The elites vs social media
Why our rulers lost faith in the digital dawn.
Attitudes towards the internet have shifted incredibly over the past few years. Where many used to praise the supposedly liberatory power of digital technology, now they talk gloomily about its allegedly malign influence. The main focus is on social-media platforms, Facebook most of all, but this new fear encompasses many other internet companies, too.
Given how much perceptions have changed over the years, a reminder of how things used to be not that long ago provides a salutary lesson. The election of Barack Obama as America’s first black president was a high point in positivity. Use of social media was widely praised, especially among self-defined liberals, for helping Obama to overcome decades of racism and win the election. For example, Arianna Huffington, editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post, said: ‘Were it not for the internet, Barack Obama would not be president.’ She went on: ‘Were it not for the internet, he wouldn’t even have been the democratic nominee.’
The Arab Spring of 2011 bought the hype about new technology to even further heights of ecstasy. Many self-proclaimed progressives credited social media as the driving force behind the popular uprisings against the autocratic rulers of several Arab countries. Paul Mason, a prominent left-wing commentator, described the protests in Egypt that year as ‘a revolution planned on Facebook, organised on Twitter and broadcast to the world via YouTube’.
This is not the place to examine the two sets of events except to say that the claims they were victories driven by social media have not stood the test of time. It is true that the Obama 2008 campaign, with its promise of radical change, inspired a large section of the American electorate. But although social media may have helped to spread the message, they did not create the conditions of public disenchantment with traditional political leaders. Likewise, social media may have helped activists promote protests in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, but the key component of the Arab Spring – corroded systems of government overseen by geriatric rulers – had little to do with Facebook or Twitter.
In any case, the subsequent setbacks in both the US and the Middle East call into question the breathless claims about social media creating a new progressive epoch.
Fast forward to the present, though, and elite attitudes towards social media have taken on a much darker hue. It is hard to follow the news without being bombarded with hysterical claims about the supposed dangers of the internet and associated technology. The litany of charges includes: undermining democracy; spreading ‘fake news’; eroding privacy; facilitating tax dodging; fostering new forms of addiction; letting sexual harassment run riot; failing to tackle inequality; and endangering children. Anyone who thinks this list is exaggerated can use Google to verify it.
This is not to say there were no criticisms of digital technology a decade ago or that there are no positive voices today. But the balance of opinion has shifted in a short time from a generally rosy outlook to a frequently doom-laden one.
Jamie Bartlett, director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the think-tank Demos, has probably done more than anyone else in Britain to draw attention to this shift. His two-part BBC2 documentary on the Secrets of Silicon Valley, first broadcast in 2017, contended that a backlash against digital technology had begun. The People Vs Tech is essentially an elaboration of the arguments in part two of Secrets of Silicon Valley.
Bartlett tries hard to maintain an even-handed approach to the new technology, although he ultimately comes down on the side of the pessimists. For him the ‘techlash’, as he calls it, ‘is a welcome brake on the runaway tech train’. However, he does go on to warn there is a danger that ‘it’s turning into a blind emotional rage against the machines’. Tellingly, he writes that his own approach to social media has become negative in his decade following the subject: ‘My optimism drifted into realism, then morphed into nervousness. Now it is approaching mild panic.’
Much more of a problem, though, is his failure properly to explore the reasons behind the shift. The furthest Bartlett goes is to argue that it is motivated by the revenge of the Old Media on the New Media. In other words, newspapers, their advertising revenue savaged by the internet platforms, have facilitated criticism of the new technology.
But given the huge scale of the onslaught against digital technology this is not entirely convincing. Governments across the Western world, along with supranational institutions, such as the European Union, have led an onslaught against the new tech giants on many fronts. The range of new laws and regulations that have either been implemented or will soon be implemented is astounding. There are also several examples of massive fines imposed on tech companies. These include the European Commission’s €4.34 billion (£3.85 billion) fine on Google for allegedly engaging in anti-competitive practices with its android software. In the name of protecting public safety and countering fake news, there is a concerted drive to counter the expression of non-mainstream opinions on the internet.
Before outlining some of these measures, it is necessary to identify the forces behind the dramatic shift. The most obvious is the rise of populism. It is personified in the shift between two famous social-media users: Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Trump has become notorious for his angry and often ill-judged tweets. Whereas social media as a whole was once seen as a vehicle for progressive cool, it is now associated with angry populism. Ironically, it is often those most guilty of hype in relation to the Obama campaign who have become digital technology’s most trenchant critics.
But although this abrupt reversal in perceptions is symbolised by these two presidents, it goes much further. It represents a fear on the part of large sections of the ruling elite that their hold over public opinion is disappearing. This is represented by the Brexit referendum in Britain, Trump’s victory in the US and the growing support for many populist parties in continental Europe.
From an elite perspective, a key danger of social media is that it allows political trends outside of the mainstream to spread their arguments more easily. Yascha Mounk, a politics lecturer at Harvard and executive director at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, has expressed this fear in relation to the decline of traditional media ‘gatekeepers’ in the US.
Mounk’s reasoning is worth quoting at length because it makes clear both the issues at stake and the anti-democratic nature of the argument. He describes the traditional elite conception of democracy as telling the people that ‘as long as you let us call the shots, we will pretend to let you rule’. He then goes on to argue: ‘It’s a deal that has proven phenomenally successful for 250 years. Today, that deal is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain, and the reason is both unlikely and counterintuitive: the rise of the internet and social media is making the ideological foundation of liberal democracy – which has had a tight hold over our imagination for the better part of two centuries – look increasingly brittle.’
Bartlett’s argument is not explicitly anti-democratic but his assessment is similar to Mounk’s. The new technology gives voices which might once have been marginal the capacity to influence political debate.
This, then, is the trend across the Western world. The rise of social media is viewed with horror by political elites now that they realise it could help forces from outside the traditional mainstream. Our embattled rulers like to flatter themselves by presenting the political divide as a clash of cosmopolitan liberals against the bigoted public. But their real fear is that the new media threatens their hold over political debate.
Before concluding with the dangerous consequences of the turn against social media, it is important to recognise that there are more long-standing elite fears about technology. For example, technological development is generally associated with economic progress; a development which mainstream thinking has come to fear. This is a topic I have written about at length in my book Ferraris for All. But it is the rise of populism that explains the spectacularly rapid recent shift in elite attitudes towards social media in particular.
Given the elite’s fear and loathing of the public, it should not be a surprise that the measures it is implementing will act to curb free expression. There are so many of them, coming from so many different angles and covering so many different countries, that it is hard to keep up. They include regulations relating to fake news, hate speech, copyright, data protection, child protection and alleged monopoly practices. But the overall effect is to tighten state control over the new media at the expense of free expression and democracy.
It should be no surprise that some of these regulations exist at a European Union (EU) level. For example, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) gives regulators far more power over the flow of data than they previously had. One side effect is that many leading American outlets, unwilling to comply with the onerous legislation, have blocked access to those who live inside the EU.
Meanwhile, in Germany, a new law is not only undermining free speech at home but has set a dangerous precedent that is in the process of being taken up elsewhere. As Bartlett pointed out in his BBC documentary, the 2017 Network Enforcement Act (Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz or NetzDG) breaks the key legal principle that social-media platforms are not responsible for uploaded content. The new law means that social-media sites became liable under Germany’s pre-existing hate-speech laws.
Under NetzDG, a social-media platform can be fined up to €50million (£44million) if it does not remove blatantly illegal material within 24 hours. Hate speech or fake news that is not unequivocally illegal must be removed within seven days, or a lesser fine could be imposed. This measure will inevitably have a chilling effect on free speech. Facebook and Twitter have reportedly recruited many hundreds of German-language moderators to sift through the huge volume of material posted on their sites. No doubt there will be strong desire to play it safe and delete any material that could be considered troublesome.
In Britain, a trenchant parliamentary report on social media, published by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) select committee, recently gained widespread publicity. Among its recommendations was, in line with the precedent set by the NetzDG, giving technology firms clear legal liability for ‘harmful and illegal content’. This pushes censorship even further by proposing that social-media platforms should be responsible for material deemed harmful even if it is perfectly legal.
As it happens, the DCMS was pushing at an open door. The government is already in the process of extensively reviewing laws regarding the internet. It has completed a consultation over an Internet Safety Strategy, which entails extensive new controls over the internet. A White Paper, proposing future legislation, is expected before the end of the year. And all this is on top of the Digital Charter on internet safety published in January and the Data Protection Act 2018, which incorporates the EU’s GDPR into British law. The overall effect is that use of the internet will be far more regulated than it was in the past.
If this international legislative onslaught is designed to keep anyone safe, it is not the vulnerable but the political elites themselves. Public criticisms of those in power will find it harder to gain an airing. It represents a comprehensive assault on freedom of speech. Resisting this offensive is essential for all those who believe in democracy.
Daniel Ben-Ami is a writer based in London. Visit his website here. An expanded version of Ferraris for All: In Defence of Economic Progress is available in paperback. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)
The People Vs Tech: How the internet is killing democracy (and how we save it), by Jamie Bartlett, is published by Ebury Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)).