BEN MORGAN IS RIGHT: “This is the first time in history that people with so little competence can so powerfully enter the civic discourse.” The consequences of this undeniable fact, for ourselves as citizens, and for our entire democratic political culture, are huge. When noise equals money, and ignorance has been given such a mighty amplifier, then democracy, as a viable system of government, must come under enormous pressure.
The dangers of giving the angry and ignorant their own media outlet was demonstrated most powerfully in the early 1790s, just as the French Revolution was entering the phase known to history as “The Reign of Terror”.
The radical political philosopher, physician and noted scientist, Jean-Paul Marat, recognising the rising power of the poorest people of Paris, founded a newspaper dedicated to at once arousing and expressing their most extreme political passions. In a sinister anticipation of the very worst aspects of today’s social media, Marat’s Friend of The People turned rumour into fact and gave voice to the poverty-stricken masses’ most bloodthirsty impulses. To be denounced on the pages of Marat’s “fake news” paper very quickly became the equivalent of a death sentence. That Marat, himself, was afflicted with an excruciating skin disease did nothing to calm his homicidal fury towards any person or group which he judged to be an enemy of the people.
It was at Marat’s instigation that the revolutionary militia – known as the National Guard – carried out the infamous “September Massacres” of 1792. Over the course of a week, National Guardsmen, their numbers augmented by the Paris poor, broke into the capital’s prisons and butchered more than a thousand prisoners. Marat had told his readers that the jails of Paris were full of aristocrats ready to assist the counter-revolutionary forces gathering on France’s borders. To save the revolution, he declared, they must all be pre-emptively executed. Some of the victims were, indeed, political prisoners awaiting trial. Most, however, were common criminals. Even by the grisly standards of eighteenth century Europe, the grotesque horror of the September Massacres was profoundly shocking.
Marat’s next victims were the “Girondins”, a faction of the National Assembly whom he suspected of excessive moderation. The Friend of the People’s relentless campaigning convinced Marat’s readers that the Girondins were plotting against the Revolution. In short order, his allies in the National Assembly, the radical Jacobin faction, had the Girondins arrested, tried before the Revolutionary Tribunal, declared guilty, and guillotined.
Marat’s bloody reign was brought to an abrupt end by a young Girondin sympathiser called Charlotte Corday, who famously stabbed him to death in his medicinal bath, after gaining access to the “people’s friend” by passing herself off as an anti-Girondin informant. Secretly relieved to be rid of their dangerous journalistic demagogue, the Jacobins transformed Marat into the people’s first great martyr. The painting entitled The Death of Marat, executed by the era’s most accomplished artist, Jacques-Louis David, is an acknowledged masterpiece of revolutionary propaganda.
This cautionary historical tale records only the consequences of a radical intellectual’s decision to align himself wholeheartedly with the least educated and most desperate elements of a society gripped by revolutionary change. The important difference between Marat’s Friend of the People and Facebook is that the former still required the participation of a guiding editorial hand, a printers’ workshop, and a host of newspaper sellers, to work its malign political magic. Contemporary social media has done away with all these intermediaries. Today, the people need no friend, they can speak for themselves.
These individual voices, algorithmically assembled into vast aggregations of the like-minded, now possess the power to dictate the editorial policies of the world’s newspapers and broadcasting networks. Dependent on the electronic devices of these volatile and easily bored consumers for their economic survival, the legacy media has all but given up on the notion that a newspaper, magazine, radio station or television network should lead and inform public opinion. This clear political goal, which Marat, himself, would have endorsed – albeit in relation to the Parisians’ most extreme opinions – has been supplemented by the media’s existential need to fashion itself into a politically agnostic parasite. The new media organism’s only hope of sustaining itself is to feast, with cynical efficiency, on the madness and mania of the masses, and then excrete it back to them.
With the ignorance and prejudices of the masses setting the social and political tone, the desperation and disdain of the well-educated and culturally sophisticated managers and professionals who actually keep a modern, technology-driven society functioning, is easily imagined.
Gone are the days when these folk were able to filter out the masses’ mania and madness from the news media; when the political parties they largely controlled could aggregate a coherent policy agenda with which to guide an otherwise inchoate electorate. Confronted with such monumental stupidity in every sphere: politics, medicine, science; is it any wonder that the technocrats in charge have learned how to transform the self-same social media which has undermined the guided democracy of the past into an undisclosed vector for its destruction in the present?
The covert manipulation of elections by means of social media has now reached such a level of sophistication that those lacking the skills to participate are rendered utterly irrelevant to the electoral process – except as window-dressing. The impact of these techniques is already evident in the deep organic political crisis currently gripping the United Kingdom. Brexit, that great victory of the ignorant and the angry, has set the UK up for a revolution of its own. A similar fate looks set to overwhelm the United States in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential elections.
Will these revolts throw up their own versions of Jean-Paul Marat? Of course. Only this time the people will not see him. And he will not be their friend.