2016 was the year that public opinion turned against social media and big tech companies. In 2011, Facebook was hailed as a platform that would bring democracy to the world. We were grateful to Google. The protests in Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, and many other countries were spurred in part by bloggers and social media commentators who used social media to galvanize people and encourage them to take to the streets.
By 2017, we had learned that although the Internet had transformed protest, it has not much improved democracy. Moreover, we learned again a lesson that the post-Cold War democracies had apparently forgotten: that misinformation and propaganda are powerful and that repeating "big lies" can persuade susceptible people of all kinds of nonsensical and dangerous ideas. This should not have been a surprise, but critic Norah Ephron once said that "people have a shocking capacity to be surprised by the same things over and over again." The question now is what to do. Regulation of social media platforms comes up repeatedly, but of what kind is less clear.
Of course, it was not all boundless optimism in 2011. Even before the Arab Spring, critics like Evgeny Morozov had warned that the Internet could be used as a tool of surveillance, and Cass Sunstein and Markus Prior had warned that giving everyone the right to select the news they wanted to read would compromise the marketplace of ideas. (2) What wasn't clear at the time was the scale of the disinformation that would flood the Internet and the effect this could have on voting. It didn't seem plausible that people would be so susceptible to lies on the Internet and that they would resist reasoned attempts to explain facts, that truth would seem not to matter. By 2017, it became clear that anger over social inequality had turned into the conflation of privilege with expertise, and that many hated experts. Global demagogues stoked the fires of this hatred with constant attacks on the judiciary, the media, science, climate change scientists, and any institution that could undermine their agendas. (3) At the time of this writing, it does not seem an exaggeration to say that disinformation spread by social media has undermined the functioning of democracy globally. But if social media is undermining our ideas of democracy, how can we solve the problem without also undermining the processes of democracy?
Looking Back at the Optimistic Debates of 2010 and 2011
A few months before the Arab Spring, two books were published that discussed the role of digital technology on society and democracy. One, TJie Net Delusion, by Evgeny Morozov, got widespread attention for its robust attack on the "techno optimists" who were foolish enough to believe that the likes of Facebook could bring about social change and force governments to become more accountable and democratic. "A dictator who answers his cell phone is still a dictator," Morozov wrote. Further, he argued, sophisticated authoritarian regimes would be able to use the web not just for propaganda purposes but to track their opposition; so that digital technology was actually helping authoritarian regimes survive--a point that, with the passage of time, no longer seems novel.
But it was a book that got far less attention that turned out to be more immediately prescient. Using a data set of Islamic countries from around the world, political science professor Philip Howard argued that digital technology was bringing communities together, providing vast amounts of information to closed societies; and forcing governments to become more accountable. This in itself was making the world more democratic. A few months after these two books appeared, the Arab Spring revolutions cemented the idea that digital technology was a force for political change. The new conventional wisdom became that the Internet had dispersed the power of international organizations and governments and emerging communities online have undermined traditional state authority. From mobile money to crowd-mapping crises and bringing citizens together to report on news, distribute information, and organize politically, digital technology had the potential to leave obsolete power structures behind. Scholars such as Zeynep Tufekci and Jennifer Earl argued that the "affordances" of the web had transformed protest in part by lowering the amount of time, effort, and money it required, and by making it easier to gather large numbers of disparate people from around the world into new communities. (4) The recent scholarship makes it clear that the nature of activism and protest had changed and that the web was not just recreating earlier forms of protest.
2016, and the Values of Big Tech: Make Billions by Spreading Millions of Dangerous Lies
By 2016, it was apparent that something had gone very wrong; many of the optimists of 2010 and 2011 had changed their thinking, warning of the dangers of digital...