Two articles I came across recently raise the question in the headline of today’s column. One is by a journalist named Allum Bokhari, who gave a speech last November at Hillsdale College, one of the very small number of U. S. colleges that does not accept Federal grants, loans, or other funding. The other is by Robert D. Kaplan, a geopolitics specialist at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Both gentlemen are deeply concerned that social media, as it now works, constitute an existential threat to American small-d democratic government.
Kaplan is concerned that social media may create conditions in which the “fragile, perhaps even ephemeral” experiment called American democracy cannot survive. His studies of nation-states range widely over time and geography. The old USSR, he points out, was not defeated from without by nuclear or conventional warfare. Rather, it was destroyed by internal weaknesses and a crisis of purpose that led to its disintegration. Regarding the present rivalry between the US and China, he sees social media playing radically different roles in the two countries.
In China, the authoritarian government ensures that everything on social media reinforces the “blood-and-soil nationalism” of the dominant Han cultural matrix. Traces of dissent are ruthlessly stamped out, and ethnic minorities such as Tibetans and Uighurs are suppressed and even locked up in concentration camps. There is basically one political story available in China, and social media reinforce it.
In the US, on the other hand, Big Tech effectively control social media, and recent events emphasize the subtle but increasingly effective control they exert. The dominant vision embraced by those who inhabit the upper reaches of corporate and cultural America is a transnational one which, when it looks at American history at all, sees a story of exploitation and shame, exemplified by the New York Times‘s “1619 Project” that attempted to show that the founders based America on slavery, not on anything noble.
Even worse, the economics of social media have come to embrace the divide-and-conquer principle that feeding different kinds of people what they most want to hear means cutting up the citizenry into “racial, gender, political, or sexual” identity groups that are often pitted against each other, to the great loss of the basic unity that any nation needs to survive.
Allum Bokhari brings his experience with Breitbart News to the table. While I am no fan of Breitbart News, the old principle of free speech (much abused lately) says that every voice deserves to be heard, if not believed. And he brings some indisputable facts to the table that are worth considering.
Unlike the early days of the Internet when no single social-media platform was dominant and everybody had more or less equal access to everybody else’s website, today’s Internet is a creature of the Google-Facebook-Amazon complex of corporate control. And control is the right word. The velvet glove of free apps and fun-looking websites conceals an iron hand of manipulation that is so subtle and complex, powered by advanced AI software, that the vast majority of users have little or no idea that they are being manipulated. But they are.
Cadres of software engineers spend countless hours devising complex algorithms to change behavior, not only to the benefit of advertisers on Big Tech’s media, but for other reasons as well. One quote that Bokhari reports from a source he interviewed at Facebook says it all: “We have thousands of people on the platform who have gone from far right to center in the past year, so we can build a model from those people and try to make everyone else on the right follow the same path.”
If this isn’t manipulation, I don’t know what is.
In recent months, the manipulation and control has come above ground for everyone to see. Bokhari cites the actions of Facebook, Twitter, and other Big Tech firms in de-platforming President Trump, and of Amazon and Apple in kicking the upstart social-media platform Parler off their equipment (or in the case of Apple, off the privately owned phones of millions of users).
One can argue about the motivations for such actions. But the bare fact of the actions remain: privately owned companies, largely unhindered and in fact protected by government regulation from lawsuits that private individuals can be subject to (that is what Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act does), unilaterally censored an entire social-media network regardless of who or what was on it, and also censored the sitting President of the United States.
For those who can remember the old days of only three television networks, the only analogous action I can imagine would be if the President decided to make a speech one day, and in the middle of his words spoken to the “pool” camera that all three networks were taking their video feed from, executives decided to pull the switch and return to their regular programming of the Beverly Hillbillies or whatever. Nothing like that ever happened, but if it had, the roars of outrage from common citizens of every political viewpoint would have been deafening.
Today, roars—or anything else—can’t be heard unless Big Tech approves of the roar. The dominant progressive political views of the transnational cultural elite who are in charge are squeezing out the wide spectrum of views that, no matter how annoying some of the extremes are, turn out to be vital to the survival of democracy.
To those who deplore disagreement and debate, I would say this: disagreement and debate are features of democracy, not bugs. Cut them off and you are left with a softer form of what China has: a homogenized, uniform, expert-driven technocracy that maintains the form of democracy, perhaps, but denies its power. If this nation, which has endured for 245 years, is to preserve government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” the malignant effects of social media and corporate control must be dealt with. And soon, before it is too late.
This article has been republished with permission from the Engineering Ethics blog.