spent 30 years as the Director of the German Socio-Economic Panel and as such embodied the statistical companion to the average man on the street, responded, “I have the impression that many journalists tend to transfer the decline in their working conditions to the Republic as a whole.”
And with his provocative book Why Liberalism Failed, the American political scientist Patrick Deneen is currently whipping up a storm. He takes the well-known theory of the inability of representative democracy to create its own civil society values and principles one step further, arguing that liberalism built exclusively on the state and the market actually destroys its very base. One need not necessarily agree with Deneen’s horror scenario to recognize the role that digital media and its misuse could play in this regard.