New media help deniers, Republicans, jaded Democrats, the apathetic and Ireland’s do-nothing coalition – John Gormley
There’s a story I came across recently about Noam Chomsky and his dentist. Chomsky’s dentist asked him after a routine visit if he was grinding his teeth at night. Chomsky didn’t think so, and his wife confirmed it wasn’t happening. However, they then discovered that most mornings the MIT professor did in fact grind his teeth – as he read the New York Times. The story – perhaps apocryphal – serves to illustrate Chomsky’s disenchantment with the mainstream media’s coverage of US foreign policy decisions. If the New York Times is bad, then presumably Chomsky would quickly require dentures if he were a regular viewer of Fox News, such is its distortion of reality.
Chomsky has always argued that the media’s primary purpose is to ‘manufacture consent’ and lately he has turned his attention to the media’s role in shaping the public view of Climate Change, the biggest threat facing humanity. He asks the obvious question: how is it at a time when 98 per cent of top scientists agree that Climate Change is caused by humans burning fossil fuels that an increasing number of Americans believe that it has nothing to do with human activity? Sadly, this is no longer an American phenomenon. In Europe and globally, people have retreated into denial as the economic crisis has worsened. The desperation of the unemployed has been exploited by the oil and gas corporations who promise jobs and money only if we tap our offshore-oil resources and our shale gas through fracking. Our own Minister Rabbitte has been softening up the people through a series of interviews and newspapers articles, informing them that fracking isn’t so bad if it’s “done right”. Climate-change considerations are always an afterthought with this government – as we saw when they abandoned the CO2 targets in their new climate change legislation. What’s worse, they know they can get away with it. There are fewer and fewer watchdogs on this issue. Our national broadcaster, quite shamefully, no longer has an environment correspondent. Yes, we’ve reached 400 ppm of CO2 in our atmosphere, it’s acknowledged by climate scientists that, if anything, the seriousness of the climate crisis has been understated, and yet RTÉ, our ‘public service broadcaster’ does not have a specialised correspondent to inform the public. It’s enough to make you grind your teeth.
Which brings us back to Noam Chomsky. You might think that Chomsky, having dismissed the mainstream media, would embrace the freedom and opportunities offered by social media and new technology. But it’s not so. His approach is, in fact, quite traditional. He has described social media as “superficial, shallow, evanescent”, and in so doing has incurred the wrath of the more hip left-wing academics, who point to the importance of social media in the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and amongst the gay and Hispanic communities in the USA. The latest street violence in Turkey, where prime minister Erdogan has publicly condemned Twitter, would seem to validate the views of those who see social media as politically empowering and a vehicle of radical change. But it would be wrong, I believe, to dismiss Chomsky’s concerns. If, indeed, social networks are so powerful, if they bypass the normal channels of misinformation, then why are people so misinformed on the question of climate change? Could it be that the climate-change deniers, often encouraged and financed by major oil companies, have taken to the new medium with gusto. It’s certainly easier to deliver a hate-filled climate-change denial in 140 characters than it is to explain the complexities of climate science.
It’s easier to deliver a hate-filled climate-change denial in 140 characters than to explain the complexities of climate science
And if climate change is not an issue for the electorate, it will not be an issue for the mainstream parties who react, it seems, to the latest trends. In the United States, to get on the Republican ticket a candidate must be a climate-change sceptic. The Democrats, on the other hand, talk a good game but do nothing about it when in power. They, too, are in thrall to the powerful vested interests which advocate the fetterless exploitation of oil and resources.
The rise of social media and the greater use of smartphones are unlikely to change these facts. The twitterati and facebookers will, for the most part, continue to be more concerned with celebrity gossip and other trivia than they are about climate change. And poor old Chomsky and the rest of us will continue to champ.
John Gormley is a Contributing Editor of Village