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Did you spot the one big departure in the new Beauty and the Beast trailer?

The clue is in the library.

Disney hasn’t had any trouble drumming up interest for their latest live-action remake of an animated classic. The trailer for the new Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson and Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens, broke records back in November when it was viewed an astonishing 127 million times in its first 24 hours – even though the new trailer suggests that the new film is almost identical to its predecessor.

That trailer showed strikingly similar music, lines, costumes, sets and even cinematography to the animated original.

But the latest look at the new film, released last night, does have one key departure hidden in the sea of recognisable shots.

One of the most striking scenes in the 1991 cartoon comes when Belle is shown a new room in the Beast’s castle. Like Elizabeth Bennet before her, Belle falls in love with her future partner’s real estate before the man himself. Her version of Pemberley comes in the form of the Beast’s library. Avid reader Belle is awed by his ridiculously large collection of books. “You like it?” he gushes. “It’s yours!”

But there are some additional lines in the new trailer that change the dynamic in the new trailer. “Have you really read every one of these books?” Emma Watson’s Belle asks. “Well, some of them are in Greek,” the Beast replies. Belle can only give an impressed giggle – and we’re to assume that love begins to bloom between this unlikely couple over their shared love of reading.

In the 1991 cartoon, there’s nothing to suggest that Belle and the Beast have such things in common: the special edition home release of the film includes a scene in which Belle teaches the illiterate Beast to read.

In fact, Belle teaches the Beast all sorts of things aside from how to pronounce “two” – like how to eat without getting food all over his face, and how to feed small animals. They first bond over her tending to his scratches and scrapes. Belle is a domestic caregiver as much as she is a lover, a maternal figure in the Beast’s life. That her story ends with her uniting with the Beast forever after, then, can seem a little contradictory – especially as she explicitly rejects the idea of caring for a husband in a life of domesticity with Gaston, who offers her, “a rustic hunting lodge, my latest kill roasting on the fire, and my little wife, massaging my feet, while the little ones play with the dogs”.

Perhaps the new film sets out to counter that idea with Belle and the Beast’s shared love of literature. We also see Belle and the Beast bonding over some sort of magical atlas, and we know that in the new version of the film Belle has been reimagined as a career woman who came up with a kind of washing machine (in the original, her father is the inventor). Both Emma Watson and director Bill Condon have said they wanted the remake to have a feminist slant.

While it seems more than a bit of a stretch to sell this cosy tale as a radical manifesto about women’s place in the world, at least we know there might be some differences between the much-loved animation and this live-action remake. So who is going to come up with a spot the difference drinking game before 17 March?

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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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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