Last night I attended an excellent event put on by the Public Policy Forum called Social Media and Democracy: What Can Be Done? at which no less than 5 smart and highly informed guest speakers from journalism, government, academia, civil society and the tech sector discussed the state of the internet and the threat of ‘surveillance capitalism’ to democracy. (You can watch a video of the event here.) I’d summarize the central themes that emerged from their presentations and comments as:
- the liberating promise of the internet has been betrayed by all-powerful social networks motivated by profit to sell users to advertisers
- facebook, google and the rest masquerade as neutral technology companies whereas they are in fact highly manipulative unregulated media companies whose business models are based on monetizing our attention, and therefore they are always motivated to seek more of it, ie to get us ‘hooked’
- they do this through a combination of orwellian ‘customization’ whereby they calculate (and thus limit or extend) our desires for us based on constant tracking of everything we and all our friends do, and ‘algorithmic radicalization’ in which users are drawn ever deeper down the rabbit hole of outrage and extremism through gamed search results and ‘related video’ suggestions that move us with equally disinterested effectiveness along benign trajectories (eg vegetables to vegetarianism to veganism) as they do along hateful ones (eg. from reasonable conservatism to angry alt-right conspiracies to hateful white supremacy.)
- In light of the scale, impact and demonstrable dangers of this endemic, secretive and anti-democratic intent within these opaque, global commercial platforms, (see: Cambridge Analytica) it is clearly time for their regulation, including legislating increased accountability for protecting personal privacy, algorithmic audits, data taxation, data portability, significant fines for promoting discrimination and hate speech, and other forms of oversight to return the power of the internet to the people and save democracy
Now these ideas are all important. They are motivated by a belief in the power of the internet to contribute to the betterment of humankind, and by the desire to combat those using it for psychological predation and the bulk selling of the minds of entire populations to the highest bidders, motivations with which I fully sympathize.
And yet I am not sure that the proposed solutions (regulation) are adequate to addressing the problem, or, indeed, that the actual problem has been fully recognized. It is not that I am against regulation, as was the libertarian whose question preceded mine in the Q and A, and who was given a persuasive response by Ben Scott, who dropped the mic by pointing out the simple truth that “publicly-traded monopolies will never self-regulate”, to whose logic I think even the libertarian had to bow. No, my issue is not with regulation per se, but with the proposition implicitly and explicitly expressed all night, that our choice going forward is between regulation and no regulation, or more accurately, between no regulation and the end of democracy.
I think this binary reflects a nostalgia for a form of democracy that was never as democratic and truthful as claimed by the speakers (for there was profoundly destructive government-endorsed fake news shared by hegemonic media platforms long before facebook, ie the New York Times and WMDs). It is also based on the premise that government has the capacity to place the internet under the thumb of liberal democratic governance and values if it wants to, and that it is just a matter of generating the political will to impose effective regulation. Whereas I think this is a dubious proposition on two fronts.
Firstly, the reality is that Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter etc. are all American companies, ruled by American laws first and foremost, and when it comes to Wall Street, oil, medical insurance, the military industrial complex, private prisons, or any other regulatory area in which trillions of dollars are at stake, American governments have for decades acted primarily as protectors of the wealthiest Americans and those who aspire to join them. The idea that an American government would go to war with the nation’s largest corporations and impose ambitious, risky, difficult to craft and to enforce legislation on them simply to protect average Americans, is a nice dream, but sadly I very much fear, nothing but that. Or are there lots of precedents for this sort of ambitious clampdown that I am forgetting?
Beyond this problem, however, lies a deeper one, for the regulated/unregulated binary misses the point that the internet is a disruptive technology whose transformative impact is such that the game has changed in a fundamental way. To be clear, liberal democracy is based on an epistemology and on social values that simply do not matter online. No more than the epistemology and social values of Native Americans mattered to their conquerors, who saw indigenous methods of distributing power, knowledge, wealth, land and more as hopelessly archaic and inefficient, which is exactly what many digital natives (be they data scientists, hackers, entrepreneurs or meme-artists of the alt-right) think of the aims and methods of liberal democracy. I mean, talk to a teenager and ask them if they believe that privacy matters, or even exists? That intellectual property matters, or even exists? That truth matters, or even exists?
What I think was missed in last night’s discussion is that the most fundamentally disruptive challenge of the internet is epistemological, and that there is no putting the genie of networked tribal subjectivity back in the box of hierarchical certifiable objectivity. And that while advocating for regulation is fine, it is essentially tilting at windmills, whereas the real solutions to capitalism’s perversion of the internet must come from within digital culture itself, via disruptions of the disruptors. And I found it interesting that the speakers kept referring to the importance of whistleblowers, and yet whistleblowers by definition are breaking rules, and usually breaking laws. They are not advocating for regulation but rather using their incredibly scalable disruptive digital power to break things on behalf of the little guy (and gal, and others).
So my take is that while their collective nostalgia for an only somewhat functional liberal democracy leads the speakers to advocate for regulation as the solution to the very real problem that ‘surveillance capitalism’ presents, our true hope is to look for a renewal of people power that is not a return to the top-down old but a progression to a genuinely horizontal new form of self-organization, especially given the very real ecocidal timeline that has been entirely owned and operated by liberal democracy. In other words, our job must be to incite, encourage and empower benevolent disruptions wherever they appear. To fight the colonization of the internet by capitalism not with the instruments of capitalist regulation but with scalable, hyper-efficient distributed cooperativism and other forms of revolutionary post-capitalism disruption.
Is my vision radical and idealistic? Sure it is. But the alternative we face is radically dystopic, so take your pick. And at least this approach engages a real rather than imaginary opportunity. It seeks to harness the creative power of young people in ways that reflect their real passions and abilities, as opposed to hoping that they will rally around causes that mattered to their grandparents (a little, at least when they were teenagers) in order to return to a model that disenfranchised most of them, and doomed all of them (and us) to a dying world.
Unfortunately neither solution is especially likely to be realized, I’ll admit that dystopia may well be waiting in the wings. But until it’s here I’ll keep working with the kids, doing my best to help them save themselves. Because the more of us adults that do so the better the chance they have of succeeding. And because the only way forward, is forward.
I’d like to acknowledge and thank the engaged and engaging speakers at the event. We need more people like them.
- Jonathan Albright, Research Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and co-author of Pew Internet’s recent report, “The Future of Free Speech, Trolls, Anonymity and Fake News Online
- Julia Angwin, a leading journalist at ProPublica who is holding Silicon Valley accountable
- Ben Scott, a tech policy expert who has worked for Bernie Sanders, the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign
- David Carroll, the American academic who broke open the Cambridge Analytica story through his lawsuit in the UK
- Sue Gardner, the former executive director of Wikimedia Foundation who now advises policy organizations on technology, media, gender and freedom
I’d also like to acknowledge Peter Loewen, Director, School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto, who did an excellent job moderating the event, something I rarely say about moderators.