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There are so many of my friends expressing frustration that people are not practising rigorous social distancing. Thinking them fools, irresponsible or malicious may be correct but let’s consider something very different.

That those congregating in public genuinely don’t know the danger or at least the real extent of it.

Long before this crisis, academics in all disciplines impinging on communication were talking about communication bubbles and information deprivation, and it featured frequently in mass media – the very media that no longer reach the people who may be causing the hazard.

It was years ago that I heard daily broadcast news described as something for old people. Among those aware of the shift to social media, the most common suggested remedy is to aim social media specifically at the young. There are two failings in this.

Firstly, it is not a problem confined to young people and secondly, putting material on social media is not sufficient to gain the attention of those behaving dangerously; they won’t necessarily see it.

Have you ever had someone say to you, “Surveys are rubbish. I’ve never been surveyed and it’s the same for my friends.” More seriously, there is considerable evidence to show that people with extreme views – racists etc. – consider themselves normal because their views are normal within their circles. Their circle is all they know.

Facebook’s fundamental position is liberal – private – as opposed to republican – participative. They encourage members to cut off those who annoy them or simply differ. Opinions are to be respected as an entitlement and certainly not as an invitation to argue. There are enormous political consequences but this is not the place to discuss them.

The point here is that large numbers of people have placed themselves beyond the reach of public discourse. It is entirely possible that those who are standing closely together, let their children mix etc. know little of what is going on.

Two groups among those concerned about breaches of social distancing need to think. Firstly, republican or participative citizens cannot fail to be aware that even in normal times many people have no desire to engage with society. Secondly, there are people who have placed themselves inside a participative bubble and that’s paradoxical. What it means is that discursive well-informed people in their own bubble are utterly cut off from and find incomprehensible those who appear to be out of touch with the seriousness of our crisis. They get angry and frustrated, and assume that people congregating are stupid or perverse.

What they need to consider is that in our time technology has facilitated a situation in which people living in different worlds or at least bubbles are sharing streets and parks.


There have been suggestions that influencers be targeted and asked to address their followers. This has attractions but the world of influencers is not unitary and operates by splitting numbers into devotees disconnected from a wider world.

Those people dangerously wandering about are a product of our technology. Until recently they were a problem for those concerned about democracy. Now they are a hazard to public health.



Here’s a provocative suggestion for political activists/campaigners:

Let’s find out what pushes a person’s buttons and lie that voting our way will deliver for them.”

Yes, that’s outrageous in a democracy. However, it’s happened and there are now very late attempts to control information and social media but there’s far more to it.

Dominic Cummings who is credited with winning the Brexit referendum has been very open about how it was done. Simply stated, Cummings and company had access to personal data gathered without permission from citizens’ on-line activity. This enabled them to identify gullible people and their concerns. These people were then targeted and told that a vote for Brexit would address their concerns. Though a thinking person might find it hard to believe, the example of the polar bears is true: having identified concerns over polar bears, the lie was told that the bears’ future would be better in the event of Brexit.

When this campaigning methodology became the subject of public controversy, concern was directed in a very peculiar direction. There was of course concern over extreme lies but the main concern was over surreptitious gathering of information about people on-line and its availability to rich political campaigners. Little or no concern was raised over the basic campaigning tactic of telling people that their “issue” could or would be addressed by voting in a certain way.

Here’s a question: if the issue were nothing as large or as bizarre as the likes of polar bears and the personal data had been obtained legitimately, would it be acceptable to direct lies at people, telling them that their issue would be resolved by voting in a particular way? Well, regardless of the answer, it is commonplace during election campaigns to exploit local knowledge (data) about the concerns of gullible voters. A typical case might be a housing estate in which residents oppose a planning application. Aware of this, an enterprising candidate might exploit the data by aiming a message at gullible voters: a very local leaflet, telling voters that a vote for the candidate would take care of their issue. The point is that data are being used specifically to target gullible voters and they are being told a lie. The difference between this and Cummings/Cambridge Analytica is scale and the use of legally obtained data.

Directing large numbers of very local messages would be expensive. However, there is a less costly and familiar approach, and taking a look at election leaflets is revealing. It is routine to find them directed at a town or suburb. Data is collected about local “issues” and leaflets are prepared suggesting to gullible people that their vote can deliver a favourable outcome.

Let’s not be deluded that Dominic Cummings is a great campaign innovator or a uniquely bad enemy of democracy. He’s a cynic who based his methods on old, well-worn, tried and tested, anti-democratic campaigning. His opponents don’t condemn his methods; they are worried about unfair advantage (his data are not cheap) and surreptitious gathering of data.

The dreadful reality is that there’s a large number of gullible citizens waiting to be told that their vote offers the chance of deliverance from what ails or irks them. However, there are other quite different citizens who want to be treated with respect, who can deal with complexity, who want truth and reason. When there is talk of representation in parliament, the latter are seldom if ever considered. In practice it’s as if they don’t exist.

Dominic Cummings isn’t running Britain and those who trot that out are missing a very real threat. Dominic Cummings is an advisor to the UK Prime Minister. His advice is taken because it is based on a plausible, compelling argument that crucially is located in the really existing present and in that respect it doesn’t face a rival.

What little opposition it faces is of three equally irrelevant types. Firstly, some are based in the vanished industrial world of the mid 20th century. Secondly, there is the tragi-comical pseudo-opposition, sharing the same “people power” sloganeering that energises the Cummings argument. Thirdly, there are the ad hominem attempts to portray Cummings as mad.

The first and second – sad to say – are leftist and their proponents would be upset by any suggestion that they support Cummings but that’s not the suggestion. It’s different and it’s more than a suggestion; the reality is that they inadvertently strengthen the Cummings argument. Firstly, the left is too often strangely unaware that thinking people find it easy to spot an argument made nonsense by reliance on conditions long gone – in this case the conditions of mid 20th century industrial capitalism – and whatever problems thinking people might have with Cummings, it’s clear that at least he’s talking about the world as it is today.

Secondly, Cummings advice to the UK Prime Minister is to try for a general election in which the P.M. would campaign for the people against the politicians. Familiar? Of course it is. Sections of the left have been positing the people against variously the government, the state, the political class, the establishment for years with no regard to whether “the people” were calling for left or right movement. They were simply “the people” and anti-establishment; they were to be followed until they could be led. Cummings, however, knows the difference between left and right and where the people are headed. He can thank those on the left who refuse to think for helping to mobilise his people.

Thirdly, ad hominem attacks are easy but pointless. Reading Cummings blogs etc. will reveal a man who reveres strong leaders, authority, manliness and Bismarck.* That’s certainly eccentric, some might view it as crazy and he’s been described as a sociopath. That’s all irrelevant because it leaves his argument and analysis of society untouched. Should those who despise the man achieve his downfall, nothing more will change. The views, analysis, argument will remain unchallenged by anything both plausible and relevant to today – and “the people” will remain mobilised against the establishment.

Cummings is astute but it would be silly to assume that he is unique. There are certainly others as aware. He knows a lot but three things are uppermost in his mind and make anti-democratic voting possible.

i) The flaw at the heart of mass democracy

A very old fear among democrats is that as the franchise extended and extended, greater numbers of passive, easily swayed voters became available to demagogues. This cannot threaten democracy as long as their numbers are relatively small or they are beyond the communicative reach of the demagogue.

ii) The antagonised passive citizen

With universal franchise many passive citizens declined all participation while some others voted for a variety of reasons other than deliberation and judgement but few were hostile to the system itself – the establishment. That has changed. Cummings is one who has watched the polls for years. He knows populism and the nature of it. He understands the current meaning of “anti-establishment” and the numbers involved.

iii) The demagogue’s medium

It is no longer possible for democrats to ignore the passive, inactive, disaffected citizen because now they are many and because now they can be reached and mobilised. Cummings proved this with his Brexit referendum campaign. Relying on data mined from social media he then used social media to deliver approaching-bespoke messages to citizens who wouldn’t normally pay any attention to politics or who seldom voted or who were otherwise disaffected. He knew the kind of message that would get their attention and he knew how to reel them in.

Essentially Cummings knows that he is dealing with a world changed and that he is threatening democracy which he despises. He concentrates on the passive, disaffected citizen. Communication is not directed at those who are concerned with truth and argument; they are the establishment and irrelevant. There is no need to confuse matters by addressing them. They are no longer essential to winning a majority; they are not needed.

The problem is that few of those who would side with democracy and be inclined to save it, care to acknowledge that what Cummings describes is indeed the new reality. They therefore fail to engage with it, fail to develop a plausible counter argument and strategy, and particularly fail to address, organise and speak for the thoughtful citizen on whom theoretically and practically democracy rests.

There is a degree of urgency in all this because while opponents of the Cummings perspective ignore the thoughtful citizen on whom democracy relies, his passive citizens may be inching towards a majority.


I can’t put a date on it but I recall being in the canteen in RTE and asking one of my former colleagues in engineering to give me a quick rundown on this “internet thing”. Over diagrams and talk I became fascinated. I have to say that it was the abstract communication part of the technology that interested me more than the content possibilities. My recollection too is that I was using e-mail for a considerable time before I had anything resembling today’s net access. However, very soon after I had the net, I became aware of chat sites, i.e. very early social media.

Two things struck me. Firstly, I was working for RTE and the real time “chat” suggested citizen participation in TV current affairs. I wrote on that but failed to convince the Head of News and Current Affairs who reckoned that if it was to be used at all, it was more suited to entertainment. To spare his blushes I won’t name the Head but rest assured that I’ve reminded him over the years. (He’s a good bloke and takes the slagging well.)

Secondly, while I was arguing the potential, I was depressed by the content of these early chat sites. There was little or no, what might be termed, serious discussion. Some chat “rooms” were fine; ordinary people were having ordinary communication about mundane matters. The participants were civil, they exchanged information and well wishes across continents. I liked them and got to know some of them. However, many of the “rooms” and “sites” were devoted to intercontinental rudeness and abuse; people entered these rooms with just one thing in mind: to be nasty. In those days a “troll” referred to someone present in the room but not participating in the discussion. Trolling did not then refer to an increasing experience: ordinary discussants being subjected to abuse from people who simply wanted to ruin their chat. It seemed that this marvellous system would become a vehicle for intercontinental abuse.

Time has delivered a better outcome but that nasty strand has endured, indeed it’s flourished. In the early days the participants were mostly American and for a short time I considered the possibility that the vile speech, peppered as it was with “asshole” and “motherfucker”, was an American phenomenon. It wasn’t. This feature of the net that was established in the early days has attracted adherents across the globe and in large numbers. Anyone unfamiliar with this kind of vile, aggressive content can have a look at it by reading the comments under many of the music videos on You Tube. Discussion of the music can be informed or it can be pleasant, facile, fan-stuff but also it is routinely a shooting gallery for the ignorant and abusive.

Two related things can be said. Firstly, my experience of on-line participation has led me to the view that people behave on-line more or less as they do in the other parts of their lives. Decent people don’t become on-line monsters. They may avoid controversy or seek out flossy celebrity-centred talk, they may gossip with friends, they may keep up with family and friends, they may be active among people with a similar interest and crucially those who participate in serious discussions will do so on-line. It is therefore vital that few people follow John Waters of the Irish Times into a poorly informed technical determinism that sees attempts at on-line discussion as futile because the net is the preserve of idiots.* The truth is that just as the net is a good way of staying in touch with friends, it can also – with a bit of effort – be a good way of finding contending views and attracting useful criticism.

There is a tendency – particularly among those who don’t use it or who make little use of it – to see the net as particularly problematic. I’m reminded of a time when I was researching industrial/workplace vandalism and I came across a quote along the lines of, “Those people who break trees and park benches at night, where do you think they go during the day?” My point is that the web these days is where everyone – including the bad – goes. It is to be expected that forms of dreadful behaviour all too familiar in everyday life will appear on- line. It shouldn’t be more tolerated on line than anywhere else.

It is decades since I first heard someone say that they’d been abused on-line and that they were not going back. I argued that like resisting violence at football matches or reclaiming the streets, it is important that decent people do not vacate the space. The idea would be that the bad would be smothered by a mass of human decency and offenders would be reported and tackled. It can and has worked but there’s a problem in the way that many people use the net and the problem is facilitated by the way the net is developing.

Long before the net relative isolation was risky. In extreme cases abuse occurred in institutions, schools, prisons, camps, clubs, training – even families – areas into which good people could not or did not peer in numbers. Moreover, small, tight groups of friends attracted the person who would control by various forms of intimidation including manipulation of members’ need to belong.

Advice: Stay in the open. Don’t allow close association with any group to become overly important.

There is now considerable fear over net participation but it is misplaced. The fear should be – as always – over relatively closed groups and increasingly there are relatively closed groups on-line. Reports of parents shocked at what is going on are commonplace. Shock is not acceptable; it’s a lame excuse. There is a disgraceful acceptance of the line that young people are good at computers but older people just don’t know about it. It’s time to be intolerant of this nonsense and say that incompetence in this regard is as weird as locking oneself in the house and refusing to use broadcasting and text would have been two decades ago. Any parent – any citizen – who is not active on-line is failing. However, mere activity is not enough. It must go that bit further into understanding that the dangers present in life are present on-line. The basics haven’t changed.

Advice: Stay in the open. Don’t allow close association with any group to become overly important.

“Young people are good with computers.” Repeating it over and over again or making it a staple in mass media discussion doesn’t make it any less untrue. Saying now that young people are good with computers makes as much sense as saying forty years ago that young people are good with televisions. Young people today certainly use information technology a lot but their use tends to be quite limited. Moreover the whole thrust of development is towards a more limited use.

The great gift of the web is access to information but, we’re told, the information will be overwhelming unless it is managed. So begins the drift away from the open web as algorithms make recommendations based on past behaviour and like-minded FB friends determine taste, trends, acceptable behaviour and views.

I had a running gag a couple of years back when lecturing for Information Studies. On the way to lectures I would walk through a large open area in UCD which was equipped with very many on-line PCs providing easy access for students. I took to counting the number in use and the proportion of that number using FB. I then reported my findings to students at the start of the lecture. It was never the case that FB users were in a minority. Now, I use FB a lot and I like it but it was around then that I realised the extent to which FB had for perhaps the majority of users become the net. Since then all manner of apps have appeared whose express purpose is to make life easy by eliminating the need to search, to choose, to face something new, disturbing, distressing, confrontational or challenging.

Increasingly people do not surf the net as of yore. They rely on links, recommendations. This has two outcomes which I want to mention here. Firstly, in my own area of interest, political communication, it reduces the possibility of deliberative citizenship. ** Secondly, it is socially isolating, confines people to relatively tight groups wherein the nasty stuff familiar from media reports and scares can go unchecked.

I realise of course that there is considerable published material which argues that the net internationalises concerns that in the past locals could have swept under the carpet but this is not inconsistent with a view of net use which is relatively closed. An occasional report of injustice or protest or cruelty “going viral” does not mean that on-line pressure to conform from friends or information-management apps are not effective.

So, what’s the outcome of all this? Firstly, it should be emphasised that a portion of life has moved. It has gone on-line and it has brought with it ordinary concerns of life as well as familiar dangers. It is as important on-line as it is in the rest of life not to become isolated. In political communication the term used is “bubble”. Confinement in a bubble is like the older metaphor of an echo chamber. It’s about becoming closed off from discourse by over-reliance on a tight group of like-minded friends – no matter where they are in the world! “Cocoon” might be a better word as in most cases there are individuals fleeing to a security where they will be untroubled by questions, doubt, argument and counter-argument. “Cocoon”, however, doesn’t convey the menace which many parents have come to fear. “Gang” gets closer to the reality. Gangs are characterised by an us-against-world-mentality, rules, secrecy, discipline, leaders who are charismatic but border on insane, enforcers, penalties for breaking the rules and fear of the ultimate sanction: exclusion, banishment. “Gang” also suggests that this is a very old, familiar and serious problem.

The open web can seem scary with its cacophony, scams, intruders, liars, pornographers, schemers, predators, conspiracy theorists, religions, crackpots, healers and dealers but it is also rich in information, debate, cooperation and it has human decency aplenty. What evil is there lurks – as in the wider world – in the shadowy corners, cracks and alleyways. It’s both safe and stimulating on-line if a citizen has the confidence to wander the wide boulevards and engage openly with others. The same cannot be said for social media and restrictive apps which filter, create bubbles, cocoons and gangs. Mature citizens should be encouraged to use the confused expanses of open web to inform themselves and to participate. Yes, that old metaphor of the web as an agora is reappearing here. Younger and vulnerable citizens are safer and more likely to learn something new out on the open web.

In closing here’s a bit of advice for parents. Don’t overly limit a young person’s time on line. With limited time they’ll head straight for their little gang. Give them whatever it takes – time, skill, encouragement, money, example etc. – to see the possibilities to be free, inquisitive and participative on-line. A parent in an attack of self-pity might ask if they are failing as a parent if they can’t or don’t have a life on-line? Unfortunately, the answer is yes!

I use FB quite a lot. I behave there much like I do in the wider world. I use it to stay in touch with family, friends and acquaintances. I’m kept informed of events. I see and share interesting pictures. I really enjoy the spoofing and slagging of some very bright people. Significantly, I also participate in debates there. Now, if “debate” has any meaning, at least some of my FB fiends must have views quite different to mine.

Here’s an interesting proposition: As social media increasingly replace the open web for many people, those among them who value debate, who recognise their need to be confronted by contrary, challenging viewpoints, will have to choose at least some of their on-line friends very deliberately. Because a constant, unrelieved, cosy consensus is not what they want, they may have to seek out antagonistic friends. Perhaps I mean agonistic friends but let’s not quibble.

I’ve been a student of Political Communication for a long time now – since I was introduced to it by Brian Farrell (David’s dad) the best part of thirty years ago. I’d be embarrassed to say how long it took me to realise that I was studying Citizenship.

The conventional view is that there are two very basic approaches to being a citizen: the liberal approach and the republican approach. The liberal wants to choose privacy, to be left alone to enjoy life untroubled by debates, public controversy, politics generally, and wants to be informed only if decisions are to be made which might affect that private way of living. The republican by contrast wants to be involved in all matters affecting the direction of the republic. The two approaches of course are no more than models – extreme ends of a spectrum of participation. However, a citizen cannot avoid taking a decision on roughly what is to be their degree of participation and by implication what ought to be the practice of others.

By inclination I find myself well over towards the republican end. I try to be tolerant of those who want to avoid involvement or to keep it to a minimum and I try to encourage citizens – especially younger citizens – to be discursive, argumentative, involved. This tends to annoy those who would prefer a quieter life and it draws them into what they most want to avoid: a controversy and a basic one at that. They argue that no one wants to hear contrary information and argument, and that those who hold contrary views should keep them to themselves.

Now, in the period dominated by mass media – i.e. before the arrival of ICTs – this dispute centred on the concept of public service. One view was that the market should determine content. If consumers created a demand for news, controversy, opinions, challenges, then a supplier would meet that demand. If not, then there was simply no demand and to insist on supplying such material was authoritarian waste. The opposing view was that this content constituted a public good and in the event of a market failing to deliver, supply should be secured by regulation or by a state provider, e.g. a national public broadcaster.

Things have changed considerably as the web – especially social media and apps – has grown in significance.  Nowadays the web can be essentially liberal in that content is increasingly tailored to suit the individual. What the individual requires is determined by looking at real preferences expressed in purchases and on-line activity. With the help of algorithms a person on-line need never be troubled by the new, the contrary, the challenging. Indeed on FB a click will remove from Friends anyone likely to disagree, question or challenge in any way.[1]

While social media provide a communication environment which is the liberal citizen’s dream, they make life difficult for the republican citizen. Their design protects the user from the new, the challenging, and the serendipitous. It could be argued that while people increasingly leave older media and come to rely on social media, their attention will be drawn to a rich array of exciting material recommended by friends. However, that would happen only if at least some friends were not of a like mind. No, a citizen who chooses to rely on social media and who wants to participate in public controversy – i.e. who really does want to be a republican – will have to make an effort.

The republican citizen on FB will have to examine his/her list of friends, likes etc. specifically with a view to being challenged. He/she will be aware that while talking to like-minded people about agreeable or personal matters is important and pleasurable, it is not enough. The republican citizen needs Facebook friends and contacts with whom to have strong disagreements. There is just one way to address that need: seek out those with whom one disagrees or those who are likely to say or do something new and challenging and send them a friend request.

However, the republican on FB will run into a problem. The problem is that not all – perhaps very few – putative antagonistic friends will want debate. The republican will learn that liberal citizenship is probably the majority position. It may come as a surprise that dislike of challenge is not confined to conservatives. Many who take up seemingly progressive positions don’t like it either. The republican will have to cope with disappointments. The friend who puts forward interesting ideas but “unfriends” (or should it be “defriends”?) anyone who posts a counter argument regarded as threatening to his/her dogma or assumed status will have to be written off and replaced.

Decades after Herbert Marcuse spoke of the role of media in closing down the universe of discourse an almost perfect medium for tedious liberal communication has developed. Of course it doesn’t signal the end of discourse, politics, participation but it does mean that a republican will have to assume greater responsibility for creating his or her own debating chamber.

[1] I’ve restricted this discussion to social media but the use of apps takes the user a further step away from the riches of the open web.