from GSP 3-18
The struggle for public opinion
The internet vs. the “serious” media
A new law requires Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc., to take action against “hate speech” and “fake news.” The state has taken critical note of what it has granted the right of free speech in so-called “social media.” What limits does it see crossed on such a scale that it has to intervene?
I. The online public sphere: a forum for the bourgeois mind
Citizens use platforms on the internet not only to communicate their private opinions on everything and everyone. The personal is no longer merely their private matter. The creators of the various platforms make an (advertising) business from it. This extends the reach of “social media” – something that is annoying for some, dubious for cultural philosophers, and of no concern to the state for the time being. This business creates ever better conditions for business. For the broad mass of users, the unbeatable appeal of this medium is that it promises a certain degree of anonymity and reach for their statements.
For the user, opinions are not merely opinions. Rather, a claim is involved: the citizens insist on respect. Everything from questions of taste to politics becomes the subject of approval and disapproval – in other words, an opportunity to apply generally binding standards.
Even on the internet, citizens continue their bad habit of looking at everything through the lens of their individual standards of value. As a result, they record two things: a wrong judgement about the objects they are interested in and one about themselves. What always counts about the thing judged with a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” is what it means for the judging individual. Questions of taste are dealt with the same way as everything in a capitalist, democratic society – by abstracting from the objective reasons and purposes; they give subjective displeasure or displeasure. The thing judged is identified with the generally binding criteria that the judges bring to attention, and transforms into a question of whether the thing is dealt with successfully and decently. Tweeting and blogging citizens talk about themselves: Their judgments function as vehicles of self-representation as morally competent subjects. The binding standards testify to the respectability of the person who not only represents them, but embodies them. And vice versa: As witnesses of generally shared maxims, they certify the validity of everything they give of themselves.
Moral judgements about others are an essential part of the private spectrum of opinions. The attraction of such judgments and making them known is in making others worse; this is also normal to the bourgeois psyche. They like the role of ideal judge; they see themselves entitled to judge all others by their own views of decency and success. Nothing has such a connecting effect as hatefulness about third parties; affinities – “friendships” in the Zuckerbergian sense – are as durable as the shared enmity.
Private moral expressions aimed at agreement also extend to the sphere of politics. The special feature of this type of public sphere is not its content; it is the official and unofficial democratic struggle of political interests and points of view. The formal peculiarity of this internet public is that a private political correctness, which presents the subjectivity of the participant and is certified by it, claims general validity, seeks followers, is “liked” by followers – as is traditionally the case in op-eds and letters to the editor published by the established media, but here, due to the possibilities of the internet, it is itself an organ of the public sphere. An unfiltered and uncontrolled infinite variety of highly unoriginal echo chambers opens up in which claims of validity from the private sphere of bourgeois competitors meet, mutually increase, and radicalize through the appeal of the anonymity of the internet – until they fade away again. These raving moralists become influential in and through social media far beyond the private sphere where moral opinions are at home, but do not remain. With its resonance it becomes not merely audible, but – bold.
Nevertheless, it remains a private matter – and thus objectively a contradiction between the standpoint of private morality, with which the citizens want to give their political views respectability, and the standard included in it, that their idea of political correctness is actually recognized as a valid consensus. The size of their echo chambers is the decisive success criterion for them – and yet never the redemption of their claim to universal validity. Its cultivation has long since been the responsibility of the organs of the established public.
The internet, with its offer to the outraged patriotic spirit to appear directly as a public organ, produces activists of a counter-public: Citizens no longer have to resign themselves to the fact that their opinions are not valid and are at best taken up by professional journalists and sorted into the pluralism of practically irrelevant statements; they insist on the right to contribute to the national consensus and, if necessary, take on the established representatives of the valid political correctness.
So the fact that the politicized net public is becoming the object of media attention because of “hate” and “fake news” has only one thing to do with the internet: it offers outraged citizens a forum to give their private ideas of what “we” in general and the political leaders in particular should or should not be entitled to, unites like-minded people and creates through mutual confirmation a system to stage it publicly. The internet thus serves as a playground for bourgeois fundamentalism, which causes excitement because dissatisfied patriots on a growing scale are seeking to assert opinions that break with what the established media and political spheres represent and cultivate as the national consensus.
The established media sees itself challenged: As appointed organs of responsible management of what they represent as the national consensus, they deny dissenting opinions and mobilize for a struggle for public opinion.
II. The established media: defending its monopoly
In defending itself against “agitation” and “falsehoods,” the established media knows its within its rights: it is a guarantor of “rationality” in contrast to the private expression of opinion by the alternative internet public. It sees itself called upon to distinguish between what is “unimportant” and what is “important,” and thus to decide what becomes the object of public perception.
The established media has a lot to show for its “seriousness”: Unlike its haters on the internet who amateurishly circulate private views and often “fakes,” it carefully researches the facts and reports conscientiously. Professionalism, which requires training and often study, and paid employment with some well-known media institution, ennoble people as competent journalists – the exercise of the profession itself constitutes its authority, which guarantees the validity of whatever they have to communicate to the world.
The established media justifies its profession as a “serious” public with a methodical separation between information and commentary. On the one hand, the ideal of “objectivity” applies, and in a sober tone there is a report on “the facts” that are dictated by the prevailing conditions: Journalists define what is of public interest at all and in what respect; information on the economy, politics, culture, and sports is brought to light according to its success criteria as the valid “reality.” On the other hand, journalists make personal statements on various facts. They do not, however, want to go to the level of subjective-individual views with their comments; they stand out quite decidedly from ordinary bloggers who can’t keep their private state of mind to themselves; after all, they are professional journalists paid by recognized media organs who prepare their partisan statements on the basis of proper information and in the spirit of a well-balanced responsibility for recognized standards.
Committed to the “facts,” they first and foremost allow those people to have their say because they have the say, namely, because they decide on the facts by virtue of their economic power or their state office, i.e. they create the reality about which the press informs. Economic leaders and politicians are quoted or interviewed, which is why a good connection to the powerful is one of the tools of the trade of a “serious” journalist; the press card and, even more, membership in the press pool ennoble him as a real professional who understands his trade. This consists in conveying to the people what the really responsible people decide – at a critical distance, as befits a free public. The established media confronts corporate leaders and political rulers from the standpoint of an independent authority which measures, evaluates, but also condemns them along the lines of the responsible tasks and actual duties to the population.
The authenticity of their reporting is of the highest importance: they report from the front of the garden fence and through keyholes, passers-by are questioned on the street, and messages are introduced about some event with the private concern of Mrs. Smith. The private person is always exemplary with his view – as an employee, taxpayer, resident, voter, unemployed person, nursing case, German, person ... thus as a representative of a recognized group for which journalists want to let him speak. With his worries, needs, and opinions he functions as the chief witness to a pro and con balance. The special attraction of this is that nothing speaks for their message as much as the staged closeness to the people, the physicality of the figures in whose faces they hold their microphones.
Positions that fall outside the scope of what the “serious” media represents as “politically correct” are often ostracized and excluded from the circle of decent people. This saves a serious journalist from having to criticize “absurd” views, which are thus relegated to the moral sidelines; which doesn't mean that these can’t be expressed.
Differing opinions are quoted and summarized under the title “simple answers.” The serious press meets them with the methodical hint that “reality” is a bit more “complicated,” after all. Because political judgments which are called “simple answers” fail to relativize the maxims of the prevailing “realism” which they conscientiously embody, they are insulted as too stupid, incompetent, i.e. as unauthorized.
The method of the “fact check,” which should expose “fake news,” is in demand. It owes its material to some representatives of the internet public known to invent facts: They spread rumors and speculations as factual assertions because for them the reported matter only serves as an example and proof of their interpretation in light of a fixed and ready-made political attitude. This is confirmed by lies as well as by references to actual events. On the other hand, the “serious” media – to whom this logic of evidence is anything but alien, especially in times of Skripal, Syria, Trump, and refugee problems – deny the very validity of “evidence,” which is not important anyway. But that doesn’t matter, because it’s all about defaming the person concerned as an ignorant fool or liar. Ultimately, the “reputable” media in their “fact checks” counter the unwanted facts of the counter-public with other, pleasing facts, proving that they too have mastered their way of letting them speak for their established interpretations. That is the charm of perpetually insisting on “facts”: their ability to be indisputably certified authenticates the indisputability of something quite different, namely, that certain facts require certain points of view be adopted – and that do not result from the pure fact or only by their partisan interpretation.
The fact that the counter-public simply can’t be brought to “reason” by the “serious” media leads them to a methodological self-criticism. The established media so naturally assume that the free thinking of the citizens is the work of their care and instruction that if right-wing, populist nationalists can establish themselves, something has gone out of control and they must have done something wrong. Accordingly, their criticism is not very modest: if the addressees of their public relations work were only better informed about the necessities of rule, there would be no need for such fundamental criticism; they have failed to communicate the meaningfulness of political decisions which in the end must still convince every reasonable patriot. Furthermore, it subsequently wonders whether the hostilities of the political common sense should not have been better hushed up and thus promoted to the rank of socially unimportant marginal phenomena, instead of making them known and important through their media fight. The power of the established press’s monopoly has gone so much to its head that it takes note of the success of its opponents from the point of view of its ideal of manipulation, that is, whether its “serious” reporting in principle coincides with the conviction of the masses. Conversely, journalists wonder whether they have not taken the legitimate “concerns” of the people too seriously in the past. They make up for having neglected their task of influencing the opinions of outraged citizens with an opportunistic mixture of recognition and rejection: Excited blog posts that want to be understood as a social standard are appreciated by the “serious” media – as a contribution to the pluralism of opinion that they organize from the point of view of their responsibility for the norms of society.
So the “serious” media admits that it has the right to successfully assert itself as the only true organ for cultivating the valid political correctness in the competition for the indoctrination of its audience.
By fulfilling its ethos of mediating the exercise of economic and political power with the concerns and opinions of the citizens, the journalistic profession does a lot: in its self-obligation to what is generally important and valid, it distinguishes between “unlawful” points of view, “exaggerated” demands, and well-understood interests. Starting from the standpoint of responsibility for the maxims of the community and its rule, private opinions are quoted – as particular views in a pluralistic discourse of recognized demands that must put up with a relativization of economic and political “reason” and, included therein, the interests of the ruling class of capitalist owners and state power. A free democratic press unfolds its power as a “fourth estate” through the subsumption of all complaints from below under the standards of its partisan affirmation of the conditions established and guaranteed by state power. In this way, the mental home of all private judgments is constantly cultivated in a broad spectrum of recognized concerns and justified criticism in which the diverse dissatisfactions of the informed public are short-circuited with a constructive responsibility for the capitalist state.
III. The state: challenged to secure the performance of free speech and freedom of the press
The state sees itself challenged by social media: If outraged citizens who refuse to recognize the political consensus represented by state representatives, or even reasons of state, make themselves heard via the internet, insist on the universality of their political views, and do not shy away from appeals to violence, the people’s right to public peace must be safeguarded. On the one hand, this is the responsibility of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution [the German equivalent of the FBI – translator], which examines political standpoints for deviations from the consensus; in addition to legal powers, the medium of the internet requires that its authority be upgraded, but it makes its snooping work easier overall. On the other hand, the rule of law has long since had the necessary laws to criminalize the “dangers” posed by an angry right-wing mob, Islamist terrorists, or other threats.
The state discovers a need to catch up in the enforcement of law in the sphere where the masses have been ranting without control thanks to the technical and economic peculiarities of the medium. Social networks and blogging platforms are accessible to every private person worldwide; anyone can remain anonymous; what is posted can easily be reproduced and is above all stored – by privately calculating platform operators who declare themselves not responsible for the content, but otherwise insist on their rights as owners, i.e. they do not simply make identity-related data available for free. However, the state does not, of course, grant a legal vacuum in cyberspace for its citizens’ warring opinions. And since appeals to the social media corporations to make themselves available for checking the content have been of little use, a “law to improve law enforcement in social media” now obliges them to exactly the level of control they do not voluntarily provide.
In contrast to the legal prosecution of offenses after they have become known, the purpose of this law is to sort out unlawful expressions of opinion preventively, i.e. before they even become the subject of law, and thus to prevent their generalization in advance. The expression of opinions by citizens on the internet is to be civilized, moral outrage is to be contained. To this end, the various corporations are forced to adopt a different position toward the material of their business, and a moment of state use of force is privatized: As monopolists of the technical foundations of a mass alternative public sphere, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and the like are urged to include the perspective of the “serious” public in their business calculations in order to moderate, allow, or, if necessary, suppress the private statements of their users from the point of view of responsibility for the maxims of national consensus. When making profits with their portals, they should provide assistance in fulfilling the public mandate to identify the transition from legitimate, practically irrelevant opinions to illegal attacks and to make them publicly ineffective by deleting them.
Thus the practical clarification: setting opinions free, licensing citizens to even criticize politics and its makers, is a field of permanent sovereign control and legal containment – necessary in order to constantly obtain from dissatisfied citizens the contradiction of forming a free opinion in accordance with the state-prescribed national consensus that is cultivated by the established media.
IV. Social media: national vested rights and instrument of imperialist influence
Public opinion bodies are valued as a power not only in their own country. As long as there are media through which messages can be conveyed to the people, they serve states as an instrument to spread news in their own interest into foreign territories. In the age of the internet, which networks entire peoples right down to their private spheres, i.e., makes them directly accessible, they increasingly make use of social networks in addition to other communication channels to exert influence on the political decision-making of foreign citizens. They insist on the right to make other peoples happy with their good values; they use social media as a lever of subversion to mobilize the populations of foreign states as a counter-public and incite them against disagreeable governments. The internet may present itself to private users as a place for people who are eager to communicate where they pursue their free development, but in substance it is a battlefield for imperialist states. In addition to the free access and anonymity of the internet, they use the means from which the internet public draws its persuasive power: the sheer mass of statements and shared consent. To this end, they establish a system of professional trolls and have IT specialists program suitable bots that automatically reproduce opinions and, with the appearance of the multiplicity of a political view generated in this way, are supposed to certify its limitless validity.
As soon as attempts are registered from abroad to interfere in the expressions of opinion in social media, this is recorded as an attack on the nation. In this sense, Russia in particular is currently being accused of using social networks for “Russian propaganda” and “false reports,” before presidential, Bundestag, or Brexit elections, to influence political decision-making in Western democracies. Their secret services and politicians are rather unimpressed by whether such influence is really taking place or is even noticeable in practice; they hold firm to their suspicions of Russia, assign any evidence to it and thus – as in the case of the American National Security Strategy – officially elevate a conspiracy theory to the rank of a governmental declaration. In this spirit, Putin is attacked in a way that underlines that Russia is encroaching on the sovereignty of other states. It is perfectly okay that parties lambast their electorate with advertising to direct their dissatisfaction and demands to themselves and to win the battle for power, buy user data so that they know who is particularly worthwhile for door handle election campaigns, flyers, and online advertising. But when foreign states latch into the private expression of opinion in any form, the talk is not of using but abusing the media, and politicians concerned about their nation see red lines crossed, which makes one thing clear above all: Non-domestic dialogue on the internet, an essential part of the privacy of a large proportion of its citizens, is, like other forms of public relations, a national asset that political rule has at its own discretion. Therefore, all states see themselves attacked in a domestic opinion-forming process which emanates from other powers without an explicit license – in the interests of the loyalty of their peoples. In practice, states thus admit, firstly, to an extremely bad opinion of their people who they see running after any insinuation, and, secondly, to their claim that the formation and expression of public opinion, wherever it takes place, must be the realm of their manipulation.