Political parties first emerged in the age of the printing press and near universal literacy. You needed a mass organisation behind you if you were going to stand any chance of getting your message across to enough people to get elected. So the only way to reach power was to use the mechanism of an established major political party or to spend decades of hard work at the grass roots building another. It took Labour a long time to become a serious contender.
Then we had the technology of the radio in which families could sit together in a living room and hear the messages that the official broadcasting organisation decided that you should hear. If the government happened to think that uplifting messages were what you needed then that's what you got. If Adolph Hitler became Chancellor then night after night some considerably more poisonous nonsense was driven into the entire nation's brain with consequences we know all too well. Joseph Stalin used the media in very similar ways. The state could control the airways in an entire nation and did so to dreadful effect.
Initially the world of television wasn't so very different in its impact. But multi channel communication and competition for viewers gave us a very different situation. For good and ill. Instead of powerful states controlling what we heard a few very rich owners of multi-media outlets could manipulate the messages at ease. All a wealthy owner needed to do was to provide popular entertainment and that person could broadcast whatever news messages they liked to a passive audience.
If you were a politician then you had to live with that reality. If you chose to face down Rupert Murdoch then you were going to lose a lot of votes and have to fight off some very unpleasant reporting about what you were up to. The result was a set of politicians who thought that the way to get into power was to study the opinion polls and try and put their views over as a controlled message that was most likely to appeal to the middle of the road viewer. And of course the owner of the station.
That is what the last generation of politicians were best at doing. People like Blair didn't just copy what everyone else was saying. They scientifically tested how to use a relatively narrow range of mass media outlets to drip feed the messages that they wanted to get across most effectively. We lived in an age of machine politicians who needed a mass organisation and a great deal of money to get heard.
Things are different now. We are moving away from the age of media that you sat and watched to technology that allows the individual to make thousands of decisions about not only what they want to watch but also what they want to pass on to others or comment on. To put this simply I still sit and watch TV news. My son never does. He only ever consumes news via social media. In fact that statement is a lie. Very few people using social media consume their news. They interact with it.
This can have some very dangerous consequences. It means that all sorts of unpleasant minority views can be disseminated without any serious filter on what is transmitted. If you want to pass on horrible extremist religious nonsense that is produced in Saudi Arabia then it is very hard to stop you. The same is true if you are a nasty racist or a child porn addict.
It also has some potentially very helpful consequences. Ordinary people can spread opinions that they approve of very rapidly and have a huge influence. We are more likely to believe what we see posted from a friend than we are to believe what we hear on the TV news. Those multiple uncontrollable sources of opinion get stronger by the day and this places a great deal of power back in the hands of the population.
What we do with that power is crucial. We can, if we choose, decide to listen only to the voices of those who think like we do and send each other messages that re-enforce and exaggerate the views of that collective. That is what has driven the rise of extremist views. Trumps supporters didn't need to worry about whether their version of reality was scientific or historical truth. They only needed to worry about whether it was popular and how many followers it generated. A social media rant proves attractive when it is persuasive not when it is carefully and accurate.
All of this loosens and weakens the power of traditional political parties. It points to a world where views are increasingly starting to fragment and new movements can emerge and fall away very rapidly.
For those of us who are interested in creating a more positive future I think this places a number of significant obligations upon us. The most important is to make an active effort to try and seek out sites that are disseminating information and facts that are reliable and to redouble our efforts to distinguish fact from opinion. A bizarre view, you might think, from someone writing an opinion piece but I have always thought that opinion has to be built on a knowledge of and respect for the facts. The alt right doesn't have access to alternative facts. Instead it provides easy access to ill informed and incorrect ones. The alt left should avoid falling into the same trap. If only because false facts have a nasty habit of being uncovered as lies and in the long run that is a very effective way of losing a lot of trust.
The second obligation is, I believe, to redouble our efforts to contribute healthy views and interesting debate to the mix. I have been arguing here that we are moving away from the age of one or two prime sources of information and of mass political parties or very rich media magnates who could exert effective control over what most people thought. There is now much more chance for multiple voices to be heard and for many different experiences to be communicated.
To use this technology well we are going to have to get used to facing down those who have some very nasty and unpleasant views. We do so most effectively not by ignoring those views and leaving them to get stronger in their own ghettos. We have to be prepared to challenge them and show the evidence that they are wrong. We also do so most effectively when we embrace the opportunity to listen to and share willingly the wealth of much more constructive and optimistic views that come from decent caring individuals of a wide range of backgrounds.
Used well social media could liberate us from control and allow us to build very rapidly some positive alternative views about how we wish to live our lives. Used badly it becomes a tool used to egg on extremists to divide us into ever smaller tribes. The tribe that likes living collaboratively and is interested in testing out and discovering reality in all its glorious variety is going to need to work hard to win out.