As our students reach Grade 12, thoughts turn to the impact that they will have on the world after their years of schooling. 2022 Co Vice-Captain Lily Redburn has written this thoughtful essay which highlights the complexities of the world that these graduates are now entering. Launceston Grammar is fortunate to have individuals in leadership roles who demonstrate critical thinking that their peers can converse with in navigating such a world. Lily was the 2022 Kings Meadows Club Winner of the Youth of the Year Lions Public speaking competition. Darrell Atkinson stated that “Lily’s prepared speech was about the Power of Language and she spoke very fluently and with confidence in her presentation.”
Does Democracy Die in the Digital Age – Lily Redburn
The average Australian adult will spend approximately seventeen years on their phone or another screen over the course of their lifetime. That equates to a total of 145,800 hours or 33% of an adult’s waking hours based on the average Australian life expectancy1. Access to the internet and its many platforms through screens has allowed extensive opportunity for anyone anywhere to write, film, record, and then publish their deliberations, irrespective of ridiculed radicality. Despite many successful and uplifting digitalised movements advocating for equality across all gender identifications, religions, cultures, and geographical locations, an unfortunate reality has been masked: we live in a largely fractured society at the hands of social media and other online platforms. The marginalisation of so many minority groups that society is offered today continues to prove an issue of justice. Has social media, and other online public platforms, taken the idea of democracy and democratic voice too far? Are we now seeing the devastating effects of our freedoms provided by the internet taken to their extremity? As someone whose entire existence, both socially and scholastically, revolves around a screen, I feel as though I am qualified to offer my thoughts on this issue.
The concept of democracy, derived from Greek dēmokratia meaning rule by the people, dates to the 5th century BCE Greece as the adopted political system notably of Athens2. Its establishment is acknowledged by historians as being a carefully crafted cocktail of bureaucracy mixed with despotism, shaken over ice, and served neat by the mono-cultured, educated, citizen men of society. Ultimately, this strict dress code only allowed entry for 10% of the population. For such reasons, it is impossible to ignore the semantic issues that present in its etymology. The concept relies upon the sharing of common interests to discuss, debate, and vote upon decisions that ultimately will shape the livelihoods of those making such decisions. The communication of thoughts and opinions has linked the people around us for centuries, whether through the sharing of information necessary for survival, or communicating emotions of tragedy, ecstasy, relief, or boredom for entertainment. This necessity of communication provides the platform of governing a democratic state to prevent the rise of anarchism within a society in both a political and social manner. In this way, democracy can be defined today as having the freedom to express one’s own thoughts without fear of persecution or ridicule. The concept of ochlocracy, or rule of the mob, is closely related here and can be observed as being a degenerative form of democracy4. Here, passion is favoured over reason through majoritarianism, which has allowed institutional players to formulate sources of power. Have we moved from democracy in the west towards a state of ochlocracy through the omnipresence of information sourced from the internet?
Technological screen developments have made the art of reading and writing both more accessible and informal for society through means of electronic publication and engagement. Distribution of information now can transcend the physical barriers of land and sea that once slowed its conveyance and its rapid reproduction. This, in some ways, has proved to be more detrimental to society than the detonation of a nuclear weapon. Whether offering an opinion on Donald Trump’s latest and most outrageous tweet, publishing a short story, or delivering local news, e-reading, writing, and online audio-visual publications have become the new norm in relation to conveying judgment in a loosely written form. Never has sharing thoughts and views across physical barriers (and cyber as well) been as easy. A way to exercise democracy with the absence of physical participation. How effective is this? In this sense, digitalised texts have allowed for the tyrannical and corrupt nature of ochlocracy to simultaneously rise and conceal an assumed sense of democratic voice. Social media and other online platforms have allowed the habitual location of propaganda and radical ideologies to shift from physical methods of dissemination to becoming more accessible than ever before. And to think Hitler and his Nazi Germany were successful with pen or printing press. This shift from physical print has completely changed classically accepted reading and writing conventions, especially in relation to the amount of time, and concentration, required to absorb the conveyed data. Most digital texts now require less attentiveness from their reader, as well as less time to understand key information. This is both reflective of and appropriate to the fast-paced race that is everyday life for people of the 21st-century society. Convenient? Absolutely. But the lack of restrictions on information made available by the internet can allow for anyone, anywhere, to absorb such information.
Despite age restrictions being implemented by the various social media platforms, much of the content enclosed is only a click away from vulnerable young people. Even with such restrictions in place, the ease at which a lie can be made regarding their birth year can resolve the obstacle faced. Just like that. Who can blame them? It is not as though anyone is there to stop them. Take, for example, the popular audio-visual platform TikTok which boasts around one billion active users daily. Despite the app being intended for users over the age of thirteen, 47% of its users are between the ages of 10-295. With little to no control over both the comprehension and interpretation, the absorption of content is often done so at face value, requiring far less attentiveness than physical print. This poses the question: is this fuelling a fire of rapid reproduction so out of our control that no anti-corruption or regulating body have any control? An example of the destructive undercurrent this freedom of democratic voice presents on this platform is the phenomenon of Andrew Tate. The kickboxer turned business emperor has flooded the feeds of social media platforms with his private jets, fast cars, and him asserting he is James Bond’s closest living relative. The greatest concern with his rapid rise to fame and vicious virality stands with his openly misogynist views and outwardly sexist commentary on women. Tate acknowledges the prevalence of inequality today such that men are still fulfilling their role of industrialist in building the modern world, yet it is women that are the source of the problem for him. He argues women are not willing to perform their role of caretaker, yet still seek uniform respect and credit that men receive. His projection of such vulgar views on public platforms is a concern for the modelling of masculinity to the young people of today. Through podcast episodes being reposted amongst platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube, social media has become his primary platform for distributing his propaganda. How can we blame youth when his content is unknowingly propelled into their social feeds through intricate algorithms that implore almost involuntary engagement?
I give merit to online platforms and their contributions to e-reading and e-writing, especially in the sense of enabling universal accessibility. Technology has empowered many to unconsciously read and construct responses to texts, such as through social media platforms, that otherwise would not attribute their time to doing so physically. The global literacy rate has seen a 12% increase since 1820 to now standing at 87 percent, and it is impossible not to attribute at least some of its increase to technology and the internet6. Yet, both have provided the breeding ground for the continual oppression of minorities and allowed radical ideologies to manifest in the vulnerability of youth. Additionally, our increased reliance on audio-visual platforms reduces our overall inclination to read and consume physical print as a population. This has made us more susceptible to manipulation by charismatic persuasive speakers and messages that are reduced simply to black and white, rather than the nuanced degrees of grey that exist. Yes, we have come a long way in terms of observing historical cultures of despotism and restriction, however; I believe the appearance of a democratic voice has been cunningly masked by a facade of ochlocratic chaos in society today. The rise of social media demagogues has provided answers to the often instinctual human craving for certainty. Has our fear of destabilisation limited our framework so far as to resurrect our predilection for child-like dichotomist “truths”? Our challenge in moving forward is to elevate popularised critical analysis within our society. Strategies are varied in approaching this, but surely the responsibility falls on all of us to co-create the society we wish to live in.