The media needs clicks and people are rather myopic. This explains patently false pieces such as this in Buzzfeed, This Is How We Radicalized The World. It is a rather unorganized list of facts, but they are assembled in a way to convince and persuade the reading audience that modern information technology has facilitated the rise of political radicalism, as if it is something new and notable. So wrong it hurts.
Anyone who knows history will realize this is patently false. Anyone who is aware of the Taiping Rebellion, the October Revolution, or the unrest of 1848. Of course, that “anyone” is a small set of individuals because most people don’t know history. Their minds are devoid of most facts not having to do with the Khardashians. And journalists are not much better. Many of them are in the game of creating stories rather than interpreting the world. If public relations operatives are well paid propagandists on a short leash, many journalists are poorly paid propagandists compensated with the freedom to be fabulists.
A piece like the above could convince, but only with a scatterplot. Social science can convince whether history says otherwise, because it is systematic and clear. But most people are not fluent and competent enough to do such data analysis, so they create a conclusion that is congenial to their audience, and marshal evidence in a biased manner (wittingly or unwittingly) to support their conclusion.
To get a sense of what we’re seeing today in the world, we need to go back centuries.
In the early 16th century, the unity of Western Christianity shattered. The standard story you see in the movies is that a German Augustinian monk named Martin Luther led a rebellion against the Roman Church, what became the Roman Catholic Church after it was clear that the Protestants were going to go their own way.
An alternative model would be that the invention of the printing press naturally unleashed fissiparous tendencies pregnant within late medieval Western Christianity. Luther was the right man at the right time to claim the mantle of the first reformer, but it was no coincidence that others such Zwingli were having issues with Western Christianity as it was configured during this period as well.
The truth is in dispute, but if you are curious about this period I highly recommend Diarmaid MacCulloh’s The Reformation. Rather, I want to use the Reformation to illustrate the reality that the early modern period led to the emergence of a mass popular culture which eventually produced the ascendancy of a demotic ethos. In politics the people now rule.
In the mid-16th century cuius regio eius religio held that the religion of the prince became the religion of the people. In England and much of Northern Europe monarchs and broader political elites (such as in the cities of Switzerland and in the Low Countries) dragged the traditionalist peasantry into the new religion. I believe this was feasible in part because for much of the peasantry true sectarianism had not taken deep root. Their religion was customary, traditional. But it was not a systematic ideology to which they were bound. The emergence of Protestantism, printing, and then the Catholic reaction, transformed confessional identities into something more solid and persistent.
And one thing that is notable about the 17th century is that during this century changes in the religion of the prince did not entail changes in the religion of the people! In England James II lost his crown because his nobles, and the people more broadly, rejected a Catholic monarch who imposed religious toleration upon them (though of course it is likely James II would have liked to drag all of England and Scotland back to Catholicism by force, but he did not have the power to do so, so toleration was a reasonable compromise). In Prussia the Hohenzollern line became Calvinist, but their people held fast to Lutheranism. In Saxony the ruling dynasty converted to Catholicism, but the only Catholics in their domain for many years were those in the court.
Between 1500 and 1700 the population’s religious identity became strong enough that peoples could resist the interests and whims of their rulers. A collective identity, horizontal and thick, developed which could withstand vertical shocks from the elites. In The Great Upheaval Jay Winik observes that 18th century observers of the emergence of the American republic were skeptical of its sustainability because of its geographic expanse. Ancient republics did not scale well. Democracies and republics were all well and good for city-states, but once the polity became large, it always evolved into a monarchy.
America falsified this hypothesis drawn from historical experience. Why? How? I believe that the printing press and the development of mass media in the form of newspapers and pamphlets allowed for the emergence of a thick and horizontal demotic national identity, where elites had to cater to the considerations of the populace, because the populace could act as a unit if it felt its interests were being suborned. This was something that was not possible in the ancient world. Popular revolts for various reasons occurred, but they were often local. The Nika riots are a case in point.
The Roman or Chinese societies were bound together by loyalties, fidelities, and identities. But, they tended to percolate down from on high, as local populations adhered to sub-elites or a distant theoretical monarch. Populist uprisings were often due to material considerations, such as famines, and their aims were often not ideological, but pragmatic. Men, such as the first Ming Emperor, could rise to power due to populist fervor and sectarian ideologies, but once in power they could and often did set them aside as inconveniences.
Modernity changed that by demanding that the people who ruled bow down before the values of those who were ruled. The first presidents of the American republic were nominal Christians at best. The first prime ministers of Italy tended to have poor relations with the Catholic Church. The autocrat Frederick the Great founded the Prussian state as the core of the Protestant dominated Germany of the 19th century, but his own personal beliefs tended toward contempt and disdain toward religion. Over time leaders of modern nation-states had had to give more fealty to the dominant ethos of the populace, as they present themselves as exemplars and representatives of the people they rule. Pious and approachable. Refined and aristocratic men such as Thomas Jefferson wouldn’t have pretended to have the common touch, but by the 21st century politicians such as George W. Bush downplayed their plainly blue-blood background and affected a more common image.
Modern social media amplifies and accelerates these trends, as collective consciousness is even more interconnected, responsive, and cohesive. But these trends predate the “social graph” and email. They are the natural outcome of the democratization of information flow that occurred with the rise of the printing press and cheap paper. The key is that you don’t need 80% of the population emailing or on social media to develop a critical mass, you need influencers in each community to develop a common identity through communication. Modern science is one such community, which developed in the 17th century as one of the many republics of letters. Similarly, social and political eminences within a town could serve as information nodes for the local populace.
The big changes were all pre-modern. First, there was writing, which allowed for the sidelining of memory, and the persistence of linguistic forms and cultures even after they were no longer spoken by living people (Sumerian and Latin are cases in point). I believe written histories and self-conceptions are qualitatively different from oral ones. Less protean, more stable, and easier to scale across time and space.
Then the early modern revolution in printing, paper, and economies of scale allowed for the development of near-universal literacy societies in scale and scope. Economic productivity and the demographic transition allowed for the emergence of consumer middle class societies, where the broad middle element of society was all that truly mattered in name if not always in fact.
The fact that modern politics is more responsive to the people means that modern politics is more base, volatile, and often more radical. This is a feature, not a bug, of democratic republics. When the “Arab Spring” was in full swing I predicted that democratic populism would lead to the ascendancy of Islamism and cultural conservatism. Not liberalism. I was right. Democratic republics become less liberal as they broaden their base and sink roots in the populace, because the average voter is not particularly liberal. Ancient hunter-gatherer tribes were not liberal. They enforced strong norms and social taboos. But they were democratic in seeking social consensus within the band.
The founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah was a nonobservant Shia Muslim whose grandfather was a Hindu. Though strongly attached to the Muslim identity as a national one, he was not a religious fanatic, and was only nominally Muslim in his beliefs and practices (he drank). But over the last several decades Pakistan has Islamicized the founder of the republic, and transformed itself into something that he likely wouldn’t have ever recognized. The madrassa has come into the halls of power, and forced the elites to conform to its folkways.
It is fashionable to emphasize the role of Facebook and social media for the ethnic and religious conflict in Myanmar. I would argue that the conflict develops out of the native Buddhist majority hostility to the Muslim minority which is also ethnically and racially different. Autocratic rule in places like Myanmar, Syria, and probably China, often allows for more toleration of minorities for various reasons. Once democratic majoritarianism kicks in, you may overturn authoritarian elite tolerance and usher in an era of majority persecution of hated minorities. Aung San Suu Kyi may not be saying much about the Rohingya precisely because she is reflecting the mood of the population of the people she represents. Dictators can ignore the passions of the people. Democrats can not if they wish to continue their hold on power.
We overestimate the impact of information technology in many areas of life. Modern scholars have access to a much wider assemblage of resources and are able to communicate at lightning speed with their colleagues, but are they that much more productive and insightful than their pre-computer predecessors? Surely there has been some change, but it is on the margin, a quantitative shift, not a qualitative one. Those who claim otherwise fall prey to presentism and their own ignorance at best, and are liars at worst.