With the internet, a new form of public intellectual has emerged. The new intellectual shares some similarities with the sophists who emerged in 4th century Athens. In that period of intense intellectual, artistic, and political activity, the Sophists were famed for their rhetorical skills as well as their challenge to the conventional beliefs and opinions. Plato held them responsible for Athens’s decline and Socrates’ death, which meant the term, is often used as an insult. However, the original meaning helps us to understand today’s public intellectuals because their role covers journalists, bloggers and this blurs into internet political activists.
These public intellectuals have been described as tech Intellectuals. The term, coined by Harry Farrell, describe internet writers and activists whose work is driven as much by their exposure on the internet as it is by their political activism. Plato would recognise the way they use their intellectual talents for self-promotion. Social media allows sophistry and rhetoric to flourish because it operates with a permissive egalitarianism. Anyone can say anything as long as it does not challenge the general belief that all views must be tolerated. If the public accepted orthodoxy is to be challenged it is only as a device to promote the story. The social media milieu presents a vibrant and flourishing climate for debate, discussion, and disinformation. In this arena social media technologies help to create new professions that work exclusively with their ability to entertain, influence, and convince society. Even though politics and the arts have always had a dynamic reciprocal relationship, Plato would appreciate how bloggers, journalists, and writers provide public intellectual entertainment, like TED talks, that allow these public intellectuals to promote themselves to gain fame and fortune. He would also notice how the political activist or blogger as journalist would be less concerned with their effect on the common good or the health of the political community. Their skills are focused on stories as a platform for self-promotion rather than the community as a whole. They would rather flatter the public’s prejudices than understand political things to educate the community.
As with Athens, the marketplace and the public life are all that would matter to the sophist and rhetoricians. The media goes to the public market place to finds stories and sell their stories. To harvest and promote these stories, though, the social media commentator does this for self promotion and not trying to understand the extent to which they represent a political truth. The journalist as an internet political activist or the blogger who becomes a journalist loses sight of the story, or even news, when they promote their political agenda or their version of the truth. As that occurs, we see that internet journalism shares a greater affinity to sophistry than it does to philosophy, which makes it a greater threat to journalism claim to work in the public’s interest.