This year, between Inauguration and President’s Day, smarmy CEO, Mark Zuckerberg aired his mad-lib-ish hope for an enlightened, Facebook-style democracy. It was terror learning he held real-world political ambition, despite his VR-addled concern if ‘we’ (him) are ‘building the world we (him) want to build’.
The world that built Zuckerberg and Facebook saw decades of Neoliberal putsch cut our access both to diversity and resources, allowing social media companies to annex much of the public sphere, or at least cover it in their same-sized map. For this they received mostly praise, sometimes as bastions of democracy (such as regarding the Arab Spring), and sometimes (as with crowd-funding) as democracy, itself.
Now Zuckerberg and Facebook stand accused of wrecking democracy, ironically, not by making it kitsch, but by making it happen. That is if roughly $100,000 worth of Russian hogwash swayed voters in ways the $81,000,000,000 Hillary and Trump paid Facebook to air their own empty pledges could not. Considering the Democrats refuse to believe that far more pervasive real news -bank bailouts, endless wars, mounting debt, etcetera- cost them any votes, it’s impossible to ignore the Clinton-pinning behind the charge. For there is, of course, no way to prove that ‘fake news’ actually tipped the election. And the Senate hearings in particular, would unlikely have occurred, had we not taken a shit in the ballot box last fall.
Moreover, our Senators appear no less-afflicted than Trump, by his ‘if it’s not worth doing, it’s not worth doing right’ approach to facts. Hacked, leaked, and truly false statements are allowed to stew in the same pot, and it’s not at all clear if who says it, or what’s said, ranks it as fake. Nor do the Senate, the media, or the Democratic Party seem clear which case they’re arguing. It’s surprising, too, that we’d look to the heirs of the Monroe, Truman, and the Bush Doctrines to parse this out.
Still, obsessing over what we can’t know helps us ignore the facts at hand. So rather than gather everyone just to stare at a blank screen, the otherwise tepid, Senate Democrats have worked hard to patch together a crisis of some kind, to explain Hillary’s loss in any terms other than Hillary. Sadly, it has not been the waste of time that it appears.`
I am reminded of a half-century ago, when fear of Russian propaganda, coincided with opening a lot of new space for advertising. A growing media industry was threshing fear and luxury through the same screen. Herbert Marcuse dubbed this admixture filling in the public sphere, ‘unfreedom’. In essence, if democracy found space within capitalism instead of antagonizing it from without, than democracy, itself was safe, but the rights and liberties that made it possible would no longer fit.[i]
Marcus realized that because we feared losing our democracy, we had built the most undemocratic and repressive force in history to protect it. But he (and others) realized also, that it was form, as much as fear, that taught us to find rational excuses to sustain such an irrational course of action. Now, in the genesis of another Cold War, there’s a familiar illogic to, for example, Al Franken’s stance that, in order to curb their power over us, companies must censor their content more.
Sadly, Franken is one of the better voices on corporations and their media. He has been a consistent advocate of net neutrality, and, though I’m not sure it’s true of every Democrat, I trust he wants to browse more than just volumes of Hillary apologia with his morning coffee. But is this the right strategy?
A recent, annual study by Freedom House found that internet freedom has dropped every year for the past seven. While the report acknowledged the problem of harmful disinformation within the United States, it ranked extra-legal surveillance a greater liability. More importantly, it suggests broadening censorship, not disinformation, is the greatest potential threat, based on our current trajectory.[ii]
Now consider, Facebook has censors already, and their results are not democratic, even by Al Franken’s matrix. Last June Pro Publica exposed Facebook’s internal policies regarding hate speech, which we learned ‘tend to protect elites and governments more than grassroots activists and racial minorities.’[iii] But if you can believe the ‘real news’ on this one, we the people were mostly appalled that bigots still ad access to the Internet, not upset that Facebook got to decide. (The same yarn they managed to spin regarding Russia and the elections.) The Times, Post, Guardian, and other deemed-credible news sources were awash in articles condemning Facebook’s prejudice and neglect. But a recent Harvard/Harris and Guardian poll found slightly fewer (49-51%) favored restricting social media than opposed it.[iv] So, while it nears half, it’s doubtful the public outcry- not to censor less, but to censor more precisely, came from the public. That said, fake public sentiment was enough to elicit a real fake response. And Facebook has reportedly increased its ranks of censors (although most are third-party). In fact, Facebook now seeks employees with national security clearance, to help us stay less-misinformed.[v]
Still, a Newspeak department is but one option. According to his manifesto, Zuckerberg’s catchall world would have ‘strengthened local and traditional institutions’ through increased connectivity. (Doubleplusgood.) But not in Guatemala, for example, where since October Facebook has limited its main platform to only individuals and paying customers, diverting all public correspondence -such that makes up a democracy- to some other realm.[vi] How much better should the Guatemalan people expect to be served by the paid advertisers and US.-aligned news agencies, once freed from the tyranny of local grassroots movements and non-profit community organizations?
Now consider, we heard from ‘victims’ who unwittingly marched at events organized, not by Black Lives Matter, but by its Russian impostor via Facebook. But we also know US agent-provocateurs marched and a lot more at protests that Black Lives Matter did in fact organize. So, ‘fake’ or not digs a sizable rabbit hole. Should they fail to get to the bottom of it, we can still expect a crackdown on legitimate protests under the guise that they’re chicanery or fraud. (And since the geniuses protecting our democracy think protests come from rousers, not issues.) If the politicians are tone-deaf now, image when the streets are clear of complaints. There’s no stronger consent than silence.
And this is anything but harmful to Facebook or fellow web Zaibatsu (Alphabet, Amazon, Twitter), which lack only the proper censorship to be bonified pillars of the Fourth Estate. Just for emphasis, consider the recent, Donna Brazile leaks. The Times, Guardian, CNN, and MSNBC (and the Washington Post, save a few lines tucked at the bottom) delayed reporting it for two full days. In its stead, they ran bits on healing the Democratic Party, torn -in these accounts- by differences of opinion, failure to communicate, and Russo-imperialist forces on social media. Day three, her photo finally graced the Times, with the heading: ‘what you need to know about the week’s top stories.’ (Stories, mind you, they never ran.) The rest fell in line, most under the banner: ‘I saw no evidence the election was rigged’, debunking her claims, without ever having stated them. (Day four, after their year-long jeremiad, the party, itself finally chimed in, laughably, to suggest we look forward, not back.) However, the news had long-since reached Trump through less-accredited sources, which he could misconstrue at will, unchallenged by the silent-but-real news.
Like Franken, I do not want the net to be some stunted Nazi’s garbage funnel, nor a toy for otherwise-stunted rich brats. But trying to legitimize a forum that profits more from harvesting your ‘likes’ than from seeding them strikes me as a fool’s errand at best. And we pursue this one a lot: Because we should mind disorder, we should not mind cops armed to the hilt. Because we should mind terrorists, we should not mind the Patriot Act. Because we should -and do- mind the Republicans, we should not mind the Democrats. We have seen the effects of this logic. It nets barf like Trump, and instead of learning from it, we inch a little more toward rehabilitating the likes of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Besides, as the Donna Brazile omission attests, ‘real’, in its current context, is based less on integrity, than on scale and proximity to power- marketing assets, not democratic ones. Fresh off his 30-state speaking tour (from which the most he gleaned was that America has an opioid problem), I’m sure what Mark Zuckerberg had in mind, anyway. But thinking a data-mining firm has any role in a democracy is nonsense. And making corporations behave is just a way to keep them around longer.
Returning to Marcuse, whereas we’d expect you to throw rocks at a dictatorship, for Hillary, and Zuckerberg, and whoever is tasked with putting newspaper under Trump, democracy needs a safe space to rest. Not because poor, alt-religious, or otherwise not-free types pose it much harm. Rather, they impair the seamlessness of their unfree, global-capitalist enterprise. There’s always risk, for example, some web-based imitation of democracy will out our real democracy as a head on Capitalism’s wall. Or wallpaper.
Unlike freedom, unfreedom must be protected.
James Munson lives in Portland, Oregon. He welcomes your contact at firstname.lastname@example.org
[i] Marcuse, Herbert. One Dimensional Man. )Boston: Beacon Press)1964.