The Gutenberg Press, Twitter, and the Users of Modern Technology

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The article was written by Bridget Cox at Oban High School as part of her Scottish Baccalaureate in Expressive Arts, Languages, Science and Social Sciences. Last year the school had three pupils who all achieved the Scottish Baccalaureate in Social Science. They were Bridget, Anna Bavington and Mary Donnelly. This year the school has have nine students working on the Baccalaureate awards.

A loud and opinionated outsider who shocked the world and successfully fought against the establishment, changing the course of history through his use of modern technology to promote his controversial views.

Who springs to mind? Donald Trump? Or Martin Luther? He, too, used modern technology to publicise his anti-establishment opinions and cause the Protestant Reformation.

Donald Trump and Martin Luther are not the same, but their uses of Twitter and the Gutenberg printing press respectively have had many similar effects, and it could be argued that nailing a pamphlet to the door of a church was the 16th century equivalent of a Tweet.

Despite being centuries apart, the Gutenberg Press and Twitter share many qualities. Both are the latest technologies and allow anyone and everyone to publish an idea or opinion, regardless of what it is and whether or not it is true. The potentially huge number of people who will read and react to it means it can undermine what has previously been accepted and attack the establishment’s view.

A number of recent political events including Brexit and the election of Donald Trump would likely have been impossible without modern technology; Hugo Rifkind calls what we are experiencing ‘the baby steps of a truly mass political engagement brought about by technology that suddenly makes mass political engagement possible’.

In other words, Twitter has become a tool responsible for political revolution as it allows ordinary people to get involved in current affairs. The same goes for the Reformation. Bernd Muller believes ‘without printing, no Reformation’.

As well as this, they both allow messages which have been published to be republished and further promoted socially and geographically, either through reprinting or retweeting. This has the obvious advantage of spreading the message, meaning its impact will be greater and wider; however, it also comes with a number of problems.

With more readings come more and different interpretations which can be difficult as peoples’ different life experiences can lead them to reinterpret things. Martin Luther found this to be a problem as he wanted everyone on his side and sharing his opinion against the corruption of the Catholic Church. However, the Gutenberg Press and Twitter allow people to have their own opinions and break free from only being allowed to believe what the establishment have told them.

Luther was one of the first people to write for the masses and provide them with information, as the elite and the Catholic Church believed that because they were uneducated, it was irresponsible to provide them with any information. They were not entitled to an opinion on issues much too complex for their feeble understanding of the world. Luther believed that they had as much right as anyone who had been educated to access the information about societal issues which concerned them, significantly the corruption of the Catholic Church.

In order to include them, he wrote in the vernacular, in this case German. Although literacy levels were low, around 30 per cent in the towns and cities and only five per cent in rural areas, by writing in German a much larger percentage of the population were able to learn of what he thought, either through reading one of the readily available pamphlets the printing press allowed him to produce, or by listening to him, or others who had read what he had written, speak about the subject. This meant that by the mid-1520s, a huge proportion of the German population had heard of Martin Luther and understood his ideas and his call for the reformation of the Catholic Church, all thanks to the Gutenberg Press.

Similarly, the large number of retweets that Donald Trump’s tweets get had a massive impact on his campaign to become the 45th President of the USA. Since 2009, he has sent more than 34,000 tweets and now has over 26 million followers.

Although his tweets are often retweeted for their unintentional comical and sometimes ridiculous content, and nearly 60 per cent of them have at least one exclamation mark in them, the fact that most of his tweets get between 10,000 and 100,000 retweets highlights just how far his opinion goes. Despite the fact that many of his views have remained controversial, his use of Twitter had similar success as Martin Luther’s use of the Gutenberg Press in convincing people (a proportion of the American population significant enough to get him elected) of his anti-establishment and rather extreme message.

Without Twitter it is unlikely that he would be so well known or indeed President of the United States as the message he communicated directly to the public was not acceptable to the papers and news stations which would previously have been needed to spread it. Trump has frosty relationships with most news companies and so Twitter is largely responsible for his success because it has always been the main source of promotion for his policies and the best way to spread his unfiltered opinion.

On complex issues, people only being subjected to one side of an argument is a real danger. Neither the Catholic Church during the Reformation, nor the Remain campaign during the run up to the EU referendum used modern technology as much as their opponents and as a result the people were more aware of the other side of the argument. Although both groups did later realise the impact that modern technology was having on influencing the masses, by that time it was too late to reverse the popularity that the more extreme opposition had already gained because, for a significant amount of time, people had been hearing one side unopposed. No matter someone’s level of education or their original opinion, constantly being exposed to information which shows one side of an argument in a positive light and the opposing one negatively will have an effect.

In the case of the EU Leave campaign, Twitter was particularly important in their victory as it allowed them to frame the debate around immigration, a subject which suited them. It was the most
controversial issue of the campaign for a lot of people, so by promoting their opinions on it using Twitter, they forced the other side to campaign on the subject on their choice.

Self-selected news can result in the creation of an echo chamber, which repeats only one side of the argument. Although during the Brexit campaign, the Leave echo chamber was forced on people due to the lack of Remain presence on Twitter, it is not uncommon for people, without realising, to create their own echo chambers. This occurs when someone follows only people and accounts which support issues they already agree with and consequently all the opinions and ideas they read on Twitter each day just reinforce the opinion they already have. Not only does this make them oblivious to the other side of the argument, they also forget that it, too, is well supported. Should one group then make gains against the other, people who have only been exposed to one side become
angry and disbelieving because, to them, the only valid option is the only one they are aware of.

In order to try to prove that when people are only exposed to the point of view they agree with, this forms a self-reinforcing loop, I carried out a practical experiment on the subject of Scottish independence. Taking five Yes voters and five who would vote No, I monitored a 15-minute group discussion with each of the groups on their own, and then one with both groups together.

All three discussions began with a controversial prompt: ‘The fall in oil price has killed the case for Scottish independence’. The Yes group argued that there was more to their desire for independence than economic reasons. Their passionate discussion about patriotism, failed promises, lack of representation, and the prospect of a brighter future without England, included little reference to any of the issues raised by the question of economic stability. They were also very sympathetic to the fact that the SNP had failed to provide any concrete answers to many vital questions.

The 15 minutes I spent with the No voters also failed to address any of the issues why Scottish independence could benefit Scotland as a democracy or why emotionally people might want to be independent. This was the anticipated result from both groups as without any input from the other side, they didn’t bring up issues which weren’t of benefit to their line of argument.

As expected, both groups used most of their time speaking in favour of the point of view they supported. For 78 per cent of the time, the Yes voters spoke about the issue from a pro-independence stance, while they only spent three per cent of it dealing with the other side of the argument. The other 19 per cent was neutral. Similarly, the No voters spent 82 per cent of the time talking about the issue from an anti-independence stance, five per cent on the pros of independence, and 13 per cent neutral. This clearly highlights how self-reinforcing debates without an opposition can be.

However, both groups together were more positive. The debate began dominated by the louder Yes voices who continued to argue about the ‘undying passion’ of the Scots and the other options for an independent Scotland; however, as the No voters directed the debate to the issue of the economy, they all reached the agreement that now is not the right time for a second referendum. Interestingly, both sides seemed to become more sympathetic to the other as soon as they found something they could agree on. Overall, the discussion was neutral for 42 per cent of time, pro-
independence for 25 per cent, and anti-independence for 33 per cent. In comparison to the figures for the single group discussion, it is evident that the presence of the other side of the argument really impacted both the Yes and No voters, and led them to some common ground.

Speaking to someone from each side after the discussion, the No voter felt that the debate is no longer as simple as Yes/No and, although there are some reasons why independence could be good for Scotland, overall it would do more harm than good. The Yes voter said that she, too, could understand some of the concerns of the No campaign, and felt less secure in her understanding of some of the facts when faced with the opposition than she had when she had been with only Yes supporters. The line of argument from both sides became less radical when they were confronted
with opposition, because they were challenged by points which didn’t support their thinking and so were forced to consider more thoroughly.

This leads to the conclusion that echo chambers and surrounding yourself with only like-minded accounts is a serious danger for politics and society. People need to be aware of all the facts in order to make a genuine decision about an issue, and the number of people who are only informed about one side of the argument is exacerbated by the other similar accounts suggested by Twitter. In order to combat this, it would be more sensible if suggestions of other accounts to follow encouraged people to make themselves aware of the opposing side of the argument, as that way people wouldn’t end up in this self-reinforcing loop of biased opinion, and could make properly informed decisions.

Twitter and the Gutenberg Press have both changed the way we think. However, the right to have a voice comes with a certain responsibility. The danger of unfiltered access is that the opposing side is not always heard by everybody.