The tottering agora, or when the heart of democracy flickers

More than 30% of the Swiss population, particularly young adults, take their information exclusively from social media. They no longer rely on professional news sources imago/Westend61

In the 5th century BC one of mankind’s most potent utopias arose in the ancient city-state of Athens: the idea that free public communication safeguards reason (logos) and the most legitimate of all social systems, democracy.

Mark Eisenegger, University of Salzburg, Austria, swissinfo.ch

The ancient Greeks were convinced that if an idea was to be able to count on universal support, it first had to prevail in the public evaluation of differing viewpoints.

Making this ideal a reality was conditional on a number of clear requirements.

There had to be the agora, the market place of ideas, a place of public debate open to all. Communication in the agora had to be such that an idea could most effectively come to the fore through the “gentle force of the superior argument”.

The discourse was to be dominated not by status or strength, but by the power of persuasion. Arguments were to be directed against other arguments, not against the person. People from a variety of backgrounds were to come together, and to be willing to modify their own positions if need be. This was the only way for hive intelligence to establish itself in the agora.

Eisenegger is a professor of communication science at the University of Salzburg, Austira. He is also chairman of the Research Institute for the Public Sphere and Society at Zurich University zvg

This ancient ideal became the core of the enlightenment movement in the 18th century. Without it, democratic societies as we know them today would not exist.

The gradual formation of a mass-media agora enabled this utopia of the democratic society to be transferred to large territories like nation states.

We have the enlightenment movement to thank for the modern constitutional state, citizens’ and human rights, and the insight that free public communication is the highest authority in society because it is a forum in which the obligation to explain oneself extends to everyone, even the great and the good.

What remains of this ancient utopian enlightenment? The media agora is tottering.

1. More and more people are staying away from the media agora

A full one third of the Swiss population belongs to the group known as the “news-deprived”.

This user group has very little interest in professional information services, and what interest it has is in low-quality sources – or they get their news from social media (see Quality Yearbook, 2016 issue).

In the last few years the proportion represented by this user group has risen by a remarkable ten percentage points, from 21% in 2009 to 31% in 2016. This group consists mainly of young adults aged under 30.

This media consumption has effects on the perception of society.  

#Dear Democracy

This text is part of #DearDemocracy, a platform on direct democracy issues, by swissinfo.ch.

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These “news-deprived” pay attention to little except soft news or dangerous events - and this makes them potentially susceptible to the populist politics of fear, with its deceptively simple solutions.

2. Digitalisation of the agora encourages unreason

Many researchers and journalists have long believed that the digitalisation of the media agora would help the enlightenment to scale new heights.

The hope was that the internet would strengthen democracy and encourage the exercise of unfettered reason.

But the opposite has happened: Instead of unifying mega-agoras with large numbers of participants, the social network has fragmented into isolated micro-agoras in which the like-minded largely stick together.

Among “friends”, in the comforting warmth of these self-constructed nests, the most abstruse ideas find confirmation.

Instead of weighing up opposite standpoints against each other and thus helping reason to make the breakthrough, the inhabitants of these “echo chambers” do nothing but reinforce each other’s prejudices.

Extravagance replaces precision, rage drives out intellect.

But a society operating in this self-affirming communication mode can only dumb down. More and more, the hope of unfettered discourse is evaporating into thin air.

New tendencies towards the concentration of power have been emerging for some time.

What information is served up to consumers is essentially determined by the algorithms of tech giants Facebook, Google and the other members of the billionaires’ club.

And their communicative influence on the digital agora has turned mercenary: Studies have found that 15% of the participants in Twitter discussions aren’t people at all, they’re robots: “social bots” that conduct focused disinformation campaigns.

3. Media agora is under fire

It is precisely those media which focus most closely on quality standards and the principle of “the gentle force of the superior argument” that are under head-on attack.

In the first place this applies to the public media.

Representatives of private publishing houses and the rightwing parties describe Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SBC (the public-sector media company in Switzerland) as the main problem underlying the current funding crisis among the private media, turning a blind eye to the real causes – like the enormous growth in competition from the global tech giants, and the something-for-nothing culture for which the private media are themselves to blame.

The views expressed in this article are entirely the author's own. They do not necessarily coincide with the position of swissinfo.ch. The text, originally in German, was written for swissinfo.ch to coincide with the 2017 Aarau Democracy Days.

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Public broadcasters have essential democratic functions to perform, and so do private media with any pretensions to quality: They must appeal to all strata, including minorities.

Acculturation – assimilation into a new cultural environment – must be supported, and mutual understanding between conflicting groups must be nurtured.

But it is not only the public broadcasters that are under attack. It has become fashionable to dismiss professional news media across the board as “the mainstream media” or “the lying press”.

The current US President has declared the quality media, with their long and rich traditions, to be the enemies of the American people. He has virtually declared war on them. This sort of attack on the media agora is an assault on the foundations of democracy.

But despite the erosion that’s going on at present in the agora, there are also grounds for hope. More and more people recognize that from a historical viewpoint, democracy has been the exception rather than the rule.

The present day demands that the Utopia of the ancient Greeks be defended.

Where do you get your information from? Tell us what you think.

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