Social media made Obama president, but also Trump. So much for digital revolution.
Everyone likes to think they are unique. That their struggles and ideas are somehow different from everyone else’s. And every generation likes to imagine that they are not just incrementally different from their parents, but the first in a new era of enlightenment.
Most of them, however, are not. The Age of Aquarius was a fad. The collapse of the Soviet Union did not give us lasting world peace. Postmodernism is an interesting label, but no more than a label (in the words of Bruno Latour, “we have never been modern”). Millenials, post-millenials, digital natives, what have you.
The internet promised to change things radically. In some ways, of course, it has. We do things differently than before, with instant access, self-service, and always-on connectivity. But the inner fabric of what makes us human, alas, has not really changed. And the results fall short of the naïve dreams of 15-20 years ago.
Social media doesn’t make people better
Everyone his own editor, was the promise. Blogging was the tool that gave common people a voice (I was one of them). Finally, the though monopoly of established media was challenged. And for oppressed people, here was the way out; the means to breaking the power of their authorities.
There were many flaws in this dream. First of all, there is a reason that so few people were previously represented in the media: The rest were simply not worth listening to. As it turns out, bigots and complainers are still bigots and complainers, and now they are annoying more than just their families and friends.
Secondly, not all people have good intentions. Instead of spurring utopia, the ‘digital revolution’ has brought out both good and bad in people. Just like every technological development before it. Protesters in the Arab Spring used social media. So does Al Qaeda and ISIS. New ways of congregating also means new ways of monitoring. The Great Firewall of China has been quite successful in making sure the rise of digital media did not jeopardize the power of the ruling elite.
As any early joiner of Facebook will remember, what used to be a place to meet your friends has now become a giant marketplace where more or less dubious brands compete for your attention. Savvy (young) users flee to the refuge of alternatives such as Snapchat, but it is only a matter of time before companies will all come there as well, repeating the process.
Finally, anywhere people gather, so will would-be criminals. The greater the potential, the more hackers, spammers, phishers, fake news publishers, and worse. Raise security, and their means will grow more sophisticated to match the challenge. Just like superheroes spawn super-villains (illustrated perfectly by Batman).
Have you thanked your editor today?
What the world needs now, more than ever before, is good editors. There are ideas which are not worth promoting, and individuals whose rants should not so easily be given an audience.
Social media have ‘democratized’ mainly in the sense that we can avoid views we disagree with, encouraged by algorithms that favor more of the same. Fake news have exploited this trend. And by playing to the lowest denominator of clicks and likes means that the media have outplayed their role of challenging people in power and become just as partisan as the politicians themselves.
Governments taking control of the media used to be a big cause of worry, but the dilemma may have become a moot point. If Donald Trump preaches to the choir on Twitter and discredits any critical questions from mainstream media, he circumvents the dilemma. He doesn’t need to shut down the independent media, like Putin and Erdogan have done. He can bypass them altogether and undermine their role and trust without any formal actions against them.
The only way to stop this destruction would be to close down Twitter entirely. Which is probably not going to happen. One thing that history has taught us is that we cannot turn back time.