(This is an abridged version of a paper to be presented tomorrow, Friday, at the International Conference of the Philippine Political Science Association in Cebu City.)
TO the uninitiated, to claim that we live in a post-modern world may be puzzling, as it will beg the simple question of whether we have fully modernized for us to go beyond it and claim that we are now post-modern. In social science theory, to be post-modern is not to live in a time period, but to adhere to a particular world view where truth becomes relative, where there are no more grand stories or narratives, and where people’s identities become fluid and malleable. The dualisms between good and evil, truth and falsity, straight or gay, East and West, and black and white are now replaced by multiple positions across a spectrum where there is an eruption of different shades of gray. Hybrid forms of existence now prevail, not only seen in the preponderance of hyphenated identities, but also in having fusion templates, from fashion to cuisine.
Social theorists have argued that the onset of a post-modern world view has been enabled by the institutionalization of new modes of information, particularly during the period of the internet. Cyberspace has exploded the mythology of expertise, and has destabilized the foundations of the two strongest grand narratives of modernity, namely state power and scientific knowledge. Facebook and Twitter not only provided people the opportunity to expand the limits of their social affinities and shared communities. These also became a fertile breeding ground to democratize access not only to knowledge and power, but also to the production of knowledge and power.
It is in this cyber-age that people began to engage knowledge and power from the privacy of their handheld gadgets. While this democratization of access to truth and politics may have created new domains for learning and for citizen engagement, it also had consequences that have created a new challenge. Considering that post-modern truths have become fluid, authenticity became problematic.
In the world view of the cyber-age, it is so easy to engage public affairs. Tweeting and shouting out opinions on issues are made convenient. This, however, has also bred the phenomenon of counterfeit narratives, which people now call “fake news,” where people can easily propagate as viral any information that is not vetted, or is invented. This has effectively further complicated democratic discourse, by increasing the volume of noise in the internet. It has also enhanced the ability of people to initiate a propaganda campaign for or against a particular political issue or personality, based on lies and false allegations. The real-time nature, as well as the global reach of digital internet-based information, made the implications of this kind of doing politics fascinating, if not horrifying. Rebellions, such as the Arab Spring and Brexit, have been fueled by internet-based subversions. Elections have been won and lost using internet-based political campaigns, which included the deployment of conjured images and narratives, seen in the victories of Barack Obama, Donald Trump and our own Rodrigo Duterte.
The ease by which one can create an account also made it easier to invent counterfeit websites, such as fake news sites and anonymous accounts. Anonymity, which, according to James Scott, is an effective weapon of the weak, has been appropriated to create the phenomenon of “trolling,” where accounts using fictitious names have proliferated like gremlins doused with water. Trolls have become new residents of political contestations, in that they have undermined authentic discourse, even as they become effective weapons to fight back or diminish the opposition, be it a particular narrative, or a particular personality.
This effectively destabilized those who seek the comfort of scientific truth, and the stable assurance of state power. Science is undermined by false unscientific news, while politics is compromised when trolls and fakers diminish the authority of institutions.
What has come out of this is a serious crisis of representation, where there is now a cloud hanging over the genuine, the true and the factual. Politics and identities have been plasticized to fit preconceived constructs.
Traditional media is diminished with the onset of citizen journalism that was attended by the emergence of political blogging and of political posts and tweets. Political and intellectual elites are endangered when their control over the production of political and scientific discourses is assaulted and weakened.
The intellectual and political elites felt the need to counter the narratives. They warned of democracy dying
It is easy to dismiss trolls and fakers as destroyers of democracy. It is easy for traditional journalists to make a call for the elites to take back the internet, as a battle cry to rein in the political noise made by trolling and fakery.
However, the elites must understand that in order for them to play the game of cyber-politics, they must recalibrate the logic of their institutions, and the manner they produce their discourses. It is easy to dismiss trolls and fakers as the ones that created the crisis of representation. But the real problem actually lies in the way traditional institutions have controlled science and politics with impunity, and appropriate these to serve their own agenda. This forced the marginalized to innovate in the way they express their defiance, and they have colonized cyberspace with a vengeance.