Follow Us:

Stolen focus

Social media platforms have morphed into Frankenstein‘s monsters. Scrolling and swiping culture has reduced our attention span. It has also deactivated our critical thinking and skills. Why bother when the matrix does the thinking. We are so dazzled by our spectacular successes that we may not notice if we have gone astray. Has deep thinking become a thing of the past?

ASH NARAIN ROY | New Delhi |

With the widespread use of the internet and social media platforms, there has been a spike in political instability across the world. Francis Fukuyama says that “the opaque, ubiquitous and growing influence of internet platforms run by a handful of unaccountable tech firms poses a serious threat to democracy.” Big tech’s information monopoly undermines social and political stability.

Leading media scholar John Culkin echoes a similar sentiment when he says that “we shape our tools and thereafter they shape us.”

First the TV upended the societal order. Now wealth of information has created a poverty of attention. In the age of “big disinfo”, bad actors and social media platforms allow hoaxers to peddle fake news and extremists to push conspiracy theories.

Today, information intrudes on our lives through endless pings and notifications coming from laptops and smartphones.

Our attention has, thus, been hijacked by our own devices. Johann Hari, author of Stolen Focus, blames powerful external forces for stealing our focus and leaving us “uniquely vulnerable to corporations determined to raid our attention for profit.”

Since 2005, more than 2,500 newspapers have closed their shops in the United States alone. This has led to an increased spread of misinformation, political polarization and reduced trust in the media.

Social media platforms have morphed into Frankenstein’s monsters. Scrolling and swiping culture has reduced our attention span. It has also deactivated our critical thinking and skills. Why bother when the matrix does the thinking.

We are so dazzled by our spectacular successes that we may not notice if we have gone astray. Has deep thinking become a thing of the past?

Technology has transformed modern man into a commodity. In the Instagram age, we love manipulating our appearance to satisfy our sense of what beauty is. Environmental scientist Ashley Colby calls it “a new form of ugliness.” We have of course long forgotten about the inner eye, the eye of the heart and the eyes of the mind.

As Thomas Piketty argues, inequality is associated with political polarization. And both inequality and political polarization have increased dramatically across the world.

American senators from states with high levels of income inequality have been found to be more polarized than others. Benjamin Page of Northwestern University and Martin Gilens of University of California say that the “health of democracy and the extent of economic inequality have tended to rise and fall together.”

Political instability was once the hallmark of nascent or halfdemocracies. That seems to have changed.

Today, democracies in Western Europe too are in the grip of political instability. In May 2019, Belgium held parliamentary elections but it took 563 days to form government.

In Austria, the formation of a government took several months of negotiations. In 2021, the Dutch took a record 2,225 days to form government. The Dutch are of course no strangers to marathon waits for government formation. On average, it takes the Dutch 90 days to form a government after an election.

In Denmark, the Social-Democrats govern as an ultra-minority with merely 48 out of 179 members of the Folketing, supported by six other parties commanding a further 46 votes. In Sweden, minority coalition is becoming a norm.

The Scandinavian country has seen mounting political instability in recent years as the gradual rise of the far-right has upset the traditional balance of power in Parliament.

Earlier studies showed that social media affected political instability differently depending on whether the country is developed or developing. It was believed that communication technologies had a favourable impact as western governments were presumably more sensitive to citizens’ aspirations and complaints. However, new evidence suggests these technologies may only give a false sense of political participation. Social media and corporatefunded media channels have both inflamed and displaced civic discourse. Polarisation is a fertile ground for misinformation.

What British journalist Will Hutton describes Britain’s Conservative party as “ungovernable rabble” is even more apt for the Republican Party in the US. The Republican-dominated House of Representatives has taken 15 votes over five days to elect a House Speaker.

Congressman Jamie Raskin, a member of the committee that investigated the 2020 Capitol riot, has called the Brazilian attackers on the presidential palace, parliament and the Supreme Court as “fascists modeling themselves after Trump’s January 6 rioters”.

American political scientist Steven Levitsky maintains that the Republican Party “is a party that can only be described as not committed to democracy.” Carol Anderson, author of One Person, One Vote, makes a pertinent point saying, “When you have one side gearing up to say, ‘How do we stop the enemy from voting?’ that is dangerous to a democracy.”

There is another dangerous trend. Party officials and elected representatives may not initiate attacks on democratic rules or institutions but also do not attempt to stop these attacks. That’s what happened in Europe in the 1930s and in Latin America in the 1960s and ’70s. Now there are similar signs in the United States, Brazil and many other countries.

Political instability in Europe is due to several other factors like the erosion of class politics, emergence of culture as the primary lens to understand social differences and the growth of social pessimism.

The economic crisis and the worsening refugee crisis have changed party dynamics. The emergence of the Green parties has given rise to new social movements.

Consequently, social democratic parties have become middle class parties. The moderate left has moved to the right while the moderate right has shifted to the left.

The digital public square undermines our trust in institutions as also our ability to see institutional vandalism.

Social media platforms have stolen our focus. Soon our attention will be sold. Politics is becoming less about actual policies and more about distraction. Millions of eyeballs follow the likes of Kim Kardashian and whatever they do.

Social media represents pretty much everything we loathe about, contents that we hate looking at but for some reason can’t look away from.

The growing political instability is the outcome of the politics of distraction. As Noam Chomsky says aptly, “the key element of social control is the strategy of distraction.”