Religious rib-ticklers

Heard the one about the Muslim comedian? This and much more in our round-up of quirkier parts of the

What with the rain, the football, and the massive data loss on an unprecedented scale, there was not all that much to laugh about this week.

Bucking the trend was Allah Made Me Funny, a Muslim comedy tour which reached the UK recently. Its arrival caused a fair bit of chin-stroking in the British press, despite the fact that there are already a number of cracking Muslim comedians around, including NS columnist Shazia Mirza and members of the provocatively named Axis of Evil group.

There are also quite a few websites where you can get a regular dose of Islamic drollery (check out the one about a Rabbi, a Mullah and a Nun).

So why is 'Muslim comedy' still treated as such a novel phenomenon? Do shows like Allah Made Me Funny utilise this novelty factor in the way they are promoted and thus implicitly give sustenance to the unhelpful notion that funny Muslims are pretty rare? Or should the tour be praised for effectively and flamboyantly counterbalancing a number of damaging and pervasive stereotypes?

Either way, it’s been hailed as a genuinely amusing show and the debate it has provoked is a good deal more interesting than the increasingly unedifying 'Is Martin Amis the new Bernard Manning?' spat, which is still trundling on, its news value buoyed by a number of celebrity interventions.

Meanwhile, racial identity underlay a number of the other arts stories of the week as we asked if the modern music scene has become too segregated, while The Guardian questioned if a film telling what it called "a black story" should be made by a black director.

Fakebook Revisited

It was recently revealed on this blog that Noble Laureate Doris Lessing has a MySpace page.

Which other great writers are maintaining a strong web presence? The good news for Doris is that she is streets ahead of most of her contemporaries, aside from trendy Dave Eggers who has a page over on MySpace rival facebook.

However, there are a number of unofficial and spoof literary MySpace pages, some of which are serious minded fan sites (like this one on Martin Amis), some of which are blatant parodies (on this page someone purporting to be Salman Rushdie lists their interests as “pissing people off” and “watching the telly”). Worryingly for Doris, despite her page being legitimate, she has only a paltry 345 online chums while the obviously fake Salman has an impressive 487.

Moreover, aside from the fake contemporary novelists, an alarming number of deceased literary greats are living out a ghoulish electronic afterlife on the net. Even Shakespeare has a page (“It is correct. I am backeth!”): he’s got 6298 friends, lives in Elsinore Castle and offers you the chance to buy ‘original merchandise’.

You can check out a blog from "Tolstoy" (who is currently reading If I’m So Wonderful, Why Am I Still Single?) or pages ostensibly set-up by TS Eliot, Virginia Woolf and multiple Dostoevskys.

This is all waggish enough but as publishers latch on to the marketing potential of social networking sites (“Hi this is Philip Roth inviting you to check out my new novel”) it might not be long before someone clamps down on the fake literati of cyberspace. It seems only fair to Doris.

Related

MySpace homepage

A blog entry on literary fakers

Short Cuts

Things you may have missed this week included the Third Annual No Music Day and the bizarre news that Queen star and physics buff Brian May is to take over from Cherie Blair as the next Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University.

Meanwhile, the opening of the exhibition King Tut and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs at the former millennium dome (now rehabilitated as the London O2 Arena) has been causing a stir, with some commentators criticising the hefty admission price, the choice of venue and the allegedly gaudy design of the galleries. Are the complaints of King Tut’s Wah Wah Club justified? We’ll have a full review in our next issue. In the coming week you could check out work by the acclaimed South African artist William Kentridge, support a popular Youth Theatre’s redevelopment plan or enter yourself (ethnicity and gender permitting) into the 2007 Miss India UK Competition. Enjoy.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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