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Mediated mob action disrupts the nation's discourse

Mediated mob action disrupts the nation's discourse
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Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn knew much about how terror was used as a lever of power. He spent years in Soviet gulags and suffered harassment even when not in formal detention. He warned the Western world that Marxist thought considered terror an indispensable part of accumulating power, quoting Marx as having written, “After achieving power, we’ll be considered monsters, but we couldn’t care less.”

Constitutional framer James Madison helped establish a governmental system that would prevent the majority of the people from imposing its will on the smaller subsections of society. Madison also feared the oppression that could come from heavy-handed government actions or physical mobs.

Today, Madison would rightly fear how smaller splinter groups can force cultural or political ideologies onto the majority, while limiting and disrupting counter-messages. A handful of people in the big tech industry has assumed an over-sized influence on the nation, deciding which messages can circulate and which can’t. So, too, small but aggressive social media mobs torch the public sphere with outrage designed to disrupt and frighten away reasoned discourse.

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Then there is the traditional media establishment, which has morphed away from providing the public service information needs of a democracy. Many establishment media are now activist, running pre-approved, “correct” narratives and omitting perspectives that don’t fit the predetermined perspective. These entertainment media now use their financial and technical muscle to warp the nation’s cultural standards.

Indeed, I would argue that this handful of big tech autocrats and media executives have more influence on the nation’s policies and culture than the entirety of Congress, or all of the nation’s teachers, or all of the nation’s clergy. A minority of media manipulators are messing with the way a society establishes its values, its priorities and its flow of ideas and information. It is a stealthy process, to be sure, but it is a form of societal terror nonetheless. Voices of stability and reason are overwhelmed by this onslaught of manipulative cultural chaos.

Freedom loving people have long feared the oppression that comes from a government running the media. The bigger concern now is whether the collective mediated sphere is running not just the government, but American society in general. A Rasmussen Reports survey earlier this year found that over half of Americans believe the media have “too much power and influence” over the government.

The nation was better prepared to deal with the historical sources of oppression coming from physical mobs or the government. Law enforcement structures and constitutional protections, though not perfect, could generally counteract those forces on behalf of the citizens. There are no real mechanisms available for Americans to formally fight back against skewed news media or social media mobs. Civilized society, while not powerless, is surely not in a fair fight these days against rampant and overwhelming mediated power and terror, which could well be as dangerous to society as physical or government oppression.

Americans are getting wise to the threat, finally, now that the enemy is on the proverbial doorstep. Rasmussen Reports indicates only 11 percent of Americans have full confidence that social media platforms can manage content in “a fair and unbiased way.” Nearly two thirds of Americans responded in a Harvard CAPS-Harris poll that “cancel culture” is a threat to freedom in the United States. Cancel culture, of course, happens largely through both social and traditional media.

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The result of this campaign of chaos, as to be expected, is further polarization and destabilization. Nobody should be surprised, as Ballotpedia reports, that only 58 percent of Americans today believe every individual should be free to “live according to their own values and beliefs.” Apparently, letting someone live their own values is unacceptable to the rest.

Mediated mobs rely on sensation, anger, and disruption. Measured deliberation is in short supply.

The nation’s foundations in history, faith, tradition and family are being challenged and disrupted, but there is no apparent replacement for this loss of societal structure. British philosopher Edmund Burke once wrote, “Rage and frenzy will pull down more in half an hour than prudence, deliberation and foresight can build in a hundred years.” He wrote those words over two hundred years ago, when messaging crawled slowly compared to today’s media-accelerated public deliberations.

Culture is a fragile thing, to be sure, and America’s culture is convulsing in an onslaught of mediated chaos. This anarchy has disrupted rational discourse. The nation can’t expect a civil society to sustain itself when the rhetorical sphere is so void of reasoned messaging. Americans should wake up. The nation’s power balance is shifting from the citizenry to the disruptive media superstructure.

Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.