Is Social Media the New Totalitarianism?

February 09, 2018

It is popular to criticize the major social media giants—Google, Facebook, Twitter—for their impact on people’s minds, and the proliferation of unwanted ideologies. Both liberals and conservatives are concerned about the amount of “fake news” gobbled up by gullible social media users ready to be entrapped by clickbait. Facebook has been conducting, ever more publicly since the 2016 election season, a vigorous campaign to screen content for factual reliability. Twitter recently changed its guidelines for verified users to include measurement of offline behavior, so they could have a reason to block users associated with radical right-wing groups. Google has been leading the charge for diversity in the workplace, LGBTQ rights, and very recently along with Facebook implemented in-house rules for dating in order to support the #MeToo campaign. Nevertheless, the tech giants continue to attract international scrutiny and criticism. Just in the past few days, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned Facebook that unless it fixes its “fake news” problems soon, it will face direct government regulation from Ottawa. But others have identified what they believe is a deeper problem with the very nature of global social networks. A few weeks ago, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, George Soros stated that he believed the behavior of the giant tech companies, like Facebook and Google, was “monopolistic,” and dominating the distribution of information in society. Not only were they suffocating public discourse, he argued, but they encouraged patterns of addiction in their users, and “are inducing people to give up their autonomy.” Without the freedom of mind enabled by the free distribution of ideas, people are easily manipulated, and Soros sees in the near future an alliance between such data monopolies and authoritarian states, resulting in “a web of totalitarian control the likes of which not even Aldous Huxley or George Orwell could have imagined.” Ironically, Soros’s proposed solution to assuage such fears was increased government regulation over the content distributed by the social media giants, which John Cassidy in The New Yorker, rightly I believe, identifies as “optimistic,” at the very least. I fear that it would be glib to simply respond that in a free market, people are free to choose their means of disseminating information, and that the current market has overwhelmingly chosen three companies to do so. Soros has a point: Facebook, Twitter, and Google have made the dissemination of lies easier than ever before in human history. Every media source in the past has been liable to government censorship and manipulation; why should we not fear such control now? I have two simple observations. Firstly, the proliferation of fake news is not a problem created by the social media giants themselves, but simply a fact of human corruption. The faster words move, the faster lies move. When the printing press was invented, all of Europe could spread information faster and more efficiently than ever before, and with it came lies, rumors, fake scandals, and libel of all sorts. Ironically, this presented more challenges to authoritarian states than at any previous point in history, as the printing press enabled the Protestant Reformation, and the later Enlightenment, to rapidly propagate their ideas across western civilization, quickly sparking massive political restructuring, and previously unknown individual freedoms. Secondly, we need to make sure we are asking the right questions when we judge the value of Facebook, Twitter, and Google as distributors of information. The social media giants themselves would like to see themselves as passive, unbiased platforms which other people use to spread information. Concerned social commentators like Soros want us to simply accept their status as the new public square, and subject them to public regulation accordingly. At the end of the day, we are asking a very fundamental question. What is the public square? What is public discourse? And is it the responsibility of the state to maintain the standards or quality of public discourse? I believe most of us would like to say that what happens on Facebook is public discourse, but are we willing to conclude that Facebook then is the new public square? Or is it a private space maintained by Facebook, as we are led to believe by the fact that we have to sign a terms of service agreement with Facebook in order to use the platform? We cannot respond adequately to the criticisms of Soros and others, or accurately measure the cultural effects of social media, until we grapple with these questions.

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Michael Helvey

Just want to talk? Feel free to tweet @helvetici.