The Technological Transformation Of The Public Square (Joshua Ramos)

We are witnessing the political and cultural transformation of the global public square through internet information technology and digital social media. The public square, once formerly centered around localized, material centers such as town halls, literary café’s and salons, has now become the global virtualized public square, decentralized in transnational internet forums, dispersed through social media accounts, and democratized through alternative news networks.

The emergence of new social media platforms for the spread of information – from Twitter, to YouTube and Facebook – have become predominant modes of mass communication that are subverting and usurping traditional established mediums. Inasmuch as the invention of the Gutenberg printing press served as a major catalyst for the vast political, cultural, religious and societal changes that took place within the 16th century Protestant Reformation, so will the invention of internet technology and democratized social media fuel political and societal change throughout the 21st.

A globalized rise of populist, nationalist, anti-globalist, and anti-establishment movements have swept like wild fire across the United States and Europe, all of which is a direct result of a tectonic technological shift within the medium of mass communication. Nationalist networks, such as Identitaire Bewegung Osterreichs or the Nouvelle Droit in Western Europe are linked together with Alt-Right movements in the USA, collaborating in the development of their ideology and political activism. While at the same time they are countered by opposing anarchic networks that have mobilized through social media, such as the far-left and violent Antifa.

Many of the influential individuals within these movements rise to be internet celebrity sensations, gaining hundreds of thousands of “likes” on their YouTube accounts, and going viral in thousands of Twitter re-tweets. The centralized, homogenous hierarchy of corporate mass media is the target of these new networks of sub-altern reform movements that are spread virally across social media, and whose voices are emerging materially in the ballot boxes. The outcome is that sub-altern political and cultural reform movements are erupting chaotically within the West, bringing into question of whether the future stability of Western liberal democracies is contradicted through its own production of social media technology, and its own safeguarding of the principle of freedom of speech.We are at a political and cultural watershed, one in which the information age overlaps with the “network society”. The concept of the “network society”, as defined by social theorist Manuell Castells, is “a society whose social structure is made of networks powered by micro-electronic information and communication technologies” (3). For Castells, “A network has no center, just nodes” (3).

A network society encapsulates many of the major motifs contained within the societal processes of globalization, such as that of deterritorialisation and decentralization. Within a Network Society, the principle configuration of power is the capacity to determine mass communication. And within the global market place of ideas, this form of power is the premier influence shaping the trajectory of culture and politics.What remains in the wake is Twitter revolution and YouTube radicalization. Twitter played a decisive role in facilitating the “Arab Spring” political revolt in 2012. Using the methodology of content analysis, United Arab Emirates professor of communication Bedreya Al-Jenaibi concluded that “the use of social media has been revolutionary in most areas of the Middle East, especially the conservative societies that have been relatively closed to information that flow without constraint.” Closed societies are faced with limitless information flow that threatens to liberalize the political order, while open societies must face this same digital threat from the opposite direction.  The far-right political movement of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil was fueled through YouTube pundits, in what one Brazilian political activist calls the “dictatorship of the like.” New York time journalists Max Fisher and Amanda Taub describe how YouTube’s algorithms, artificial intelligence systems, and auto-playing suggestions were a determining factor in bringing about Bolsonaro’s election. For many young people, YouTube is their first entry into “political education.”

In the 2016 United States Presidential election the consensus that had cut across every major news media outlet, elite institutions of political science, and think tank punditry was that Donald Trump could not possibly defeat Hilary Clinton. When Trump emerged as victor, it constituted a paradigm shift on how the direct democracy of social media has now replaced mainstream media.

The mainstream media, and the public that had trusted it, were blindsided by Trump’s election. The sub-altern reform movements that populate the realms of internet culture strategically used social media to place a once unthinkable possibility into the seat of the world’s political power, Donald Trump as President of the United States. Independent social media upstarts fought the dominant major satellite broadcasting backed by corporate capital, and in the end won the political contest.

MIT Media Labs conducted data analysis of the societal impact of Twitter on the 2016 US Presidential election, concluding that, “in this social media age, individuals have voices on the same platforms as huge organizations.” A single individual who politically identifies with the Alt-Right, and who is adept at using a Twitter account to create subversive political art of making “memes” go viral, has the potential to have more public influence on politics and culture than a majority of the established mainstream media.

Digital tech entrepreneur and Silicon Valley expert Naval Ravikant comments that, “the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are stood like commoners next to bloggers, begging for tweets, likes and votes. We are all journalists and editors now.”

Since the advent of social media, there are no longer “gate-keepers” of information, as the capacity for public influence within the global public square through communication has become unmediated, a direct platform without boundaries given over to the people. To have millions of followers on Twitter is to signal influence. Digital killed the video star. 

The Post-Truth Public Square

Through Twitter’s influence on the 2016 US Presidential election an information bubble was created and solidified on both the left and right wings of the political spectrum. The bubble was strong enough on the left wing of the spectrum that it created the mass illusion that Hilary Clinton’s presidential election was triumphantly inevitable. On the night of the election, Donald Trump was predicted by the political science wing of the New York Times to have a mere 15 percent chance of winning.

When the day of reckoning had arrived, the head editors of the New York Times were forced to write a mea culpa to their readers and the American public, for having largely mislead and misinformed them since Trump’s nomination in 2015. The executive editor and publisher of the New York Times issued a formal apology for their fundamental misunderstanding of the rise and election of President Trump. They queried amongst themselves: “Did Donald Trump’s sheer unconventionality lead us and other news outlets to underestimate his support among American voters?” They then concluded for their own penitence that from this point out they had to “rededicate themselves” to a more accurate reporting of the state of US politics.

With this significant failure of Americas most trusted news outlets, which have heavily tarnished their reputation amongst the general public in light of the election of Trump, alternative news networks on social media have gained tremendous traction. The failure of these corporate media conglomerates to report accurately on Trump’s public support and appeal engendered the prevalent concept called “Fake News,” a concept that traverses throughout the globalized landscape of what is now called the “Post-Truth” political world.

The established mainstream media polemically attacks the alternative news networks with the pejorative epithet of “Fake News,” while these alternative news outlets accuse them of hypocrisy. The question is then raised: Which platform constitutes “Fake News” when the arbiters have been found wanting? Who will watch the watchmen?

With the eminent collapse of the trust towards established traditional media, the boundaries are blurred between what constitutes “real news” from “Fake News.” And within this fuzzy territory, decentralized alternative news network societies have the upper hand.

After Brexit and Trump, the public sphere is now the post-truth public sphere. Such an indeterminate mediascape makes possible the condition for demagoguery, anarchism, polarization and ideological balkanization within communities. Yet, an indeterminate mediascape also allows for other possibilities to emerge that may be neutral or positive in its direction. The wind blows where it wills.

Religion and Digital Media 

Religion is not outside the scope of the “Internet of Things.” In the 1990’s Jacques Derrida pointed out in his Act of Faith that global communications and cyberspace “digital culture,” consisting of  “digital systems and virtually immediate panoptical visualization, ‘air space,’ telecommunication satellites, information highways, concentration of capitalistic-mediatic power,” was facilitating the so-called “return of religion.”

In his 2004 work Globalized Islam, Olivier Roy was among the first to examine the internet in relation to the way in which fundamentalist Islamic movements were able to conceptualize a universal ummah detached from any specific link to a culture and territory. Regarding his methodology, Roy states that, “the overwhelming importance of the Internet is consistent with our study of global Islam, as exemplified in the texts, ides and speeches that are circulating worldwide in an accessible form.” The internet and social media has shaped and mediated contemporary religiosity inasmuch as it has shaped contemporary politics. The “return of religion” shares a structure similar to the “return of populism.”

The intent of the rest of this article is to briefly sketch two directions in which religion plays a role within the collapse of traditional mass media and the bourgeoning of populist and sub-altern reform movements. The first is the connection between religion and populism, both left wing and right wing on the political spectrum. The second is the opening of the public discussion on religion that is cutting a middle ground between religious fundamentalism and rigorous atheism, one that is centered on the value of religion as a symbolic structure providing cohesion and existential meaning within the grand processes of globalized, post-Christian and post-secular West. 

The role of religion within the West has reconfigured itself into a strict identity marker, consisting of either a “pure religion,” as we see with fundamentalist movements who view themselves first and foremost as a religious identity apart and beyond the boundaries of culture and state, or in the strict identity marker of a “pure culture,” as we see with populist movements who employ “Christendom” as a means of resisting globalized mass immigration which they believe undermines and syncretizes their culture.

Religion and culture, within this sense, have parted ways. For example, Marine Le Pen of the French National Rally and Matteo Salvini of the Italian Northern League employ a Catholicism that is at odds with the open border policies and the welcoming attitude towards migrants that Pope Francis and the majority of the Vatican hierarchy is calling for. Religion is secularized into a political and cultural identity that supports their positions and policies.

On the other hand, there is for example, the trans-denominational movement of the Benedict Option led by the conservative American writer Rod Dreher, which perceives all of Western culture as hopelessly lost to the advances of secularization, and what they believe to be a re-paganization that has filled the existential vacuum left in the wake of the “post-Christian” West.  Because of their belief of the moral decline of the surrounding Western culture, the Benedict Option is a movement in which different Christian denominations aceoss the traditional divides of Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism unite to form strategic alliances of communities and networks based around strict adherence to religious norms and theological doctrines that are purified from the influence of a hostile and compromising secular culture.

In the Benedict Option, there is an ongoing civil war within Christian denominations. The liberality of Pope Francis is seen as a betrayal of Catholic tradition and orthodoxy, and white American Protestant evangelicals are increasingly compromised with progressive politics, as we see with the Red Letter Movement led by Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis. For the Benedict Option, religion is sacralized into a pure identity marker, against culture and beyond politics.

Secular movements within the network society are gaining traction as well, pushing for freedom from religion. For example, Muslims within the West experience the same force of secularization that Christians do, with increasing numbers of apostasies facilitated by the spread of information on the Internet, and with forums established to aid those who have left the fold.

The Ex-Muslim of North America is a network founded by Sarah Haider and Muhammed Syed, who were at one time both practicing Muslims, but had later converted to atheism. They both became public advocates for “reform” within Islam, while at the same time endorsing the ideology of secularism. This network comprised of a secular cohort, which has established centers in over twenty cities in both North America and Canada, and as according to their mission statement, “advocates for acceptance of religious dissent, promotes secular values, and aims to reduce discrimination faced by those who leave Islam.” Part of this network’s objective is to “counter the isolation facing non-theists ex-Muslims by fostering communities and support networks.”

Religion and populism can also take a left wing turn, as we see the Protestant minister Revered William Barber II and his Moral Mondays civil rights protest movement that has spread throughout various states in North America, as well as his Poor People’s Campaign which advocates for economic justice, which takes its name from the original 1968 movement begun by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It is possible that religion and populism could very well strengthen democracy, if its aim is towards a moral revitalization of culture and global civil society that is conducive towards democratic human flourishing.

However, the public discussion of contemporary religion within traditional mainstream media has largely been a political question. The primary questions of freedom of religion, or freedom from religion, or whether the veil worn by Muslim women signifies patriarchal oppression or personal conviction, or the legalization of gay marriage, etc., are all political at their core.

What is of recent notice is that this public debate of religion in the public square is being reframed beyond the confines of the politics of religious fundamentalism versus rigorous atheism, and more towards that of existentialism, human meaning and symbolism. In the crisis of a post-truth political world within the West, this is the natural outcome. The vacuum of meaning within the West, pointed out with Friedrich Nietzsche’s literary creation of the prophet Zarathustra at the end of the 19th century, and later popularized with the German and French existentialist movement of the 1960’s, had entered a third globalized phase with the Twin Tower bang at the start of the 21st century.

The question of meaninglessness has been brought to the fore again with violent, radical terrorism. Extreme interpretations of the Koran, unguided by proper theological Islamic traditions, and jettisoned of all centralized religious authority, is the epitome of the modern Western spirit of individualization, secularization, and the nihilistic need towards violent revolt.

After the massacre of Charlie Hebdo and of Bataclan in Paris, it is Olivier Roy’s fundamental thesis, that we are witnessing the Islamization of radicalism, which will win the public debate. As Roy writes in his Jihad and Death, “I believe that the systematic association with death is one of the keys to today’s radicalization: the nihilist dimension is central” (5).

This thematic evokes Albert Camus’ famous opening line of his classic The Myth of Sisyphus, in which he writes that, “there is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide.” The current Western malaise is that there is a crisis of collective, shared meaning produced through globalized tectonic societal shifts of modernization. Famous musicians such as Avicii and Chris Cornell, actors such as Robin Williams, and the great cosmopolitan sage of our time, Anthony Bourdain, constitute a recent spate of notable suicides which strongly suggest that questions of mental health, meaning and human values are fundamental to an anthropological existence that cannot be simply answered away with more political technocracy or with vapid pleasures of hyper-consumerism.

These greater questions and discussions of existential meaning are better facilitated through Network Society and the outlets of social media. Social media provides a framework for mutual interactions and developments within ideas that is not possible to achieve within the confines of the sound-bytes and monologue format of the established mainstream media (MSM).

The new social media offers a supply that recognizes a demand, and this demand consists of a gap within the discussion of religion and public affairs that is not being provided, a gap that consists of the vital question regarding collective existential meaning in a post-truth West rather than politics. Much of these threads of discussion on social media can be found, for example, around what is called the Intellectual Dark Web, and around a leading yet controversial figure, the psychologist Jordan Peterson of the University of Toronto.

The Intellectual Dark Web is a broad movement that has emerged within the past two years through the cracked edifice of the MSM, and has proven to be powerfully influential on social media. It consists of a constellation of various figures, ranging from academics, pundits, writers, feminists, scientists, philosophers, and social commentators. What they share in common is a strong commitment to free and open enquiry and diversity of ideas on matters of science, society and religion. What makes them popular is that their engagement is taking place within a cultural moment within the West that is ostensibly favoring an authoritarian censorship that cuts across American university campuses and the MSM.

As New York Times Op-ed writer Bari Weiss writes regarding the IDW, they are “determined to resist parroting what’s politically convenient,” and have therefore found a massive audience outside the confines of censorship culture. The recent uptick of censorship and ideological homogeneity on American university campuses became pronounced enough that it gave rise to the establishment of the Heterodox Academy, which is an advocacy group and non-partisan collaborative that promotes ideological view-point diversity on American campuses, and consists of over 2,500 members who are affiliated with academia.

It was founded by the New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who is author alongside Greg Lukianoff of the Coddling of the American Mind, which argues that universities are becoming censorious and overprotective of students’ feelings, as exhibited with the terms micro-aggresions and trigger warnings. Much of Jonathan Haidt’s work is featured within the social media network of the IDW.

Other figures of the IDW include feminists such as Camille Paglia, scientists such as Eric Weinstein and Steven Pinker, the philosopher Peter Boghossian, the political writer Douglas Murray, the neuroscientist and famous “New Atheist” Sam Harris, and Maajid Naawaz, who was a former radical Islamic terrorist and is one of the founders of the de-radicalization think tank Quilliam in England. Much of the discussions of IDW take place around the wildly successful podcast The Joe Rogan Experience, which has millions of subscribers and downloads, or on the popular and controversial online journal Quillette, founded by Claire Lehmann.

The prime disputatious figurehead to emerge from this social media network is the University of Toronto psychologist, polarizing public intellectual and self-help guru Jordan Peterson, who has skyrocketed to fame since 2016, having sold over 3 million copies of his self-help, clinical psychology book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. He travels the globe giving sold out lectures to large audiences at packed out stadiums, and his discussions range through a broad variety of societal hot-button issues. He is an enigmatic figure, whose controversies lie in his positions in the North American culture war, with his opponents accusing him of being a right-wing pseudo-intellectual, while his supporters consider him a classic liberal who is pointing out internal contradictions within left-wing ideology.

Australian public theologian Jonathan Cole in a previous New Polis argues that Jordan Peterson’s political philosophy is “more complex than prevailing caricatures suggest,” and that Peterson’s political identity “depends entirely on one’s point of observation.” His emergence is made possible due to much of the incoherent and balkanized public political debates besetting the West with the collapse of the MSM and the rise of digital social media. However, Peterson’s fame uniquely consists of his re-popularization of the discussion of religion within a contemporary setting.

Peterson’s series of lectures on the biblical book of Genesis, consisting of 2-hour videos that are uploaded to YouTube, have received several millions of downloads. Peterson, who is a self-described agnostic, offers a form of secular theology that is a blend of evolutionary psychology, symbolic Jungian psychoanalysis, and therapeutic practices. His interpretation of religion and of the Bible appeals to a broader audience than most religionists and atheists are capable of reaching.

Peterson is making religion popular in a different kind of way. He strikes a middle ground in the discussion of religion that is being widely well received in a post-Christian and post-secular West, to those who are weary of dogmatic authoritarian religion or evangelical proselytization, yet also do not find an appeal to a worldview of an absolute scientific materialism. Though he is embroiled in the culture wars, Peterson’s discussion of religion is beyond the confines of political identity, and beyond the divide of the polemics between religious fundamentalists and rigorous atheists.

For example, Peterson’s popular public dialogues with the famed neuroscientist Sam Harris, who is considered one of the original “Four Horsemen” of the “New Atheist” movement, has opened new ground by getting Harris to concede that there are important symbolic truths within the myths of religion that remain vital for the moral guidance, cohesion and existential meaning within Western, secular society. Such an admittance and appeal of Peterson’s scientific and symbolic interpretation of religion would not have been possible years ago within the “New Atheist” acolytes who found religion to be mere irrational superstition, nor with the general public of the West, which is largely agnostic or “spiritual but not religious.”

Peterson’s global popularity, made possible through the replacement of the MSM with the social media Network Society, is a symptom rather than cause. Underlying the symptom is that there is a recognized social demand of existential meaning in advanced post-industrial societies that is not being met through the supply of traditional outlets of public communication.

Emerging internet media technologies provide for us a sign that the shift of the interpretation and discussion of contemporary religion within secular society has moved into a direction that may offer more nuance beyond reductive religious and political positions, and thereby providing a way to deal with the crisis of shared meaning within the “post-truth” West. Within this new framework of shared human reference made possible through Network society and social media, scholars of religion are positioned in a unique way to help shape the public debate on religion in a direction that is conducive to a positive re-valuation of the existential meaning of religion in globalized, post-secular societies.

Joshua Ramos is a visiting scholar at the University of Vienna. His research focuses on theories of globalization and secularization with a special focus on religion and media.  His is also a contributing editor to The New Polis.

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