The term ‘Epitome’ stems from the Greek epitemnein, which means ‘to cut short’. First used in 1520, originally meaning ‘summary’, its etymology indicates the process of cutting and selecting applied to create reduced versions of larger literary works. Many ancient texts, now lost to time, arrived to us only in the form of synopsis made by later authors. These are ‘Epitome’. By definition, this process does not address complexity, nuance, or contradiction but rather simplifies complex work to make it easily usable, shareable, and accessible—these are secondary historical accounts which may contain biases that were not present in the original. From ‘summary’, the term has later come to describe someone or something that represents the ideal characteristics of an entire class—a perfect example of something, an embodiment of an abstraction.
The broader topic of concern we want to address here is how social media platforms, that rely heavily on engagement-driven architectures, have come to harm our societies by directly increasing polarisation in public opinion and politics. This fact doesn’t necessarily mean that this ‘cut short’ simplification process, fostered by social media, pushes everyone to the extremes. Rather, these platforms embolden those on the extremes in dictating the conversation. They prevail because they are the ‘epitome’ of triggering, simple-minded, radical ideas that generate engagement. No matter what extreme on the political spectrum they reside, aggressivity rules. In the face of an alienated majority and a noisy minority capable of enacting mob dynamics in any political/social discourse, the idea of democracy has become extremely vulnerable, the fragmentation increasingly piercing and incommunicability mostly unbridgeable.
Before getting there, the second reason why we choose ‘Epitome’ to bear this issue’s title is that while the magazine is entering its second decade, we took time to look back at our journey and reflect on its defining characteristics. This issue developed as a summary of what DUST has been through the years.
This also brought us to reflect on the context in which the magazine originated—not so much the personal and creative context we extensively described in the previous issue, but the moment in which this happened. Reflecting on the last decade when so much changed around us allows us to understand how to move forward.
Historically, the year the magazine was founded was a year in which it seemed our generation’s hope for a better democracy was about to manifest. It was 2011, and the global financial crisis of 2008 had revealed the pitfalls of an unsustainable system that was cracking under our very eyes. At the same time, the spread of technology seemed to bear fruits in facilitating a more democratised world based on common access to information and knowledge. It was a revolutionary moment where having good honest will felt more valuable than having qualifications; a new world was coming and wasn’t to be built on old paradigms and credentials—this was indeed the naive and passionate approach on which this magazine started.
From a broader perspective, that techno-fuelled democratic optimism in which we inadvertently grew up with since the fall of the Berlin Wall, seemed now reaching oppressed societies well beyond Western borders. It was the year of the Arab Spring, in which youth, through social media, organised a series of successful uprisings against their respective governments from Tunisia to Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain—spreading a desire for change throughout the Arabic-speaking world. It felt like a natural development of the successful advancement of democratic values promised by technology since the 1990s.
In the same year, the Occupy movement in the US and Indignados in Spain employed the same tactics of spontaneous mobilisation coordinated via social media to occupy public spaces for weeks on end in protesting against inequality and a lack of ‘real democracy’ in finance-led societies. These youth movements represented radical experiments of self-governance based on direct democracy, in which decision-making required no hierarchy. They attempted to show what a genuinely accountable democracy could look like, and for the very short time it lasted, it felt incredibly galvanising.
At the same time, in northern Syria, Kurdish revolutionaries declared Rojava independent in their quest for self-determination, implementing their alternative model of stateless democracy—an unprecedented exercise in ecofeminist, anticapitalist and direct democracy rooted in the idea of 20th-century philosopher Murray Bookchin. This incredible Kurdish-led experiment of a horizontal democratic system was a small but significant example.
Those years showed that a different world was indeed conceivable and that the spread of technologies would have revived and improved our democracies. As infamously predicted in the Mayan 2012 prophecy, it really felt like a world was ending and the beginning of a whole new era was about to arrive. The optimism for a more cooperative future was at its peak, and it seemed nothing could have stopped this process.
However, it didn’t last long. Soon after, the Arab Spring was silenced by restored autocracy fuelled by war, death and destruction. The Occupy movement dissolved overnight, unable to formalise any concrete political proposals. Rojava has since been forgotten by public opinion, let alone against the Turkish occupation. And in regards to the West, we ended up with democracies weakened, threatened and divided by the very tool that promised to enhance them. But… how did we get here?
To understand the kind of impact that digital algorithms had on our society in the past decade, we can start with the fact that social media initially consisted of a harmless collection of personal photos, information, and opinions. However, it quickly became a different tool with the intensification of viral dynamics—the techno-optimism that boosted our democratic ideas was yet to meet with its delusional outcomes.
Around 2012, most around the world began using social media daily, resulting in the mass consumption of information globally. Optimism was high, and there was no fear of inviting more people to the party. As part of the democratisation effort, regardless of their digital illiteracy, how senseless their contribution might have been or how much lower they would have brought the standards, everybody was welcome to join and strengthen their social connections. While everyone was jumping on the bandwagon, what became the problem was the way this engagement became exploited.
With the ‘Like’ button on Facebook and the ‘Retweet’ button on Twitter, a public metric for content popularity was already introduced in 2009. Yet, it was in 2012 that Facebook’s ‘Share’ button became readily available to users on smartphones.
With a newfound ability to aggregate user data, these platforms introduced algorithms intended to promote posts on the base of predicted ‘engagement’. The stream of information evolved into a curated feed in which ‘engaging’ content would prevail. These would likely be emotionally triggering posts or tweets containing inflammatory language, moral judgments, emotional arguments or angry and passionate outbursts.
To best capitalise on the algorithm’s potential by 2013, media outlets began testing various headline formats to find the model that generated the highest click-through rate. The result was a proliferation of content specifically designed to make us click impulsively. In this unchecked virality race, fake news thrived.
Another narrative decreeing the harmfulness of technologies, and the end of techno-optimism, emerged in 2013 when leaked documents revealed the widespread use of mass surveillance programmes in ‘liberal’ democracies. Governmental apparatus and private companies gained unprecedented insights into our minds and behaviour by collecting and analysing users’ data against any notion of privacy. The prospect of a frightening world of enhanced control and surveillance sealed the split between technology and democratic optimism once and for all.
On another level, in the following years, we saw how the faulty nature of the algorithm seemed to slip out of the social media platform’s hands, resulting in an escalation of rage, disinformation and confusion.
The mass use of social media rapidly transformed the public square into a space dominated by mob dynamics, falsehoods, and extremes. Many believed that this demonstrated humanity’s inability to find common ground without subordinating itself to a central authority. Instead, this demonstrates that these less reflective inclinations and low instinctual behaviours end up prevailing in an ill-designed environment. If we thought democracy is a proven system with fortified foundations, we had yet to consider how the growing optimism of an all-connected world—and how the ever-increasing people deluded by it—could have been exploited.
The slow transformation of social media as a threat to the democratic process was not only accidental but is mainly attributed to state-sponsored actors. As early as 2014, it became known that the Russian Internet Research Agency used fake accounts on all major social media platforms, thereby taking advantage of the algorithm design, to incite partisan divisions in support of Russian interests—bringing Western democracies to implosion.
If we didn’t take this seriously, by 2016—annus horribilis, that brought us Brexit and Trump—we woke up to this very new reality. A reckless deluded minority sowed divisions that internal and external forces managed to exploit for their own advantage.
2018 saw the revelation that Cambridge Analytica—a consulting firm specialised in ‘global election management’ that worked for the Vote Leave campaign in the UK and Trump’s presidential campaign—had access to 87 million Facebook users’ personal information and engaged in mass manipulation campaigns to influence political elections. The moment we realised psychological microtargeting was not simply a novel form of political propaganda but a means to insidiously manipulate and direct people’s thoughts on a scale before unimaginable, we began to understand that the world had indeed changed forever.
It also became clear that the architectural characteristics of modern forms of digital communication enabled the success of divisive partisan narratives, joined by state actors and ideological extremists. By hijacking and exacerbating shareable concepts and values, they infiltrated the debate, gaining a stronghold on people on a mass scale. Even the values we celebrated were turned upside down and used to penetrate people’s discontent. The fight for equality against the 1% that fostered a renewed idea of participatory democracy became an alt-right justification for the lowest anti-elite populism and victimisation against an alleged global agenda. The arguments used to criticise our Western system were flipped and used to attack democracy itself, suggesting we could be better off with ’alternative’ models. The idea of finding personal guidance, not only through intellect and logic but more holistically through intuitions and emotions (‘The seed is the feeling’ as we stated in the first issue of DUST), became a spreading belief that justified the empowerment of the worst gut feeling as own personal truth worthy of expression. The willingness to challenge outdated structures and concepts has been applied without any compass to the extreme of making ‘good’ and ‘evil’, ‘true’ or ‘false’ indistinguishable. These techniques went hand in hand with gaslighting, trolling, and dehumanising the opponent, all in the name of ‘freedom of speech.’
While we were trying to cope with our dismay in understanding how this raging populism could be contained, we didn’t realise how our reaction to it and the radicalisation of progressive values created an equal sinister phenomenon stemming from the ‘left’. So-called ‘wokeness’ and ‘cancel culture’ has morphed digital spaces into aggressive spaces that resemble the spaces they claim to oppose. While everyone was pointing fingers, divisions were sowed throughout the political spectrum. The magnitude of the digital age have been so overwhelming that people, or for lack of adequate emotional vocabulary, or for the ethical urge to police everyone’s vocabulary, seemed to have no choice but to reclaim a language they could own in the face of a rapidly changing world. If their intention was to place people’s needs back to the centre, their unleashed delusion, expressed in anti-systemic rage, led to highly corrosive results. This was a nightmare becoming true—one that, from the inside, has undermined and deconstructed our democratic institutions, our trust in public discourse, and the shared stories and ideals our culture has ever produced.
If everything was confusing back then, this matrix carried on through various Western elections, throughout the pandemic, and the greatest test to democracy yet: the unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
The miscalculated war, expected to bring quick victory and further divide Western societies, ended up, for now, resulting in the total opposite—ultimately uniting the international community against this ruthless aggression. But, it has become clear that the Russian-led matrix underlying Western populism, right-wing ideas, alternative facts—or any other kind of divisive arguments—revealed itself for what it clearly is. An effort aimed at discrediting and destroying our democracies by exacerbating our flaws and disproving our moral superiority. The admiration of autocracy as a better and more ‘moral’ government for our times has proven purely delusional. The extension on which at its very core lies the suppression of freedom and human rights—and what this entails—is undeniable. For how much their rhetoric suggests that our democracies aren’t that different but degenerated and dysfunctional, they won’t be able to win people over against our sacred fundamental principles such as freedom and human dignity.
The outstanding Ukrainian bravery, sacrifice and honour it’s saving Ukraine, it’s saving Europe for that matter, and is also saving Europe from itself—from its lack of common vision about who we really want to be as a European community. At this very moment, we should question ourselves and realise where sowing division is leading us.
Part of the new generation in the West seems to have lost trust in democratic politics and institutions. Still, for how even valid their arguments may be, the bottom line is that there’s no other guarantee for freedom and justice. We can see it now that the very essence of democracy is directly under attack. If we don’t try to better ourselves and our social fabric, in what we do, what we say, what we produce, we risk fostering division and weakening the very system that enables our freedom. Finding a common way to stand united should define all our efforts.
Improving the design of democracy to fit with the digital age and preparing the ground for a new civic engagement era is this generation’s most challenging task. It’s about discussing how to reform social media, strengthen our institutions, and limit the unrestrained powers of governments and corporations on our lives. But mostly, it is understanding that any forces threatening our freedom and self-determination can have their grip on us by exploiting our ‘subconscious minds’ and induced behaviours. It is understanding that we do need a suitable framework to cope in the first place with our subconscious mind and awake our potential, a framework through which we can appreciate that we are all connected and equally responsible for the earth—or digital space—we inhabit. It is understanding that fundamental truths exist—even if we don’t believe they do—and that we can experience and share them despite our differences. It is understanding that while we increasingly indulge in virtual worlds, we must agree upon a tangible one. It is understanding that being an ‘epitome’ of democracy should emphasise the need to connect, share and understand one another. If our revived optimism should point to something, it should be this.
Democracies fail when they can only stand on a cluster of fragmentations where people either impose themselves or are afraid to speak up—and disagreements cannot be resolved. The current situation in which right and left-wingers are out-competing each other, pointing out who is the craziest, may be understood as an old story. Yet, how our digital age exacerbates these divisions is now beyond manageable.
If contemporary times demonstrate how ill-equipped we are in facing the digital age, all our daily efforts today should be directed to elevating ourselves, taking sovereignty over our psyche, and finding the essence that most makes us all human. The hope is that our generation will opt out of this division and come together to remember what unites us and what those western values we cherish stand for.
In the last decade, our disorientation in the face of the overwhelming tech-led reality made it almost impossible to speak the same language or even accept the same truth.
As Pier Paolo Pasolini—whose centenary we celebrate in this issue—once said, “Death lies not / in not being able to communicate / but in no longer being able to be understood.”
Under the thick dust of dying democracies—a layer that in the past decade has obscured our optimism, we know that there is much that we can share, much we can all believe in, much we can agree upon, and much that we can still understand about each other.