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Apr 27, 2019

In 1795, a short 'philosophical sketch' by the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant, Toward a Perpetual Peace, appeared in print. The essay outlined the conditions necessary to procure a permanent peace among the sovereign nations of the world. Kant, of course, was no naive utopian—he was offering a theoretical model at a time when Europe was witnessing an unprecedented social upheaval at its centre. One of the preconditions Kant laid out, a novel addition to the genre of perpetual peace writing at the time, was his introduction of the role of publicity in international affairs. The ever-growing print media of newspapers would lay bear the machinations of war-mongering politicians at royal courts, putting in check the politics of secrecy. Open news would prevent wars, Kant speculated.

Two centuries later, the sage of Koenigsberg could not appear to have been more wrong in his predictions. News not only failed to prevent wars, it started them. From the yellow-press journalism that incited armed conflict between US and Spain in 1890 to the innumerable episodes of war sparked by news in the 20th century, the media has since played a decisive role in diplomacy between sovereign states. Now, with social media platforms allowing private users to produce their own news content, the game is no longer about established media corporations (though they still exert an enormous influence). One trend that is dividing liberal democratic societies in recent times is the proliferation of news in social media along partisan lines. This is in large part due to the recommendation algorithsm employed by platforms like YouTube and FB, which suggest 'related news' and takes the viewer into a rabbit hole where like-minded partisans congregate. The interesting (or disturbing?) aspect of this is that a lot of the consumers of such news are of an older generation. 'Alternative news' that purports to provide truth hidden by oppressive 'mainstream' news then proliferates through messenger services, group chats, etc. Pockets of contending 'truths' coexist uneasily, cut off from each other and drifting further apart as people consume information that is tailored to them, with each click bringing forth a score of suggestions likely to match their preferences. Everyone is talking amongst friends—when do we begin crossing the line to listen and speak to enemies?