The Language of Elitism vs Democracy

Occasionally one encounters a naked distrust of the commoner that is anti-democratic in its effect.  Take this article in Business Week for example (via slashdot, emphasis mine):

The venom of crowds isn’t new. Ancient Rome was smothered in graffiti. But today the mad scrawls of everyday punters can coalesce into a sprawling, menacing mob, with its own international distribution system, zero barriers to entry, and the ability to ransack brands and reputations. No question, legitimate criticism about companies should get out. The wrinkle now is how often the threats, increasingly posted anonymously, turn savage. Even some A-list bloggers are wondering if the cranks are too often prevailing over cooler heads.

First of all, nowhere in the article does the author bother to qualify his statement about those “A-list bloggers”.  Greenwald has noted this kind of behavior from the media before (via Kos, emphasis mine):

My principal criticism of the ABC story was that it was exclusively predicated on what ABC vaguely described only as “sources familiar with the dramatic upgrade.” It did not include a single other piece of information about the identity of the “sources” who were making such dramatic, consequential, and potentially war-inflaming claims — not even whether they were government or private sources, American or Iranian (or some other nationality), or whether they have any history that evinces a desire for regime change in or war against Iran. For that reason, the story seemed worthless, given that it was impossible for the reader to assess the credibility of the assertions.

The “A-list bloggers” quote is nothing less than an attempt to lend credibility to the article’s assertion by tacking people from “that internet crowd” onto the criticism of the excesses of online free speech.  Michelle Conlin ought to have specified which bloggers she was talking about, and what their specific concerns were.

Back to the language, the article might as well be titled “Mob Rule!  Plebians Speech Published on the Internet!”.  She is digging deep into a common attack on the notion of Democracy, namely that the “common people” are stupid, violent and otherwise uncivilized.  In addition to legitimate concerns about massive amounts of libel (which is where many of the commentators on the slashdot post direct the discussion), it seems she is discussing the very legitimate criticism she thinks “should get out”:

Trashing brands online can also be high theater. Rats cruising around a Greenwich Village KFC/Taco Bell (YUM ) on YouTube (GOOG ). MySpacers (NWS ) busting their employers’ chops. Faux ads bashing the Chevy (GM ) Tahoe as a gas-guzzling, global-warming monster. Millions of people watch this stuff—then join in and pile on. Is it any wonder companies lose control of the conversation?

How were the faux ads on youtube anything other than clever criticism of GM?  The focus on companies losing control of the conversation is a very telling part of the article.  For companies interested in the bottom line over social responsibility, legitimate concerns are every bit the threat of truly hateful speech.  Naturally, there is business to be found:

For executives there’s a new, $10,000 premium service from ReputationDefender.com that can promote the info you want and suppress the news you don’t.

How handy.

The fact is that it is the democratization of communication that some companies (media conglomerates included) view as a real threat.  An article like this may discuss legitimate concerns with anonymous libel and trolls, but it functions as a hit piece on the ideals of free speech and the townhall (emphasis mine):

The venom of crowds isn’t new. Ancient Rome was smothered in graffiti. But today the mad scrawls of everyday punters can coalesce into a sprawling, menacing mob, with its own international distribution system, zero barriers to entry, and the ability to ransack brands and reputations.

That “zero barriers to entry” bit is really worrying to anyone who has grown accustomed to living in a bubble protected from the world and its opinions by “barriers to entry”.  The removal of these barriers is one of the most hopeful and promising aspects of the web.  It is one realization of the promise of Democracy.

We can call out the anti-democratic language of elitism whenever we encounter it.  We can support efforts to keep the Internet open.  Above all we can hold the practical ideals of Democracy high in our own words and actions.

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3 Responses

  1. Question is, should they have had control in the first place? What entitles them to control, other than the many times ruthless measures they taken seize it?

    Which brings me in a roundabout way to so called “Tort Reform” (because libel is a Tort). The corporate win of the GOP bemoans and decries the status of an increasingly “litigious world” a “Lawsuit Happy America”, but the fact is that nobody complains when Big Brother Business reaches out with its armies of hired guns into you living room and dictates what you can or can not have in your computer, what you can or can not say about the company outside of the office or even the kind of bumper stickers your car has.

    You won’t hear the Tucker Carlsons of the world complain about that.

  2. This is an excellent and provocative post. I’m still digesting it.

    “Frivolous Lawsuits” is a corporate protection tool and never recognizes how difficult it has become for a citizen to seek redress. Not for libel, but I have had experience with suing a company. It took lots of my money and hoop-jumping work and more than 3 years just to reach a settlement, which was to my favor, and I stopped at that point because it would have been another three years or more before I might have been heard in a court.

  3. Rafael, not enough people ask this question.

    Mirth, thanks! Lawsuits cost too much to be anything but a barrier for most individual citizens. And whatever happened to due process? In any case, your point does highlight (as do the slashdotters) that for small businesses and ordinary citizens who encounter actual libel, solutions are priced beyond their reach.

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