Grigory Yavlinsky: "Information ochlocracy will not lead society to freedom..."

Grigory Yavlinsky: "Information ochlocracy will not lead society to freedom..."

2 December 2020, 11:23
Just as weapons of mass destruction give rise to overestimated ambitions and unfounded claims among their owners, so the possibilities of effective work with the mass consciousness will cause the temptation to use them to redistribute power and property

The well-known Russian politician Grigory Yavlinsky published an article on his website “Information ochlocracy. Revolution in the information environment and the future of politics”, in which he outlined his view of the processes taking place in the global information space:

“We are witnessing a serious transformation of the information and communication environment, which has already led to noticeable political and social changes and may have even more significant consequences in the medium and long term.

The example of the media can be traced to how serious changes have taken place over the past half century.

First, the basis of the information flow began to be formed not by events, but by opinions and their derivatives (the reaction of some people to the opinions of others: “rejected”, “condemned”, “ridiculed”, etc.).

Secondly, the media have abandoned the function of systematization and hierarchization of messages, which was obligatory in the past (for a serious press). Messages and opinions now go in a continuous stream, they are not trying to rank them according to the degree of significance and validity.

Thirdly, “virality” has become the norm, when one message pulls a trail of a dozen or even hundreds of others: messages about messages, messages about reactions to messages, messages about reactions to messages (hence the prosperity of the so-called news aggregators)...

Fourth, bias is now seen as a desirable norm. Reports of facts without their interpretation are not sold, but the interpretation of reality is sold.

The result is a haphazard flow of information that exists in parallel and almost independently of reality. Several streams are several parallel realities, each of which is literally created by the distributors of information. And real life and its most important aspects (for example, the distribution of resources and their use) become non-public and leave (or are removed) from the focus of public attention.

This opens up tremendous opportunities for manipulating the information agenda and, through it, politics with the aim of a large-scale redistribution of economic and, in the long term, political power. Actually, this is already happening now: such “inventions” as social networks, cryptocurrencies, “green” business, etc., are redistributing hundreds of billions of dollars between specific people.

The degree of concentration of ownership in the new economy (see "On the economy of a new era") is already higher due to the technological characteristics of the economy than in the traditional industrial, and control over the information sphere allows this concentration to be further increased.

The immediate consequence is that the traditional political competitive models in the new conditions will experience a deep crisis. The fact is that, despite the essential importance of "big money", they were still based on an open and rational agenda and assumed the responsibility of politicians to the elites (the notorious "upper classes"). Today everything is changing: to a large extent it has already changed, something else will change, and, most importantly, it is not yet clear what forms all this will take in the near future. But it seems that it will not be possible to return to the past.

At the same time, the actual technical aspect of transformation is being implemented in practice as a revolution in the technical and technological base of the information and communication space. These changes have an impact on society, on the ways and possibilities of managing it, on social institutions and even on the values that are professed.

Of course, human nature could not change in such a short period of time. However, the ways people are organized and the possibilities of influencing society and the system of relations within it have changed absolutely unprecedented in recent decades. The forms and methods of organizing public relations through information flows and communication channels influenced not only the intensity of these relations, but also the content they bring, including the formation of the values prevailing in society. First of all, we observe this, and everywhere, lately.

Technical aspects aside, the main thing that has happened and continues to happen is a sharp decline in social and institutional barriers to entry into the media. In order to publish, to make available to the widest audience its own information content - both messages about real or imaginary events, and reasoning on almost any topic - today, neither large financial investments, nor administrative resources, nor public support (nor mass, not even its individual segments).

Now it is available to almost anyone, even with modest means or with a minimum level of intellectual development. Evidence of this is the hundreds of millions of users who regularly speak out on social networks and other Internet platforms.

The consequence of this kind of democratization of the information and communication environment is its approximation to the level of spontaneous mass consciousness. The emerging new sites and channels, as a rule, do not have any filters, and if they are, they are partially or completely overcome by all interested.

And if earlier only those who passed the social and cultural selection for compliance with the established requirements got into the information sphere, today almost everyone can turn to an anonymous audience with any content and will definitely find a consumer.

The roots of this situation can be sought not only in the development of information technologies. Traditional media, political structures and politicians willingly turned to the ideas of new media formats, promoted them, and broadcast them to the masses. In particular, the elites have been playing with populist slogans and promises for quite a long time. The problem is not only that politicians promised and did not fulfill (like former British Prime Minister David Cameron, who promised to reduce migration). They nurtured populism, used it to achieve their goals, in order to win elections: the same Cameron for a long time used the promise to hold a referendum on "Brexit" as a populist decoy for the electorate. It seemed like the right direction, “catching the wind,” probing for new trends. But ultimately, for Britain, everything turned into a big and dangerous problem: the prospect of a real exit from the EU without an agreement on economic relations.

The absence of frames and filters inevitably leads to the fact that quantitatively prevailing is content that reflects the interests, preferences and representations of the most massive segment of the population with the corresponding conceptual apparatus. Of course, such a phenomenon cannot be called fundamentally new in history: in fact, it is no different from the spontaneous exchange of information, rumors and fantasies in medieval markets or in taverns and taverns in later centuries. But the volume of streams of mass consciousness and the possible reach of the audience in new formats exceeds the corresponding parameters of their historical counterparts many times, if not orders of magnitude.

In the information and communication space, a kind of revolution of standards and goals has taken place: the concepts, to one degree or another determined by the educated part of society, have been replaced by ideas about the normal, the proper and the acceptable, spontaneously generated “from below”.

Another new phenomenon is the disappearance of the previous hierarchy of sources of information and judgments. The downside of the wide availability of information platforms has been the decline in their public importance. The former respect for the printed word (largely due to the number of printed editions, which cannot be compared with the modern volume of printed information) has been replaced by an extraordinary lightness, comparable to the attitude to everyday chatter. And the growth of offers in the field of education and, as a result, a decrease in the quality and significance of all types of education undermined the credibility of the institution of education itself as a source of qualified understanding and authoritative judgments, equalized the weight of the word coming from the so-called educated classes with the opinion of a person on the street.

In the eyes of an ordinary user of new information and communication platforms, all opinions are equally valid regardless of the source, create the appearance of a choice between them and can be easily rejected in case of disagreement. In other words, in the new coordinate system, the professional assessment of an expert who has devoted his life to studying the narrow subject under discussion is worth almost as much as a platitude reprinted a thousand times by an amateur or an assessment remark of an illiterate anonymous troll on the same topic.

The British sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman noted a few years ago: “Orthodox brainwashing aimed at destroying the remnants of old logic and meaning in order to build new ones in their place. Modern brainwashing is constantly keeping this "construction site" deserted, keeping nothing in there that would add more order than random campgrounds that are easier to assemble and disassemble. This is no longer a one-time purposeful undertaking, but a continuous action, the aim of which is this duration. "

At the same time, the spontaneity of the functioning of the new information and communication environment does not mean a neutral attitude towards the content being thrown in. Human consciousness is not a blank sheet of paper, the perception of external signals is subject to the strongest influence of instincts, fears and prejudices. Some elements of the information field are instinctively rejected or questioned, others are perceived readily and even enthusiastically as corresponding to the matrix of ideas about the world that is most comfortable for the information consumer. Naturally, the configuration of this matrix is not the same for everyone - there are numerous variations of it, cultural codes laid down by upbringing, but the laws of large numbers make it possible to get an idea of the most typical and well-working combinations. This creates the conditions for effective manipulation of the mass consciousness, the dissemination of given ideas and opinions in it, and, as a result, for the control of social behavior.

Observant experts noticed this about a hundred years ago. Suffice it to recall the Americans Edward Bernays and Walter Lippmann, who were the greatest public relations specialists in the 20th century. “Conscious and scientific manipulation of the habits and opinions of the broad masses is an important element of a democratic society,” wrote Bernays in his work “Propaganda” 3. Lippmann is known in Russia mainly for his concept of public opinion, which has become one of the classic in the West, and also for the fact that he introduced the concept of a stereotype into a wide scientific circulation. Subsequently, these concepts were actively used by advertisers and marketers, and after them by politicians (although instinctively, without a theoretical basis, the corresponding techniques were most likely used by various rulers for at least several hundred years). The peculiarity of the current stage is that the empirical experience gained in the field of advertising and political technologies can now be combined with huge network sites that provide access to millions of audiences without significant financial costs. And all this in the conditions of modern mass consciousness, freed from the framework that social hierarchies and the traditional media controlled by them imposed on it.

Thus, in the context of more frequent crises and psychological uncertainty of the masses in the face of various threats (military, political, economic, environmental, terrorist and others), actively promoted by the "large" information environment, narrow groups of interests that have neither political power nor significant economic resources, perhaps for the first time in history, there was a chance to get at your disposal tools for manipulating the consciousness of millions of people and, accordingly, significant historical processes.

No one has yet undertaken to predict the consequences of such a revolution of opportunities - who and how will be able to use these tools on a large scale. It is obvious, however, that many have motives to take advantage of new opportunities.

In the West, these are primarily forces that are actively playing the card of boundless populism. This often happens in combination with all sorts of extremist, marginal and sectarian forces interested in spreading their influence, but lacking the resources and legitimacy necessary to operate in the usual ways on the field of legal public policy. In response to this, the demand for security in public discourse is strengthening against the background of a weakening of the demand for freedom (for example, mass protests in the United States under the slogan Black Lives Matter, often accompanied by riots and pogroms, exacerbated this problem in American society). On the part of the state, sooner or later, this will manifest itself in tightening regulation and control. And these measures will find more and more, if not support, then understanding among the population. Tolerance for everyday restrictions and possible invasion of privacy has already grown, including in the educated segment of society. Most likely, there will be no problems with political restrictions either.

Finally, solidarity in the upper segment of society has weakened. The elite is unable to consolidate in order to block politicians who are trying to gain power based on mass sentiments (lowest common denominator), including anti-elite ones. Hence the rise of populism. Why this is happening is a separate question, but the fact remains: the ability of the traditional elite to protect its role as the ruling class (“politically responsible class”) from all sorts of alien (ideologically and culturally) elements has significantly weakened.

And the fact that populism easily flows into fascism (in the scientific sense, the ideology that forms an authoritarian corporate state, monopolization in economics and politics, claims to a global mission) is, in fact, an open secret. “We are the best, because we were told that we are the best” - this is how the people perceive the messages from above. Hence the "unity of the people and the government", and the fight against invented external threats as the meaning of statehood, and the fight against betrayal and conspiracies within the country as the basis of security, and the chain "people-party-leader" - in general, the whole set of relevant theses. All this worked before, it works now, which means it will work in the future. And it is not at all necessary that these processes take on pronounced or caricatured forms: outwardly, the movement can be barely noticeable, often completely imperceptible. In addition, the façade can remain the same despite the changed content. In general, one can assume that the world, and the West in particular, is expecting big shocks in the near future.

In November 2018, satirical posters appeared in London about the influence of Russia on the outcome of Brexit.

It is noteworthy that when the system ceased to produce the previous results, the West began to blame everything on cyberattacks and the "intervention" of Putin and Xi Jinping, who are allegedly able to undermine democracy in Western countries with almost one click of their fingers (this is what the local active fighters against "subversive activities "of the eastern authoritarian regimes remind our fellow citizens who are nostalgic for the USSR and are confident that the Union was destroyed by foreign special services). In an extreme case, the reasons why liberal societies are "losing legitimacy in the eyes of citizens" are the actions of greedy bankers who made the masses pay for their financial losses from the crises, as a result of which the masses were offended and voted for Trump and his ilk.

Yes, there were populists and adventurers in politics before, but as a rule, they were prevented from climbing the political Olympus by the filters set by the party system and the "big press" belonging to politically responsible business. And in those former conditions, the frustration that periodically intensified in society did not overturn the Western political system.

So what is behind the deformation of the once reliable political constructs in Western countries? Apparently, first of all, a significant and growing lag in the capabilities of a modern person from the information, communication and digital technologies created by him over the past decades.

In particular, these are technological changes in the socio-informational environment, creating opportunities for politicians to recruit supporters, bypassing the extremely weakened "serious" media; uncontrolled primaries, destroying the established identity of political organizations; the possibility of using political and socio-psychological technologies for direct processing of target audiences; removal of previous political and moral taboos, barriers based on traditions, various filters (including money) as a consequence of the totality of using the Internet with its impersonality and anonymity. Hence - all that in the West today is called the "crisis of liberal democracy" (see "On the political systems of the new era").

But if you fight only with the consequences, and not with the causes - and mainly by catching spies and hackers - then in the end everything can end the same way as it once ended for the USSR.

In Russia, new platforms also generate various temptations for a wide variety of interest groups. So, among the protest-minded public, this is expressed in the rejection of serious politics and the desire to develop various kinds of civic activism and pseudo-political concepts in the network space4. However, critical statements and protest sentiments that can be found on Internet sites and in social networks, and even offline protests should not mislead anyone: in general, almost all information space in Russia is controlled by pro-government structures and ultimately meets the interests of the Kremlin5 ... Although the latter circumstance is often masked by repressive measures in relation to certain platforms, as a result of which the impression of a real confrontation between the authorities and certain representatives of the Russian IT sector can be created.

Another thing is that the heterogeneity of the ruling elite generates constant friction within it, when various groups, trying to strengthen their positions, are engaged in "stuffing" on the Internet. It can be all sorts of anti-elite attacks and constructions - from moderately critical of the government to exotic statements, revelations, insinuations about mythical conspiracies and intrigues of "shadow power" and "world governments".

Today, such attacks make little difference in the real world, but this does not mean that it will always be so. Just as the destructive potential of weapons of mass destruction at some stage inevitably gives rise to overestimated ambitions and unfounded claims to influence on a global scale among their owners, so the possibilities of effective work with mass consciousness will cause a temptation to use these tools in all sorts of coup attempts, for redistribution of power and property.

Society is stepping into uncharted territory, and a variety of possible, including unpredictable turns of events. However, it is already obvious that the growing informational ochlocracy will not lead society either to freedom, or to a life without fear, or to respect for a person..."

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