The responsibility of media and intellectuals for the power of big-tech and the safety of Institutions

Media and intellectuals no longer anticipate reality, but merely follow it. The building of a civil conscience pays the price by Andrea Monti

After Twitter decided to close former US president Trump’s accounts, Italian media and intellectuals  “discovered” the power of technological platforms and launched a “democracy alarm”.

They come good last and more than twenty years late (better late than never) on such an issue desperately signalled at international level by civil rights associations such as the American EFF, in Europe by EDRI) and, in Italy, since 1994, by ALCEI.

By contrast, except for some editor’s sensitivity, generalist media often blessed uncritically every product or service offered by the multinational of the moment. Few intellectuals thought critically on the politics of technology. None of them, however, has gone beyond an ephemeral ‘paper protest’. They left to a handful of naive activists with the failed mission of ensuring that the institutions do not place education, health, defense and security in foreign multinationals’ hands.

If therefore, media and intellectuals awaken from their torpor today, it is not because they have swallowed the Matrix’s red pill, but because they are merely reacting to events instead of anticipating them and contributing to the formation of ideas (whatever their cultural positioning).

Leading newspapers choose their topics using Google Trends instead of hunting for news. They only realise that the stone has been thrown into the pond when they perceive the water waves further away from the centre, and therefore weaker and less important. However, they do not ask themselves where the next stone already fell. In the same way, intellectuals abdicate their function as mediators between reality and thought, and reduce their thinking to the number of characters in a tweet or the half-minute radio or television statement.

Many are part of the ‘straw-fire culture’, which translates into ephemeral ‘waves of indignation’ for films from the 1930s , for (misunderstood) denunciation photographs  and even for pasta shapes

The mechanism is tried and tested: some unknown person ‘launches’ a crusade based on his (respectable, but always) personal convictions. Others, ‘strong’ in that oath – I beg forgiveness on my knees to Alessandro Manzoni – respond from brotherly quarters by sharpening in the shadows the messages that now glitter online. Almost automatically, the journalist detects the peak of messages – hardly ever containing arguments or reflections – and, writing about them, promotes them to the rank of news.

It is a leap too far to claim that media and intellectuals are (solely) responsible for creating cancel culture and flash mobs. Certainly, however, they have contributed to giving the dignity to protest, a gesture of fundamental political and democratic importance, even to visceral and unconstructive reactions.

Someone starts question the meaning of this situation. However, the facts’ core does not change. This way of doing things convinces fanatics and crusaders that their opinion matters as much as that of experts and those responsible for governing institutions and companies. We are facing the unlimited expansion of the ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ of Warholian memory, guaranteed not by a television appearance but by a duly (and arbitrarily) amplified post on some social network.

The point is not to limit the right to freely express even the most boorish or ignorant opinions. It is the duty of those who claim a pre-eminence role – journalists and intellectuals to give due weight to what they stamp their seal of authority.

One should not be surprised, therefore, if events like the invasion of the American Capitol happen.

A puppy-protest looking initially as the begin of a coup, deflates in the space of four hours, with the ‘rioters’ going around the rooms of Congress as if they were on a visit, looking around and following, in an orderly line, the path delimited by the carpet and the cordons.

When the ‘spark’ ended, the ‘rioters’ showed disorientation and confusion. They did not know what to do, apart from stealing souvenirs, taking selfies or sitting on the seats of the powerful. We are dealing with prank rioters – nothing comparable, to remain in Italy, to the Borghese coup, the Piano Solo and the strategy of tension – but it is not certain that next time we will be so lucky.

It is, perhaps, too late to stem the widespread ignorance that creates institutional damage in the short and long term. However, it is possible to (re)start exercising the duty to inform without worrying about clicks and likes.

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