Facebook the Whipping Boy
Medieval kings-to-be had whipping boys. These were children chosen to solve a royal problem: the body of the prince was too sacred for a commoner to strike and corporal punishment was beneath the dignity of royalty. Nonetheless, royal children, like all children, must be punished. To solve this problem, a commoner child was brought to court to be the king’s whipping boy: a scapegoat to absorb the punishment that the royal child himself should receive. The guilty prince would thus suffer vicariously through the innocent peasant and learn that his actions have consequences. In theory, this practice taught the kingly child that when he made decisions, he would not suffer, but others would. In practice, it made the child callous, teaching him that whenever he erred, he could have another person flogged and remit his onus. If ancient kings had whipping boys, today we have social media.
Social media has become an entity to hate. It is reputed to be the source of our divisive social ills. Its invasion of our privacy is used to manipulate our political system. Its dissemination of fake news tears society apart. It’s a horseman riding across the sky, heralding the end of civil society.
Or so goes the narrative.
One can’t help but hear this brouhaha and wonder whether the fault is not in the network, but in ourselves? This powerful narrative blames our political ills on the instruments of our communication. If we wonder how a man like Mr. Trump could be elected President, we blame Russian bots and the viral nature of Facebook and Twitter. If we wonder how people could believe that Ms. Clinton all but personally murdered Americans in Benghazi, we look to an endless stream of posts from Breitbart. By doing so, we make social media into a new fetish: an inanimate entity whose magical force propels us into ever increasing fits of irrational, incoherent action. This conception of social media is seductive. So seductive, that it is too easy to fall under its spell without questioning where the fetish’s power comes from or whether it is even real.
Fetishizing data and technology is a common problem in contemporary society. We have taken Marshall McLuhan’s adage, that the media is the message, so far as to think that when something is broadcast to us over certain kinds of media, we lose our critical ability and accept whatever is said unequivocally. In essence, when we discuss social media, we presume that it has the power of control over us in a way that is different and more powerful than any form of media before.
While social media allows us to share information faster and in different ways than earlier forms of technology, it is still nothing more than media, a body which has no substance of its own and contains only what we give it. If it changes how we interact (as McLuhan argued), it does not change our humanity. We remain critical, reasoning beings throughout. Social media in a free society, like all media in such liberty, is driven by us. It does not drive us.
Ultimately, like all forms of media, social media allows us to share both positive as well as negative information, false news as well as true, without a necessary bias towards the one or the other. Its efficacy, therefore, isn’t either a vice or a virtue. Its viciousness or its virtuousness is entirely contained in the posts people compose and place in their stream. This fact becomes obvious if we think of the fiendishly divine role this fetish has played in the last decade. In just six years, social media went from being the saving agent of democracy in the Arab Spring to its most nefarious foe in the 2016 election. Ultimately, however, no artifice can be both an agent of good as well as evil simultaneously. It remains with thinking beings, those who generate its content, to be so Janus-faced.
That social media is subordinate to the creativity of its users creates a problem for our current view of Facebook, Twitter and their compatriots because if true, it means that all our efforts to censor their content will ultimately come to nothing. This is so because political life in a republic or democracy can only be lived by individuals. It is personal, limited both to the failings and the righteousness of the individuals who compose it. Media in a free society therefore can serve only as a mirror reflecting the public’s gaze back towards it. Whether that reflection looks ugly or beautiful has little to do with the mirror itself and much to do with gazer. Unfortunately, like the famous mirror in Snow White, we are tempted to think that certain mirrors have the power to show reality in a way that gives us the power to control and alter it. This understanding is an illusion, for if anything they can, like the magic mirror of the story, tell us only how we really are, no matter how ugly that visage might be, without having the power to change that fact, for if we are free, then we must act to affect the change ourselves; we cannot have that change affected upon us. Not even Twitter can do it.
One of the principles of our political society is that we as the people are sovereign. While today it might seem like that is a passé statement, one heralded in many places by many peoples, it is in fact still radical and courageous (many even say foolhardy), honored more often in the breach than in its realization. To say that the people are sovereign means that their desires must guide both the state and society. Today, this idea, despite its ostensible popularity, has a bad name: Populism. But populism, which we can understand roughly as the demand of the people that the state provide them with particular ends, is not either the inevitable result of popular sovereignty nor even its logical consequence so long as that people can restrain itself, for when a people exercises self-restraint, its members need not be restrained by something external to itself. Even more troubling for a democracy, if a power external to the people can be called on to restrain its excess, then that people is no longer sovereign for there is a force in society greater than it. Should this popular failure come to pass, then the people will find they have fallen into a trap whereby they surrender their sovereignty, their basic and natural birthright. This is the problem we risk with our current view of social media, not necessarily an actual abdication of popular authority, but a moral surrender of it that risks a disastrous outcome.
By assigning social media as the cause of our problems, we have forgotten where those causes truly lie. By looking outside of ourselves for Facebook, Twitter or the state to resolve them for us, we tacitly acknowledge that we aren’t sovereign. They are. That we can’t be trusted with the radical notion of self-determination, but instead require husbanding by the ministers of our machines. In such a case, our media ceases to be free and we give it a power over us that would cause even a wicked queen in a fairy-tale to blush. While it may seem to some that the natural answer is to remove the government from the equation, to allow the “market” to control censorship by handing the power to social media companies themselves, this would be a tragic mistake.
The surrender of our natural birthright also betrays the birthrights of our political founding. It violates the basic principles upon which our government is built. We as Americans have long vaunted the First Amendment as the cornerstone of our political liberty. The right to speak freely permits us to decry the abuses of the state which could end in political enslavement. Unfortunately, we’ve long held a double-standard between corporations and the state. Our natural antipathy towards the government causes us all, not just those on the right, to hew towards corporations as a better protector of our liberties than the state. We trust these entities who are guided by the market more than we trust the state (and techno-libertarians like Elon Musk and Peter Thiel play the pied-piper calling us to do so), but ultimately, what is the difference between the two? Both are bureaucratic organizations, slow to respond to the individual. Both are bureaucratic organizations, centralizing power in the hands of a few where such centralization promises their rewards to those who control them. Both are bureaucratic organizations, if misused they pose an essential threat to our liberty, perhaps never more so than now when these companies, especially social media companies, have so much of our lives in their control. Given these facts, why do we trust these multitudinous children of Leviathan with the power to censor our speech when we don’t trust the state with the same? It’s madness to pretend that Mark Zuckerberg and his fellow oligarchic, dual-classed shareholders (Facebook, despite being a public company, does not have public control) or Google with its sole check and balance a trite cliché (Don’t be evil), will guard our liberty better than our constitutionally created government, yet now we do so. What we shudder to surrender to the state, we give to tech companies with enthusiastic, open hands.
Even if liberty weren’t a concern, it is a practical mistake to turn the censorship of our communication over to social media companies. Facebook, which seems honestly to be trying to serve as a neutral arbiter (for now), has mis-censored a variety of traffic which has little or nothing to do with politics. It does this because it relies on an algorithm that apes intelligence without having it, to determine what can only be determined through knowledge and sensitivity. What we have, therefore, is in some ways worse than censorship by the state. Censorship by the state would at least try to promote a consistent vision of social life guided by some moral sensibility. Instead, we have the amoral censorship of chance ignorance. This means that not only will that censorship fail to accomplish its impossible task (samizdat will always exist, after all), but it will hinder much of what even the censors’ masters consider legitimate communication. And yet, we still are willing vainly to sacrifice our liberty on the altar of data, believing, despite its ignorant impotence, that it holds some sway over our lives greater than what we ourselves give it.
This final point is perhaps the most dangerous for it shows us that we risk becoming the victims of our self-deception, praising a chimera and following its primrose path, for no matter how much we ask for the censorship of Twitter and its ilk, even if we were to rip the servers from their very ground, we would never reck our own rede. People would still believe Ms. Clinton has a pedophile sex dungeon and that American Special Operations Forces were planning an immanent coup. These ideas might not spread as quickly, but like an infected, ingrown hair, they would endure underneath the surface, immune to the doctor’s lance. Why? Because these divisions do not exist in social media. They exist between ourselves. In our own minds. The separation our body politic experiences today is one that exists even in a world without our fetish. Worse existed in the media poor environment of the 1850’s and 1860’s. Our own experience with the Voice of America in the Cold War showed that we do not need algorithms to engage in information warfare. Russia Today only needs a TV to make America “Question more.” That form of propaganda is effective enough that it can be fought only by turning bland the spice of its “secret” knowledge, an impossibility if, being censored, it remains secretly tempting. If we continue to scapegoat others and look for the origin of and solution to our political problems in the entities which we ourselves should govern and rule instead of within ourselves, we will find ourselves increasingly ruled by them and by our basest passions rather than our reason. Ultimately, we will surrender our sovereignty without ever having realizing the fact.