Friday, 9 February 2018

The New Crisis of Public Communication

This Wednesday we had our department's Jay Blumler Lecture, given this year by Silvio Waisbord of George Washington University. The annual lectures always connect in some way with Professor Blumler's work--in this case, it was a revisiting of his book with Michael Gurevitch, The Crisis in Public Communication. Waisbord's talk explored the current version of populism and its accompanying breakdown in public communication. Although social media has a great deal of potential to act as a public sphere, where users can engage in deliberative democracy, like a virtual Greek forum, that hasn't happened. Instead, there's been a phenomenon of partisan bubbles in which we only talk about politics with like-minded friends & family (with occasional interruptions by an argumentative uncle or former schoolmate, etc.).

The part that struck me as most interesting was his description of the characteristics of populist communication (or lack thereof)--they see political discussion as a shouting match rather than a rational exchange of ideas, they reject facts and science, and they don't seek consensus. This attitude means they simply don't want to participate in classical "public sphere" forms of deliberation. At the end of the lecture, I was left wondering what we're supposed to do--how do we get Breitbart readers, for example, to engage in fact-based, consensus-seeking discussion with people who read mainstream press sources? How do you get them to see the value in scientific proof and facts? It just reminded me of the phrase, "Facts have a well-known liberal bias", used by political satirist Rob Corddry back in 2004 when we didn't even realize how far this trend would go.

Waisbord encouraged us to look for "virtuous cases"--examples of countries/regions where people do engage in rational, fact-based discussion and reject the populist, anti-fact mentality we've seen recently (Trump, Brexit, Le Pen, Wilders, Duterte, etc.). One example might be Finland, where the fight against "fake news" was featured in this clip from Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. Part of their solution is educating the people on how to be critical consumers of news--everyone from political leaders to school kids is taught how to spot fake news and distinguish it from reliable sources.

I'm still not 100% convinced that there is a solution to the new crisis of public communication, but education always sounds like our best hope.

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