Last week, executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter appeared together before the U.S. Congress. Senators grilled them about Russia’s ongoing use of their social media platforms to influence U.S. public opinion—and, last year, to nudge the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Prior to the hearing, Facebook admitted that over 140 million Americans were exposed to Russia-sponsored content during the presidential campaign season.
The advent of social media, and the speed with which it has displaced other media as citizens’ go-to source for news and opinion, forces every democratic society around the world to ask itself two tough questions:
- How do we maintain the free and open discourse upon which democracy depends, without it being drowned in unaccountable lawlessness (“fake news”) or divided into tribes that don’t respect each other?
- How do we maintain the sovereignty of our own citizens, when our domestic discourse easily admits foreign interference?
Artificial intelligence, whose capabilities are strengthening daily, makes these questions doubly urgent. With growing success, any well-financed interest group can develop algorithms to figure out which citizens to target with which messages in order to influence their political choice-making.
What can, or should, democracies do to address fake news and foreign interference on social media platforms? Should governments try to regulate away these threats to democratic discourse, by treating these platforms as media companies? (Under a new law in Germany, social media companies can be fined up to €50 million if they fail to take down illegal hate speech from their sites within 24 hours of being notified. The U.S. is contemplating new laws that would require big social media platforms to track and disclose political ad-buyers—just as TV and radio must do already.)
Or should we leave the Facebooks and Twitters of the world free to self-regulate—effectively, accepting their argument that they are not media companies, but rather neutral technology platforms with little responsibility for the content they host? Facebook, in an effort to show governments that self-regulation can work, has begun to pay fact-checkers to weed out some of the fake news from among the most popular stories on its platforms. But in a world of self-regulating platforms, the ultimate responsibility for sorting the wheat from the chaff would remain with citizen-users. (This week, Italy began rolling out a “fake news awareness” class across 8,000 high schools to help equip the country’s next generation of adults with the skills to do just that.)
Fake news and foreign influence put democracy itself at risk. With stakes so high, it’s no wonder that governments want to step in to limit the downside risks of social media.
The power of the unintended
But history suggests this thinking may be backwards. The unintended upside of letting social media run wild may far exceed the unintended downside.
That is the lesson from the advent of print—which, as I’ve argued before, is history’s best analogue to the advent of the internet and social media. The former was history’s first true “one-to-many” communications medium. The latter is history’s first true “many-to-many” medium.
The arrival of a “one-to-many” era of communications was dominated by unintended, unforeseeable consequences. Print made it possible for one man, Martin Luther, to ignite a Protestant Reformation that broke the Catholic Church’s monopoly on spiritual truth in 16th-century Europe. The printing press accomplished that feat, not only by spreading Luther’s famous 95 Theses far and wide, but by spreading different versions of the Bible, which eroded public belief in the existence of a single infallible text.
Print made it possible for another man, Nicolaus Copernicus, to shift Europe’s understanding of reality from an earth-centered to a sun-centered universe. Print accomplished that feat, not simply by publishing widely his book, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. For decades leading up to Copernicus’ publication, print changed the cadence of knowledge creation and knowledge sharing in Europe, so that, more and more, people began to trust in the accumulation of new discoveries more than the wisdom handed down from ancients.
The adoption of this new, print medium was a chaotic experience, full of contradictions. Print did as much to perpetuate blatant errors as it did to spread enlightened truth. It fanned religious extremism and bigotry while fostering a new concern for the poor. It deepened linguistic and national divides, but also created a more cosmopolitan “commonwealth of learning” among artists and scholars. The same technology that helped begin a hundred years of religious war across the continent also helped fuel individuality and usher in the Scientific Revolution.
Many states tried to control print’s impact upon society’s moral and political order. That control came at a price. On the extreme, the Islamic Ottoman Empire banned the printing press outright in 1485, just a few decades after print’s emergence in Europe—and maintained the ban until the 19th century. The Islamic world had been the global seat of scientific progress from 750 to 1100 AD, but lost that seat to Europe’s Scientific Revolution.
Within Europe, censorship regimes tried to suppress “dangerous” aspects of the print medium. Catholic countries censored Copernicus, Galileo and other scientists whose discoveries ran against dogma heavily. In 1543, the Catholic Church decreed that no book could be printed or sold without its permission. In 1563, Charles IX of France decreed that nothing could be printed without the king’s permission, either. Inquisitions, imprisonments and public burnings enforced those decrees through fear.
But ultimately, they were self-defeating. Catholic bans pushed scientific printing toward Protestant countries where the risks of publication were smaller. Resistance to state control, by printers and authors, helped establish the “freedom of the press” as a new political and artistic principle by the mid-1600s. And the contrast between the stubborn efforts of Church and state to monopolize truth and the emerging evidence of alternative truths created a space for philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Immanuel Kant to question the nature of religion and absolute monarchy. Those investigations, widely published and debated throughout Europe, introduced concepts of free-market capitalism and democracy and shaped new attitudes of skepticism, secularism and individualism. The American and French Revolutions followed not long after.
The history of print offers three principles to inform present debates over the regulation of our new, many-to-many medium. First, attempts to control society’s use of social media may prove self-defeating, by inspiring new philosophies that undermine existing institutions. Second, the unintended consequences of social media will likely dominate any results we may intend to bring about. The greatest gains will go to those societies that explore the upside of the medium, not those that protect against the downside. And finally, the adoption of this new medium is a long term enterprise. If unintended consequences are going to dominate our future, it would be a good idea to get to those consequences as quickly as possible—and hasten our adaptation to them.