How social media taught us to stop listening and forget how to lose by Rafael Behr

For followers of William Miller, dawn of 22 October 1844 was a real letdown. Hundreds of thousands of them were convinced they had a date with Jesus Christ. They huddled together in homes and fields in anticipation of the second coming. But the saviour stood them up.

Miller was a New England preacher who had applied what he thought were rational principles to scriptural prophecies and deduced the year of rapture. The exact date was pinpointed by an acolyte called Samuel Snow: incorrectly, it is now safe to say. That autumn day came to be known as the “Great Disappointment” to Millerites. Many abandoned the faith. But many others intensified their belief. Some founded the Church of Seventh Day Adventists. A hard core still think that Christ did indeed come to Earth in 1844, albeit as an invisible presence in the hearts of true believers.

This is a common response to being wrong. It is psychologically painful when evidence contradicts belief. So we seek mental comfort by reorganising our perception of reality, ditching inconvenient facts to avoid the more upsetting experience of lost faith.

The pattern will be familiar to anyone who watches politics on social media. I try each year to quit the internet for a few weeks during the summer holiday and each time the re-entry is bumpier. The contrast gets more extreme between the sedate pace of analogue living, where news is nibbled in half-gleaned headlines, and the engorged digital frenzy. Facebook and Twitter hum with perpetual Millerite arousal – a rapid-fire exchange of pseudo-proofs for confirmation of faith and refutation of the unbeliever. It is electrifying for the participants, but seems deranged from the outside.

This may be the future of political participation: a landscape populated mostly by the disengaged and dotted with fortified communities of myth-makers who see news not as the acquisition of neutral information but as a raw material to be fashioned into polemical weaponry. Polarisation is coded in. The likes of Google, Amazon and Facebook all use algorithms that identify a users’ preferences for certain kinds of content, which in political terms tend also to be degrees of prejudice, and serve up more of the same. The unit of authority is not how rigorous the evidence may be but how many like-minded people like the same information. Palatable equals reliable.

One appeal of this environment is never feeling even the first mental itchiness of perhaps being wrong. Scottish nationalists who believe that independence is the antidote to austerity may still come across reports that fiscal autonomy would require much more stringent budget discipline, but the information will be packaged for them as the smears of mainstream English media, alongside more reassuring news about bounteous oil revenue. Unionist Scots receive the same data with the distorting prisms reversed.

A natural extension of never being wrong is never admitting defeat. Many yes voters refuse to see last year’s referendum result as a majority choice for Scotland to stay in the union. Some supporters of Jeremy Corbyn’s candidacy for the Labour leadership struggle to discern a message of English support for spending restraint, welfare reform and immigration control in May’s Conservative election victory, although the signal was hardly encrypted. Likewise, if Corbyn wins, it seems certain a bunch of his opponents will say the result doesn’t count because the wrong kind of voter infiltrated the electorate. We can be confident that opponents of Britain’s membership of the EU will interpret an “in” vote as proof that lackeys of Brussels at Westminster stitched up the referendum campaign, thereby invalidating the result.

This is neither a new nor a uniquely digital phenomenon, but technology accelerates the process. It has been said many times that the communications revolution we are experiencing is analogous to the disruption of old European authorities caused by the invention of the printing press. The capacity to knock out thousands of pamphlets in vernacular German and English broke the monopoly of the Latin-writing class on interpretations of scripture and law.

For anyone who finds the tone of modern media unedifying, a glance at the Reformation equivalent is instructive. The Catholic theologian Sylvester Mazzolini’s critique of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses deployed his prodigious learning to note that the author was “a leper with a brain of brass and a nose of iron”. A popular anti-papal 16th-century woodcut, the gif of its time, showed squatting devils excreting monks from their backsides. Many Twitterspats are civil by comparison.

If we are in the early stages of secular reformation, we might expect fragmentation: the emergence of new movements and parties and the capture of old ones by radical schismatic sects. They would be defined by opposition to what they see as arrogant and corrupt establishments, and their claim to be transferring political authority from a rarefied elite to the common people.

Part of that process might be contempt for existing notions of expertise. The so-called experts would be scorned as rotten apologists for a discredited orthodoxy. To followers of new politics, the most important thing would be feeling the spirit, not studying the text. The idiom would be more democratic, but a cult of individual leadership would also be a galvanising force.

There are echoes of all of this in some political trends in Europe and America:Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain; the Tea Party in the US; Scottish nationalism; Ukippery. What isn’t clear is how much of it is temporary turbulence caused by global economic uncertainty and how much is structural realignment. The safest forecast in most circumstances is for things to settle back to long-term trends, but how long is a term? Is the Labour party a permanent fixture, or a product of late 19th-century industrialisation now struggling to adapt to a post-industrial age and facing likely obsolescence? Will we look back on Ukip’s surge in the last parliament as the dyspeptic belch of a country struggling to digest a sudden influx of migration, or the herald of a new era of English nationalism? Maybe the Conservative party in Britain is like the papacy in the late middle ages – rich and powerful enough to counter a reformation. Or perhaps the EU referendum will see it splinter.

It is always tempting to predict upheaval. Intimations of apocalypse are seductive and contagious, as William Miller and his followers found. The urge to look at a chaotic mess and configure a bigger pattern within is instinctive. It is the same impulse that leads people to think politics is a conspiracy by people with nefarious plans, when usually it is a sequence of bodges by people doing their best with inadequate tools.

It is the same craving for a coherent view of the world that makes us cling to our oldest beliefs and discount evidence that contradicts them. Much praise these days is heaped on the politician with conviction, the one who shows unbending principle and clarity of purpose. That can be a noble trait. But it is not as rare as another, less commonly celebrated quality: the ability to know you were wrong and to admit it.

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