Foucault’s conception of the Panopticon can be very useful in trying to understand our current political universe through his description of the panopticon as a metaphor for discipline through social control. In his chapter, “Panopticism” he goes into the way in which our society is disciplined through mechanisms that control the members in it. The ways in which we discuss politics have changed over time and thus altering how we think about politics.
Social platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have created new forms of the social control that Foucault discusses. It has been said that current political discourse is more divisive and intense than ever in American history. This may be due to how people receive information and interact with one another online. As Foucault describes in his chapter, “Panopticism,” the authority of a state is no longer carried out through physical means but instead, it programs the basic functioning of a society with disciplinary mechanisms that create a general surveillance. One of these mechanisms is social norms that are enforced by the society. Two decades ago this would be watching what your neighbors or the people around you are doing and enforcing social norms with social signals. This changed when social platforms like Twitter and Facebook gave everyone with access to a computer a voice that can be heard publicly. People who are behind their computer will use their online voice to say things they would typically never say to someone in person and this alters how we view people we interact with on these platforms. This can have damaging effects to how we view one another in a society under the pressures of social control. People use their platform to shame others for an opinion that disagrees with what they believe and punishes ideas that do not “fit in” with the social norms such as binary political thinking.
The binary party system in which we currently live under, relies on both liberals and conservatives to operate successfully. Liberal ideas are about being open to new possibilities to improve the way things are while conservative ideas are about recognizing the risks involved with new possibilities and changing the way things operate. The two sides need each other to keep a balance of improvement without too much risk. In the past their were always liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats because there were people who could recognize the value of each end of the spectrum. However, this seems to be forgotten by many people currently. The discourse about politics online has slowly become a sports game mentality where people believe what their “side” thinks is the truth and the other side is wrong. This is a result of people being constantly under surveillance for the things they say online. People are harshly criticized for saying anything that strays away from the side they identify with. There is a pressure to conform to all the beliefs of their side or otherwise be chastised and no longer accepted. This way of thinking is very dangerous because if more people continue to fail to see value in ideas that oppose their own, they will be more inclined to think people with those views should not be allowed to express them.
This tribal way of thinking is a product of people feeling empowered to say horrible things to each other through the internet. There has always been disagreement between people politically and people would have intense discussions. However, once discussions become more common over Twitter and Facebook people feel safe and less accountable when saying nasty things that they typically would not say because they cannot see the other person’s face. The problem with this concerning politics is when there is constantly people showing the worst side of themselves in political discourse online it is easy to frame people you disagree with as terrible people. This is not because people necessarily want to see others as bad people but it is impossible not to when you continuously read reprehensible comments on Facebook by people that do not agree with you politically. This has a strong effect on the way we vote and also think about politics in general. Seeing the worst from others makes people feel more compelled to “defeat” them politically, thus turning politics into a football-like environment where there are two sides that want their team to win at all costs. The social surveillance that these platforms have created have increased the extent to which we feel like a divided and hostile political society.
FOUCAULT, MICHEL. “Panopticism.” In DISCIPLINE AND PUNISH: the Birth of the Prison. Editions Gallimard, 1975.