How social media broke Britain


It is easy to forget, as we struggle on through an event that has so manifestly shattered the norms of our day-to-day lives, that a cloud of anxiety had descended over Britain long before the coronavirus pandemic. The country, it was understood, was in a bad way – Brexit, of course, then two general elections and three prime ministers. Looking abroad for enlightenment did no good, either: Trump was triumphant; the far right was gaining ground in elections across Europe.

Among a spate of books released in the last four years that sought to expose the inevitability of this collapse, one of the more compelling, and straight-up original, was Nervous States, written by William Davies, a professor in political economy at Goldsmiths. Melding philosophy, psychology and economics, Davies attempted to address the anxiety itself – the ambient unease suffusing our politics.

During the seventeenth century, Davies argued, intellectuals hit upon the idea that feelings were deceitful, an impediment to peace. Facts, in contrast, bind people. They give those with nothing in common something to agree upon; they let us reach a consensus in our understanding of the world. Experts, wielders of facts, are, in a very real sense, peace-keepers.

Davies argued that, though nationalists have always sought to mobilise our emotions, we are suffering through an era in which the value of facts has uniquely declined. Partly, this is the fault of experts – technocrats robotically citing GDP growth while inequality skyrockets and western middle class incomes stagnate, for instance. But also harmful has been the rise of a particular business industry, the Googles and Facebooks and Twitters of Silicon Valley, that valued speed of information over truth, and aim, in Davies’s words, “to maximise sensitivity to a changing environment. Timing is everything. Experts produce facts; Google and Twitter offer trends.”

This industry benefited from replacing the slow delivery of facts that bound us together with a bombardment of anxiety-inducing data. The upshot is a world that suffers from “nervous states… individuals and governments living in a state of constant and heightened alertness, relying increasingly on feeling rather than fact”, and a public manipulated by tech-savvy populists.

The idea that feelings have prevailed over facts has been floated before – “facts don’t care about your feelings” has become a rallying cry for certain parts of the right eager to silence the so-called “woke left” on issues ranging from immigration, to race relations, to gender identity – but Nervous States convincingly delineated the origins of this change.

Davies’s latest book, This is Not Normal: The Collapse of Liberal Britain, is at heart an exploration of how this turn towards feeling has devastated Britain. The book is structured as three groups of essays, originally published in The Guardian, the London Review of Books, The New York Times, and openDemocracy, covering an arc that spans from Britain’s 2016 referendum to its leaving the EU in 2020, a period in which the country’s image of itself as “normal” fractured. (The pandemic gets only a few brief, worried mentions). Davies lists his concerns as, “the abandoning of liberal economic rationality, the declining authority of empirical facts, the mainstreaming of nationalism, the hatred of ‘liberal elites’, the effects of big data and real-time media on our politics, the new mould of celebrity leaders, the crisis of democratic representation.”

The book moves rather breathlessly between these ideas, and as an essay collection it inevitably lacks the cumulative pleasure of argument of Nervous States. Still, there are numerous brilliant insights. Davies posits that the new populists don’t just exploit the anger of the people left behind by globalisation, and they don’t just stoke cultural anxieties surrounding identity and immigration; they exploit a crisis of trust. “The danger right now is that the basic honesty of mainstream politicians, journalists and senior officials is no longer taken for granted,” he writes. We have grown exceptionally paranoid.

Normality’s collapse in Britain, then, is at least in part a story about how information is mediated to us. Historically, of course, the prime mediator of this information was the press, and its decline is a crucial component of Davies’s diagnosis – the book is peppered with cheery titles like “journalism without journalists” and “why everyone hates the mainstream media”.

His argument is nuanced, though. It isn’t that we think journalists are lying (not any more than we used to, anyway; the British trust journalists more than they did in 1980, surprisingly), it’s that the public have grown obsessed with the idea that everyone is biased: the news is framed perniciously; the real stories aren’t covered. The internet’s “data deluge” has overwhelmed the filtering system the news provided. Because there is always some contradictory opinion zipping around the web, we have become “radically sceptical” – too sceptical. In the WikiLeaks era, we read the news as if we were sifting through a mud of hidden agendas to find gold nuggets of truth. And if we don’t find this truth in the mainstream media, we believe that the we can find it out there, in the data deluge – we just have to look.

Unfortunately, we never locate this truth. Because we certainly don’t trust the news we get from the internet – data from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism has shown that the trust in the news found via search and social media remains extremely low. News fatigue, on the other hand, is endemic. Even before a period where one event dominates the news agenda, 24 per cent of people in the UK said they actively try to avoid the news. During Brexit’s climax, this figure grew to about a third. We trust nothing, not Reddit, not a New York Times expose.

At least one of the reasons behind news avoidance is the media’s monolithic nature. The more it focuses on one story, the more people tend to hate it. Local news continues to suffer; the spread of opinions you see at the big publications often follow party lines. People with higher levels of formal education are more likely to evaluate the news media positively than the rest of the population, suggesting that the news agenda is more geared towards the interests and needs of the more educated. The news is seen as superficial, sensationalist and inaccurate, and it upsets us, as Davies identifies – it leaves people feeling powerless and depressed.

“One of the most dramatic transformations to have taken hold of public life in Western democracies in the twenty-first century is the way it potentially becomes ‘consumed’ as a constant ‘stream’ of content, relying on a combination of outrage and humour to hold and sway its audience,” writes Davies. So damaging has this stream proven to our mental health that, during the pandemic, the WHO has taken to speaking about the news and social media like a malignant addiction, recommending you only consume one, trusted source a day. (Just like Brexit, interest in the coronavirus spiked, then fell off; according to a study by the University of Cambridge, one in four people now “endorse unequivocally false ideas about the pandemic”.)

So what replaces the papers? News without the mediation of journalists, for one, and the rise of those who can exploit this era’s particular blend of scandal. Davies argues that a world where no one can trust anyone, where everyone believes “the game is rigged”, is very hospitable to a certain kind of “truth-teller”: the Nigel Farages of the world, who tell us that it is elites who obscure the truth, and that it is, conveniently, the truth-tellers who have the answers.

The result, Davies argues, is that the public sphere has been reconfigured into a stand-up comedy club. Like a shock humour comic, those who can provoke immediate outrage rise to the top – we click, then like or retweet, or leave a red-faced emoji, or post a stream of vitriol. Either way, we give our attention; in this 24-hour version of a comedy club audience, in Davies’s words, “clowns have an immediate advantage in the attention economy”. They thrive in feedback loops of agitation. Hence Beppe Grillo, a comedian, founding Italy’s Five Star Movement party; hence Ukraine’s president being a former comedian; hence Boris Johnson cutting his teeth on Have I Got News For You; hence, of course, Donald Trump. Davies recommends that “a bit of humourlessness might go a long way”.

It’s a smart observation. Some comedians do occupy a shifting position in our culture. One moment they are messianic truth-tellers; the next, often when proven wrong, they claim ignorance or irony, then they get back to preaching, credibility undiminished. The perceived effect Joe Rogan, a comedian and podcaster, has on the outcome of the election of the most powerful country in the world is so profound that his endorsement of Bernie Sanders was covered across the world. Yet despite his repeated failures to fact-check his guestsor himself before airing his show, Rogan’s popularity also surely represents a yearning for the extended, slow long-form discussion about complex subjects – “science and rationalism” in the words of many of Rogan’s guests – that Davies identifies as currently missing from public debate.

As you may have guessed, the familiar enemy at the centre of our woes is, as Jia Tolentino puts it, “the everyday madness perpetuated by the internet” and its digital platforms, which manipulate our emotions and disorder our thoughts in pursuit of profitable data.

This is not that original an insight, but is no less true. Davies claims that these platforms, along with the credit derivative, are the two most disruptive inventions of the past half-century, but the timeline of This is Not Normal means that he focuses rather more heavily on the former. The thread Davies finds between these two ideas is a debilitating expansion of the profit motive into areas of human life that were governed by social and political norms, replacing them with “algorithmic surveillance and financial calculation.” Facebook, for instance, leeches off friendship; Uber swallows up transport. “The function of both credit derivatives and of platforms is to take existing relationships built around mutuality and trust and then exploit them for profit,” Davies explains.

In this new era, every pleasure in our lives can be monetised. Going on holiday? Airbnb your home. Spare time off work? Drive for Deliveroo. That kooky piano recital you learned to impress your mum? Upload it to YouTube. We are always aware that we are losing, possessed by the mania of selling ourselves.

Politics inevitably changes, too, imitating the tactics of these digital platforms – see for instance, the £350m-a-week for the NHS “fact”. Or the rise of a totally digital party modelled on the massive growth of a tech startup. Or the guerrilla marketing ruses the Conservatives deployed during last year’s election, sharing crappy memes in the hope people would hate-share them.

Now, like the promise of digital computing that Davies identified in Nervous States, the threat of coronavirus has captured our attention. People report terrifying dreams and soaring anxiety. Epidemiologists – fact-purveyors – have become rock stars, their stats an antidote to the leaders who mock and ignore them, or try to govern us by mood, “nudging” us to stay home.

What is next for pandemic Britain? Fact versus feeling and a “new normal”. Davies will be one of the experts to turn to guide us through the coming years.

Will Bedingfield is a staff writer for WIRED. He tweets from @WillBedingfield

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