“Fake News”, “Foreign Interference” and the Future of Democracy

Chris Kutarna
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One-Year Anniversary of Trump

One year of poking and prodding over Donald Trump’s election later, we’ve diagnosed “fake news” and “foreign interference” as dual, possibly life-threatening infections to the whole system of liberal democracy—and we’ve seized upon social media as the vector by which these ills are spread. A majority of us are drawn into it for at least an hour every day. A majority of us get our news out of it. And so “social media”—a phrase that meant nothing barely a decade ago—today is the phrase without which nothing can be explained.

The unaccountable lawlessness that romps through this new medium threatens to drown out the civil discourse upon which democracy depends. So argue many guardians of our present moral and political order, who look poised to tame the most anarchic content through laws or regulations. Last week, executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter were hauled before the U.S. Congress. The message, to paraphrase Senator Dianne Feinstein, was blunt: ‘The platforms you’ve created are being misused. Do something about it. Or we will.’ The standard Mark Zuckerberg defense—that a social media platform should bear no more responsibility for the diseases that travel across it than, say, the Heathrow airport authority bears when travelers carry this season’s flu into or out of London—now sounds naïve.

From Chaos, A New Age?

The reason is we now fear a pandemic. Not so long ago, the European Union was inseparable, Trump was unelectable, globalization was irreversible, science was incontrovertible and even the democratization of China was inevitable. In the wake of so many sudden reversals to society’s settled projects and norms, the knee-jerk impulse to legislate and protect against further downsides from social media is predictable—even sensible.

It might also be dead wrong. History suggests the wiser course may be to let social media run amok. This new medium will work giant, unintended consequences upon society—regardless of our feeble attempts to control it. The faster we get to those consequences, the better off we’ll be.

That is the broadest lesson from the social transformations and botched control measures during the Renaissance advent of print—history’s best analogue to the test that social media presents.

Pre-print, the only “one-to-many” communications medium was oral. And so who said a thing, and how big an audience bore witness to the saying of it, mattered most. In this oral culture, thrones and pulpits held sway over public discourse and ideas. Then Gutenberg’s printing press—which emerged in Mainz in the 1450s and by 1500 had spread across the continent—made the pulpit publicly available. Unordained voices were amplified, and what was said began to have a power all its own.

This transition to print culture helped shift Europe out of the medieval and into the modern era—in part because the print medium was messy and subversive. An obscure Polish astronomer, toiling away in Warmia, shifted Europe’s understanding of reality from an earth-centered to a sun-centered universe. Copernicus accomplished that feat, not through the singular eloquence or blinding reason of his 1543 book, but also because decades worth of almanacs, bestiaries, travelogues, maps of new worlds and detailed diagrams of human anatomy preceded him. Many were lies and superstition. All undermined the medieval conviction that knowledge about the world lay only in ancient wisdom. Similarly, Martin Luther managed to ignite his Protestant Reformation in 1517, not only because his 95 Theses On Indulgences spread faster than the Catholic Church could tear them up, but also because his theses landed on a print culture that was ready to doubt the Church’s monopoly on truth. (How could the Church claim to be infallible, when every printed Bible since Gutenberg’s had textual differences?)

At its advent, authorities welcomed print as an instrument of humanity’s ascendance. In 1470, the Vatican’s own librarian reflected that ‘One can hardly report inventions of like importance for mankind, whether in ancient or modern times.’ But as the unwanted consequences mounted—the spreading of lies, the fanning of zealotry and bigotry, the deepening of linguistic and national divides—that official welcome was replaced by attempts to halt the corrosion of society’s moral and political order. They all backfired.

In the extreme case, the Islamic Ottoman Empire banned the printing press early and outright, in the 1480s—and missed out on the Scientific Revolution. Within Europe, Catholic countries began to censor Copernicus, Galileo and other scholars whose discoveries undermined Church dogma—and the weight of ‘scientific’ printing shifted toward Protestant countries where publishers faced fewer risks.

And everywhere, the growing insistence of church or state to judge which content was fit for print inspired new philosophies that ultimately reinvented both. By the mid-1600s, resistance to state control by printers and authors had established a new political and artistic principle in society—the “freedom of the press”. The glaring contrast between the absolute truths claimed by kings and popes, and the accumulating evidence for alternatives, created the public space in which philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Immanuel Kant challenged the very nature of monarchy and religion. Those investigations, widely published and debated throughout Europe, established concepts like free markets and constitutional democracy, and shaped new attitudes of skepticism and secularism.

Everything That Breaks…Needed Fixing

The print medium made “one-to-many” communications common. Social media makes “many-to-many” society’s new norm. Given the history of the former, who dares bet against the arrival of unintended, unforeseeable transformations powered by the latter?

These consequences are indeed coming. Let’s get to them as quickly as possible. Rather than repeat the mistake of medieval church and state, by pouring energies into a fraught, futile effort to control this new medium, let’s focus our attention instead upon fixing the flaws in our society as it reveals—or causes—them.

Social media has already produced a couple big ones.

First, it’s revealed that we’re not honest enough about the gap between our public politics and our private beliefs. Did Russian Facebook posts win Trump his presidency? No. As Tuesday’s off-year elections demonstrated, they don’t determine down-ballot races, either. No matter how expertly Russian bots nudged Americans’ voting behavior, their algorithms produced a tiny fraction of the 10 billion political likes, shares and comments that Facebook logged during the 2016 election cycle. But skim through the messages generated by those algorithms: they are a cold, clinical diagnosis of the views Americans harbor in the privacy of the voting booth. We should all invite these tough insights, courtesy of the Russian taxpayers, because democratic discourse is a polite sham unless it begins with that honesty.

Second, social media is triggering a regress to oral culture. In print culture, the relative scarcity of access to a press gave each published title a certain gravitas. And over 500 years, we refined skills of critical inquiry to separate the great from the garbage. Now everyone has access to a press, all words are published words, and the skills we had refined to sort them are obsolete. We find ourselves swayed mainly by who says the words—again. That is why, in the US for example, names like Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks are now freely floated as presidential contenders—not because they have demonstrated interest in public service, but because of our demonstrated interest in them.

Social media may offer a new means for foreign interference or false idolatry to harm our democracy, but these flaws offer the opportunity. To try to censor or shield ourselves from their consequences is dangerous. We risk deluding ourselves into thinking our society is safe again, when instead we’re ducking the real challenges we face. We must depend instead upon our ability to sort through them.

The upside of letting social media run free

In doing so, we should summon the courage not just to tweak, but reinvent liberal democracy.

At the advent of print, a moral and political order that felt finished was, in hindsight, medieval. It gave way to modernity.

It’s a safe bet that 2017 isn’t the endpoint of history either, and that society will be ordered quite differently 500 years from now. With our physical technologies, we are already embarking on voyages of discovery to disrupt the present way of things: in artificial intelligence, autonomous robotics, genetic modification, quantum computing and additive manufacturing. But our social technologies—our legal, tax and education systems, asset and labour markets, public values and private ethics—are evolving slowly in response. Too slowly, given that society’s prevailing trend is to grow apart, not together.

If the history of the adoption of print is any guide, our new many-to-many medium will be the catalyst we need to accelerate social evolution. The printing press was a force for secularism and skepticism even as it enabled a century of religious war. Social media is a force for inclusion even as it fosters divisions. To take the most recent example: since mid-October, when allegations of sexual harassment against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein were published, the #metoo hashtag has been published over 80 million times, victims of harassment have found a supportive social space in which grievances are taken seriously, and workplace norms are suddenly, markedly shifting. In China—a place where social media has zero power to seize the agenda—no national conversation on gender equity or sexual harassment is taking place right now. The Communist Party of China, for all its proud rhetoric of meritocracy, unveiled a new leadership team of precisely seven men on October 25. By contrast, in every advanced democracy, an unscheduled reality check is taking place. That bodes well for our future. In an aging world, prosperity depends upon bringing every marginalized talent to bear.

Let social media run amok. Everything it breaks, needed fixing. Everything else needs a renaissance.

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