Is the Internet to Blame for the Rise of Authoritarianism?

By Juan Ortiz Freuler (@juanof9), an affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. Originally published at openDemocracy

All illustrations by ApexInfinityGames & @Juanof9 (CC-BY).

Over the last few years, the potentially damaging impact of the internet, and particularly social media, on democracy has increasingly come to dominate the news. The recently disclosed internal Facebook emails, which revealed that employees discussed allowing developers to harvest user data for a fee, are but the latest in a long line of scandals surrounding social media platforms. Facebook has also been accused, alongside Twitter, of fuelling the spread of false information. In October, the Brazilian newspaper Folha exposed how Jair Bolsonaro’s candidacy benefited from a coordinated disinformation campaign conducted via Whatsapp, which is owned by Facebook. And there are growing concerns that this tactic could be used to skew the Indian general elections in April.

Given these alarming revelations it’s easy perhaps to overlook the ways in which the internet also plays a role in strengthening democracy. It allows citizens to mobilise in authoritarian states and in stable democracies alike. By collapsing physical space and giving access to global communication to the many, it is particularly effective in allowing groups to share their stories, explore their identities and uncover uncomfortable truths about power dynamics. Through the web, disadvantaged groups were able to pierce the media frames that presented their plight as a collection of isolated cases, and unveil the systemic nature of the discrimination they faced.

Understandably, there is considerable disagreement about the net balance, the breadth and the underlying processes that fuel the internet’s impact on society. But broadly, I have identified three competing camps: the ‘denialists’, the ‘narrativists’ and the ‘architecturalists’.

Denialists

 

The denialists deny the internet is responsible for the problems we see today. They believe that the internet is as neutral as a mirror and that if people do not like what the internet is producing, they should look at the deep inequality that is pervasive across their societies.

They say that in a networked world, where people can easily coordinate, tolerance for injustice is lower and our unjust societies are no longer sustainable. In the same way that the printing press is considered to have fuelled the collapse of feudalism, today’s information highway is simply making injustices apparent. Social tensions are not just warranted but can only be resolved through political reform. The internet allows people to come together and fight injustice. In short, their message is that we should fix injustice, not the internet.

This camp includes many media analysts who covered the Arab Spring. In particular, those who argued that the internet would become a tool for digital coordination that would lead to a more just world. It also seems like a fitting description of how activists on both the left and right have gauged their success in terms of reaching those who have been disenfranchised and forgotten by institutions and traditional media.

Narrativists

 

The narrativists claim social cooperation requires a shared narrative and that the internet – where thousands of voices are juxtaposed in a chaotic fashion – undermines this goal. They point to the way that micro-targeting of political adverts allows political candidates to spread different, and often contradictory, messages to different people.

Narrativists also emphasize that the seamless coordination enabled by the internet has undermined traditional power brokers, such as political parties and trade unions, and nurtured thousands of narrow interest groups. In the past, they argue, traditional power brokers would work towards establishing a platform that could consistently arrange a myriad of ideas and demands.

Today, the internet is fuelling a chaotic system of issue politics, where leaders can promise to cater to a wide range of interest groups without explaining how each promise fits within a broader framework of thought. In short their message is that, far from bringing people together, the internet allows them to isolate themselves into smaller groups of like-minded people.

This camp includes many in the traditional mainstream media and communications scholars who rely on the arguments put forward by experts from top universities in the UK and US alike.

Architechturalists

 

The architecturalists claim that the internet is not a fixed structure and that what is causing today’s anxieties can be traced to relatively recent developments in the architecture of the internet. They argue that the original design of the internet created incentives for people to pay attention to the quality of the content they created and shared. In the early days of the internet, there were no gatekeepers and an open marketplace of ideas organically tended to promote good over bad content.

In contrast, the ad-based revenue model pursued by many modern tech giants incentivizes engagement, and with it, content that is explosive, but not necessarily of good quality. Furthermore, whereas the original system was non-hierarchical, decentralized and required active users, a handful of companies now operate as gatekeepers and they funnel content through algorithms to users who are being pushed into passivity. Whereas before users would click-by-click navigate the open internet, users are now placed behind ‘walled gardens’ where they scroll through reams of content curated for them by proprietary algorithms.

Whereas in the decentralized system problems were local, problems in centralized systems spread like wildfire. Furthermore, the predominant ad-based revenue model makes these problems look more like a feature of the system than a bug. Too much power is in too few hands and the ad-based revenue model is making these gatekeepers terrible managers.

The architecturalist camp often builds upon the thoughts of the original architects of today’s internet, as well as a new generation of leaders, who believe blockchain technologies can help replace many of the intermediaries that are responsible for much of what is problematic with today’s internet.

So Who Is Right?

 

Each of the three camps has a point. At a first glance, one might think these three archetypes are like the fable of the blind men and the elephant: each narrowly focused on a specific aspect, and incapable of grasping the big picture.

Yet, reality could be bleeker. A handful of private companies control the information that is needed to understand how the online ecosystem works. They manage the key infrastructure, and most experts in the field are running this infrastructure after having signed non-disclosure agreements. Thus, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave might be a more fitting metaphor. Control over key data allows these companies to play the role of shadow-masters. They get the chance to reveal only the portions of reality they find convenient, defining how the general public perceives the online space. Information scarcity is therefore not just the natural consequence of the internet’s novelty; it is created artificially and for strategic purposes: To shape public opinion.

Should we break up these big companies? Should we allow them to continue growing, but under strict, utility-type rules? Should we do nothing? Whatever we do should be the result of a robust public debate. One that is based on the best available evidence regarding the effects the internet is having on power relations, and is therefore capable of defining the set of actions that would best serve the public interest. In short, at this point, we need key information to be disclosed and available for public scrutiny. But information is power – and it is unlikely to be disclosed voluntarily. It might require regulation.

When food production became industrialized, the US Government created the Food and Drug Administration, which was tasked with monitoring and disclosing information regarding compliance with quality standards. When government became too complex for the average citizen to navigate, ombuds offices sprouted across the globe. As an independent institution of government, ombuds were given the duty and power to investigate how government units work, and report on matters concerning people’s rights. The current situation requires exploring a similarly bold institutional reform. One focused on ensuring the data needed to inform public debate is made available by the tech industry.

Most people scoffed at the limited understanding of our digital world members of the US Congress revealed when they grilled Mark Zuckerberg. And yet its likely Facebook is not the only company behaving recklessly, nor the US Senators the only public representatives that are “ignorant”.

What we have is a growing gap between where power lies and where the institutions that seek to hold it accountable to the people operate. Such institutions are incapable of allowing democratically elected leaders to deliver their campaign promises. This is what is ultimately triggering social tensions and undermining trust in our democracies. We need our institutions to interpret these tensions as red flags and a call for a new social contract. And we need institutions to react now. This situation goes far beyond the debate around digitalization. Yet the online space is our future, and is therefore where this gap is most visible and urgent.

If our current institutions of government fail to ensure the ongoing technological revolution puts people first, these institutions will sooner or later be rendered irrelevant.

A previous version of this article was published at Chatham House.

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47 comments

  1. Eureka Springs

    What we have is a growing gap between where power lies and where the institutions that seek to hold it accountable to the people operate. Such institutions are incapable of allowing democratically elected leaders to deliver their campaign promises. This is what is ultimately triggering social tensions and undermining trust in our democracies.

    There is no democracy. Institutions both ‘public’ and private are designed with extreme intent to be anything but democratic. As we see in rapid stream on the internet as well as in all of our daily life.

    Government is handling internet/social media with an iron fist via the likes of intel agencies and most recently with Atlantic Council. They know what we think and are determined never to be democratic in response. The best way to keep democracy down is to continue to presume we (The US) have it, much less spread it, when the exact opposite has always been true. To expect public/private entities who have only obtained their level of power/wealth/success by any means but democratic process to do otherwise is to misdiagnose the problem entirely.

    These are not nice people and their very life depends upon entirely different behavior. We need an entirely new system not another bureaucracy of liars and protectionists of the status anti-democratic quo.

    Reply
    1. Newton Finn

      On a practical level, you are correct. On the theoretical level, you are wrong. As Edward Bellamy pointed out in the brilliant Socratic dialogue which beings his “Equality” (free to read on the net), once democracy was established in nations like the US, the people en mass had complete and unstoppable power to take total charge of their political and economic systems. Given a widespread understanding of their precarious and oppressive plight under capitalism, and given a resulting nationwide mobilization of political will, the people could literally reconfigure and control ALL of the power relationships under which they lived. To date, however, they obviously have not done so, and the rest of “Equality” is both an explanation of “why” and a roadmap out of this continuing political and economic self-castration. If one does nothing more, one should pull up a free copy of “Equality” and read the opening dialogue. To get the whole picture, one would have to read and ponder sequentially his “Looking Backward” (also free on the net) and the “Equality” sequel. When one fully absorbs Bellamy’s uniquely insightful and incisive analysis, certainly more accessible and potentially more potent than even that of the great Marx, the result is both frustrating and liberating, simultaneously maddening and empowering. At our immense peril, we have forgotten one of our greatest prophets. Here’s a foretaste for those interested in taking a time machine back to the late 19th Century to explore radically new and crucially relevant territory:

      https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/11/19/on-earth-as-in-heaven-the-utopianism-of-edward-bellamy/

      Reply
  2. Livius Drusus

    I think the Internet and the infotech revolution in general have been largely negative in their impact on the world. Ian Welsh has a blog post that largely sums up my views on the issue.

    https://www.ianwelsh.net/what-the-infotechtelecom-revolution-has-actually-done/

    Contrary to what many people say I think large organizations like governments and corporations have significantly more power now than before and ordinary people have less power. The Internet has made it easier to get information but you have to sift through tons of junk to get to anything decent. For every website like Naked Capitalism there are thousands pushing nonsense or trying to sell you stuff.

    And even if you are more knowledgeable, so what? If you cannot put that knowledge to use what good is it? At best it makes you more well-rounded, interesting and harder to fool but in political terms knowing a lot of stuff doesn’t make you more effective. In the past people didn’t have access to nearly as much information but they were more willing and able to organize and fight against the powerful because it was easier to avoid detection/punishment (that is where stuff like widespread surveillance tech comes in) and because they still had a vibrant civic life and culture.

    I actually think people are more atomized now than in the past and the Internet and other technologies have probably fueled this process. Despite rising populism, the Arab Spring, Occupy, the Yellow Jackets in France, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the DSA this is all a drop in the bucket compared to just the massive social movements of the 1960s much less earlier periods. Robert Putnam argued that television, the Internet and other technologies likely helped to produce the collapse of civic life in the United States by “individualizing” people’s leisure time and personally I think Putnam is right. Civic life today is very weak and I think the Internet is partially to blame.

    Reply
    1. Mark

      And even if you are more knowledgeable, so what? If you cannot put that knowledge to use what good is it?

      Agreed. If anything these more knowledgeable people had a greater audience prior to the internet. Whether you were a journalist, a great economist, a great author, or a great orator you need to persist and show intellect and talent to have your message heard wide and broad.
      (This is probably a little idealistic, but I think there is truth there.)

      Now you need very little of this. If your most famous asset is your attractive body you can attract a greater audience than great scholars and politicians.

      Reply
  3. Disturbed Voter

    Authoritarianism has always existed. But it hasn’t always been clearly visible. Technology makes authoritarianism more powerful. Centralization and urbanization have served the purposes of the elite well.

    People need information and communication. The inverted totalitarianism we live in, doesn’t like that. It wants the Internet to implement that inverted totalitarianism (see China). They want everything (in a corporatist way) to be mandatory, except for what is forbidden. What has been revealed, and is being revealed, is that the current political-economic system isn’t fit for purpose, human purpose.

    So the real answer is like what is happening in France now. Burn civilization down (see France). Eliminate all corruption, elites and hierarchies. The real communist revolution as begun. True post-modernism is coming. It will be painful going back 500 years to a human community centered world without fossil fuel, billions will perish. But justice will be served.

    Reply
  4. rob

    Attempting to blame the internet for the increasingly authoritarian world we live in is not seeing the forest through the trees. The internet is surely a tool used against humanity,That doesn’t make it “bad”. I would say the reason people can be fooled by these social media propaganda tactics, is precisely because the fourth estate is practicing such in depth propaganda campaigns, with all propaganda, all the time coverage on every other form of media as well. People have nowhere to turn.
    Why do people think some russians posting on facebook and twitter skewed the electorate in this country than say nothing about:fox news,npr,cnn,rush limbaugh,hannity,the new york times, wall st journal,the weekly standard, time magazine,people magazine, etc.All of these organizations and all the others spout disinformation. every day.
    And america’s trend towards the authoritarian state has been accelerating since at least the national security act of 1947.as a national trend, whereas in the beginning of this countries existence, there have been authoritarian control of local districts by local groups, ie. whites over blacks, or whites over indians, or rich over poor immigrants, etc.
    All the internet age and the “information age is doing, is changing the medium. the message is still the same. and there has always been resistance. now that resistance seems more futile, but is it?

    Reply
    1. Carolinian

      Why do people think some russians posting on facebook and twitter skewed the electorate in this country than say nothing about:fox news,npr,cnn,rush limbaugh,hannity,the new york times, wall st journal,the weekly standard, time magazine,people magazine, etc.All of these organizations and all the others spout disinformation. every day.

      Exactly. Our society is mainly shaped by its elites. And other than Twitter they are barely involved with the internet at all but rather get their news and attitudes from the NY Times or (in Trump’s case) cable TV. Therefore rather than enhancing the always existing authoritarianism of “manufactured consent,” the internet works to undermine it. This of course provokes much fingering of worry beads among the elite who see the mob and their pitchforks as real threats. The situation in France illustrates this phenomenon nicely and there have been calls by some to block Facebook in France so those yellow vests can’t communicate with each other.

      Diversity of opinion is a good thing, not bad, and some of us scan right leaning websites just to get a different view. The internet is not the problem. Powerful authoritarians are the problem.

      Reply
      1. ejf

        I do agree. This reminds me of Ford’s Pinto. A great technology, remember “great Miles per Gallon”? Except, oops, things blew up. The elites of Ford Motors spent high bucks on their defense but somehow, eventually, had to give up. And give up they did, but far too late.
        There’s gotta be a mob with pitchforks, untenably sharp ones, with lots of pictures taken.

        Reply
        1. Newton Finn

          Yup, but it will be a young mob. I’m about to turn 70 and am continually surprised by how many of my friends my own age, and other people of this vintage that I meet, don’t even know how to do a simple internet search, much less peruse the voluminous political and social issue websites to obtain new and accurate information, and thus be able to form thoughtful opinions not only about the issues of the day, but, even more importantly, about what those issues really are. If you’re not able or willing to find and participate (even as a lurker) in sites like Naked Capitalism, then you become part of the problem. Which is not to disparage, in the slightest, those who suffer from physical or mental incapacity and must rely on the rest of us, not so afflicted, to fight for them…first and foremost.

          Reply
  5. Brooklin Bridge

    If our current institutions of government fail to ensure the ongoing technological revolution puts people first, these institutions will sooner or later be rendered irrelevant.

    I wonder about that. It is an open question as to how they become “irrelevant” assuming they do: By positive restructuring that restores democracy and heals public weal, or rather by systemic collapse brought about these very institutions devouring democracy in an anti democratic orgy of lust for power and money but also devouring themselves in the process? After all, as comments suggest, the internet in part, but really technology as a whole, has proven a powerful force for government “awareness” and control down to a micro level never thought possible until the last decade.

    Reply
    1. Carla

      “technology as a whole, has proven a powerful force for government “awareness” and control down to a micro level never thought possible until the last decade.”

      But foreseen and foretold by Orwell. We were warned, and did nothing.

      Reply
      1. Brooklin Bridge

        In my own undoubtedly faulty memory of Animal Farm, Orwell characterized the devolution as “the nature of the beast” through his characters. That is (over and above the allegory of the Russian revolution/devolution), there are strong traits in human character that makes this devolution inevitable. We have the pigs; the aggressors, and the followers, and less savory characters, and the “never quite enough” wise annimal(s) and so on, working unwittingly together against the welfare of the whole making the end result seem precast. Not so much that we did nothing, as that we could do nothing.

        1984 never really addressed that issue (or at least I don’t remember it doing so), but from the start everything seemed inevitable, there was no discussion of any “might have been,” that could have been an alternative to the dystopia of an engineered rivalry between two super-powers that worked off each other to maintain a compliant global society in hopeless mass psychological, never mind physical, irons.

        But even assuming this inevitability was Orwell’s own belief and intent in his writings (and not simply my misunderstanding of them), I agree with your point that we had plenty of warning, and not just Orwell, and that society as a whole too frequently took the easier road but with a lot of help and insistent guidance (manipulation) from our increasingly corrupt leaders and captains of industry (our own pigs).

        Reply
        1. Carolinian

          Animal Farm was Orwell’s best book IMO because it speaks to universal human tendencies even though the book was also about Stalin and Trotsky. 1984 was far fetched speculation based on, as it turned out, the short lived totalitarianism of figures like Hitler and Stalin. People assume we are living 1984 when it’s really Animal Farm.

          Reply
  6. Christopher Dale Rogers

    I’m neutral on this one, on the one hand we know the Internet and Social media can be used for nefarious purposes, be this by the State, and Private individual or Business – indeed, in the early days of the Internet was are aware of scammers pump priming stocks to make vast fortunes rapidly – it was the Wild West, but we also had positive developments, i.e., challenging narratives our Masters would prefer us to believe to ensure their own grasp of power – once these were challenged we had a tightening of the screw to counter this.

    Although getting long in the tooth, I remember well Sociology 101 when looking at the influence of the media, specifically newspaper readership and identities, most opinion was that your choice of paper reinforced existing views you held rather than created said views to begin with – we took a different approach in Modern History, namely the media did have a high ability to force change, be this that old chess nut stirring up anti-immigration sentiment or demanding increased military expenditure based on finding enemies all over the show, and this is in the first decade of the 20th Century.

    So, on the whole I have a positive opinion of the Internet and Social Media, of course concentration of ownership, State-sponsored opinion forming and keeping tabs on users causes great concern, at the same time we can see how the Power Elite fear the Internet and Social Media – its not as if this Blog is popular in certain circles, and this applies to any site shining a light on power, which is what newspapers once did until they became tools to be abused and set stringent guidelines as to what was acceptable to question and unacceptable to question

    Reply
  7. Wukchumni

    When I was in business before the internet in the 80’s, every transaction more or less was face to face and I traveled all over the place on this orb, as my advantage was that the world was so utterly disconnected, that personal knowledge was king combined with say an Aussie not knowing the market in the USA or vice versa right on down the line in all countries. The individual that knew more than the next one had a huge advantage.

    Now, it means nothing.

    The world got really small and everybody knows everything now, there’s no chance of a dog that walks only on it’s hind legs in Oslo going not noticed.

    It’s also so easy to herd humans on here, that ain’t no bueno.

    Makes it easy for authoritarianism to thrive…

    Reply
  8. Wukchumni

    If we had a similar movement here although with different color vests, and given our penchant for using guns to solve all problems real or imagined, would it be called?

    Duck! L’Orange

    Reply
  9. Thuto

    Imo, the age of a neutral internet has ended. While it is true that it remains a powerful tool for grassroots mobilizing, it has also spawned a myriad of ways for democracy itself to be subverted by TPTB. Democracy functions when people have access to reliable information with which to inform their choices but Instead of facilitating this access, the internet has become a haystack of algorithmically funneled fake and junk information curated to create mass hysteria and other pliable mental states in a population largely “robbed” of its powers of discernment.

    It really is the golden age for the herdsman for his flock can now be led to slaughter with but a disinformation campaign orchestrated over the medium we call the internet. Will regulation be what it takes for the medium to function along the lines and ethos of its founding architects? That’s an open question…

    Reply
  10. jfleni

    Nonsense! the internet is not responsible for anything more than dumb clowns, foaming at the mouth to blow their idiot bugle
    online with Butt-book instead of putting it on a neutral mailing
    list for their friends!
    That’s all Butt-book is just a slightly modified mailing list; look carefully and you can see the toupee hairpiece on the world’s
    oldest freshman!

    Reply
  11. James McRitchie

    Facebook is a dictatorship of one. Alphabet is a dictatorship of two. As long as corporate governance is anti-democratic that will have an unfortunately negative impact on civil society. I hope shareholders in these and other companies will vote in favor of proposals by NorthStar and others to phase out multi-class share structures, require that directors get at least a majority vote to take office, do away with supermajority voting requirements, etc.

    Reply
  12. anonymous

    Yves and team,

    Here is a somewhat-related issue, falling into internet crapification, class warfare or other categories.

    If you travel much, you may be a member of a big hotel reservation system and therefore probably a victim of their recent 500 million (!) customer data breach. If so, and you have had the opportunity to review their website, you may have noticed something.

    They make it very difficult to enroll in their ‘free’ monitoring service. For example, here is verbiage from their website.

    Free WebWatcher Enrollment
    xxxxxxx is providing guests the opportunity to enroll in WebWatcher free of charge for one year. WebWatcher monitors internet sites where personal information is shared and generates an alert to the consumer if evidence of the consumer’s personal information is found. Due to regulatory and other reasons, WebWatcher or similar products are not available in all countries. Guests from the United States who complete the WebWatcher enrollment process will also be provided fraud consultation services and reimbursement coverage for free.

    Of course, there is no link that will get you directly to that monitoring service. The casual observer is led to conclude that they do not want you to enroll in that free service. Further they may be attempting to show that they provided some defensible display of concern and, ahem, action, in anticipation of subsequent litigation. It takes a concerted effort to appear so disingenuous. You may call their center to slog through a gatekeeper process, in yet another tax on your time.

    Reply
  13. Steve Ruis

    I think the Internet has had a profound effect on social discourse. I have lived long enough to remember when negative racial comments were common. These comments became less and less socially acceptable and were slowly disappearing from ordinary discourse. But the Internet has allowed people to communicate anonymously, using fictitious names, avatars, what have you. This has emboldened those who hold non-socially acceptable ideas to communicate them broadly, encouraging people who hold ideas that are similar to hold on to them and make them stronger. The same effect as allowed marginalized communities find commonality; it works for racists and white nationalists, etc., too.

    Reply
    1. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

      This is true so far as polite discourse goes. Most people in the 60s/70s who shot off racial epithets like they smoked cigarettes did not really feel racial animus. It was a handle to beat someone with. Anyone you were upset with, there was a slur. Irish, blacks, generic white people, Germans, Italians. Hungarians. Growing up in the rust belt, I got to learn every insult made for just about any ethnicity. The internet and the general amelioration of ethnic animosities (I like to think the music of Jimi Hendrix was the key) made out open discourse less coarse, sure. But I don’t think the ability of people to hide behind cartoon frog avatars and silly names is widening the appeal of racialist ideology – a-la eugenicist NatSoc or plain old vanilla 19th century racism. If a person holds these views, they can spout them off in some corner of the internet basement full of gross spiders, moldy cat box product and forgotten boxes of grampa’s pornography. But the fact of its iteration does not make it any more appealing to white folks who love black music, jewish slang and mexican food- and know where these things come from and get on well with the people who developed them.

      Reply
      1. Amfortas the hippie

        this disconnect between online behaviour and in real life is something I’ve been able to study up close.
        this far place is small enough that I can at least be acquainted with everyone…and during my virtual field study of the american right, I lurked under assumed names in various righty fora. I sought out locals, and where they hung out…faceborg was especially easy in this regard.
        On the one hand, I have observed, as stated above, that overt racism has become uncouth….even in very “conservative” places….
        But at the same time, with the rise of social media, that part of the raging Id has been given permission….encouraged even….and it doesn’t feel like an accident.
        and, too…cognitive dissonance has it’s political/psychological uses.
        I watch essentially kumbayah in real life…white folks with brown folks and nary a racialist bone of contention anywhere…while the same folks(white and brown) fall into tribalist lunacy online.
        as a humanist and a creature of the Enlightenment, it bothers me that we remain so easily manipulated…and I ain’t talking about russian trolls!
        as for the larger question—yep. I sometimes think we’d be better off as a species if the internet stopped working one day.
        for all it’s promise…and for the world at my fingertips aspect of it, from which I have certainly benefited(I love wikipedia!)…too few have the mental wherewithal to sort the wheat from the chaff….and the Dark Powers have certainly become adept at using this to their advantage: sowing discord and confusion.

        Reply
    2. Newton Finn

      Thank you, Steve, for also posting, I assume, in your real name. I have found it can make quite a difference in what is said and how it is said.

      Reply
      1. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

        :^) I’m not really a German war hero. I do like to amuse myself though with these silly names. As Frank Zappa said, ‘life is jus electrochemical entertainment, so may as well have fun with it.” While not such an arch materialist as FZ, it’s still a good maxim.

        Reply
  14. Michael Fiorillo

    The Internet was “born in sin,” developed as it was to maintain communications during a nuclear holocaust against a fundamentally fake threat.

    Let’s remember that the Soviet Union, however repressive it may have been toward its own people and those in satellite countries, never posed the existential threat to the US that was claimed. Rather, as Senator Arthur Brandenburg of Michigan infamously told Harry Truman at the dawn of the Cold War, it would be necessary “to scare the hell out of the American people” to get them to turn against their former Soviet allies, which the State and compliant media spent the next forty years doing, often/largely producing weapons that don’t work against enemies that don’t exist.

    How has the Internet ever not been a tool of the national security state, and why should we have ever expected otherwise?

    Reply
    1. Anarcissie

      The rise of the Internet was actually somewhat more complicated than you portray it. The potential of linking up computers and other devices along the lines of the telegraph and telephone systems was being thought about, not only by the military, but individuals, academic institutions, and corporations back in the 1950s and ’60s. Part of actual creation of the Net was, in effect, hacking connections with usually academic, not military, installations and was quite anarchic. The growth of the corporate-commercial Net was based on this stratum of users, not the military or orthodox academic users. All three of these elements — military, anarchic, and corporate, are still present. As the technology continues to develop, more possible configurations and uses are being explored by all parties involved. There is no way of determining how things are going to turn out in the future, but I expect the complexity and the difficulty of controlling the system to increase.

      Reply
  15. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

    Marshall MacLuhan had this figured out fairly good. His son still studies the issues. The invention of linear script led the way to a whole new kind of perception management.

    Reply
  16. shinola

    Blame the internet?

    The internet is but a tool; and as has been the case with just about every tool created by humans, it can be used for constructive or destructive purposes. That first piece of sharpened rock could be used for skinning prey for food, clothing & shelter or to split the skull of an annoying neighbor. So it has been, so it is and, barring some huge change in human nature, so it will be.

    Learn to deal with it (or not).

    Reply
  17. Bobby Gladd

    Nice article. Great comments as usual (some of them a bit irony-free). I’ve already tweeted it and posted to FB. LOL.

    I would commend to all the just-released 2018 Report of the AI Now Institute at NYU. Narrower in scope (governance / regulatory / social issues pertaining to “artificial intelligence”), but nonetheless relevant.

    Reply
  18. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

    Gave the article a second, closer read and did a cartoon double take at “Chatham House”- that’s Royal Institute of International Affairs. You want to talk about long running perception management and reality creation schemes- look no further. Balfour- Edward Gray- all the Rhodes-Milner Group connections are right there in the WIkipedia entry-you don’t need to cite David Icke. Maybe we need to shut down and defund Wikipedia, since simple facts bolster all those kooky conspiracy theories.Nothing to see, folks. Move Along.

    Reply
    1. rob

      Ain’t that the truth!
      in the line of succession from the jesuit masters, through to the real manipulators of cultural norms. Groups like the royal institute of international affairs in britian, and their american conterparts, the council of foreign relations have been created to do precisely that. control peoples opinions, by providing them. As the early roundtablers who took john ruskin’s message to heart from the infamous days at oxford circa 1870, was cecil rhodes and others who were in control of the major british papers at the time, william stead,abe bailey and others, who created the roundtable in 1891… all to sway opinion.

      Carroll Quigley’s “a history of the world in our time, is the best description of the process through 1895 and 1961, which is really the most important political act that has happened in this age. Every aspect of the twentieth century, should be viewed through the lens of “groupthink” that these connections and money and foundation entrenchment has spawned. Nevermind conspiracy, it is just a community of interest. The koch’s were once flung to the soviet union by this cabal,(the standard oil co. of the rockefeller, baker,pratt,buckley,etc,families. Notice the recent push for carbon taxes pushed by exxon (standard oil of new jersey, james baker, and george PRATT shulz. William f buckley jr would have been proud) but they learned in their return to this country how to get things done. form foundations,thinktanks ,academic -ish positions for policy makers to adopt and use the power of money to saturate these ideas into every orifice there is.
      IN other words…… PROPAGANDA……all propaganda; all the time

      Reply
      1. rob

        I took this link as it was one of the first I thumbed through, just so people get a taste of what it really means. a wikileaks map of media establishment links to the council on foreign relations. I also must point out, it isn’t really a conspiracy I know of, but you have to be picked,vetted and stay in good standing to be a member. so there is self censorship and groupthink going on… here is one list of many. Go to the CFR.org website to go through their list of members and read the names. Or find a site that has job titles attached(beware this relation is full of conspiracy cranks, but what they are chasing does resemble reality)
        https://www.transcend.org/tms/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/wikileaks-media-council-foreign-relations-usa3.png

        Reply
        1. Amfortas the hippie

          the omnipresence of cranks and nutters is no accident, either.
          can’t keep a lid on nefarious connections? flood the web with crazy.
          “conspiracy theory” as a slur is, itself, a conspiracy…there’s a foia somewhere from the CIA, no less(not at my fingertips)

          and in addition to Carol Quigley recommended above, a book by Bertram Gross…”Friendly Fascism” was very enlightening in regards to the shape of power.
          due to the tinfoil that’s been overlaid on all this…even speaking about it tends to make one seem and/or feel like a nutter.
          I see it as a scaled up version of the small town old boys club…redneck mafia…meeting in a back room, while the Lion’s Club meets out front.
          I’ve been uncomfortably exposed to that level of power…and it’s quite scary if you get on their bad side…while everyone around you doesn’t even know that they exist(and don’t want to know).
          Instead of a walnut panelled room with wingback chairs, a la X-Files…there are several million such rooms, often at odds with each other…but in agreement where it counts.
          we do ourselves a disservice to deny the existence of such a common form of elite organisation.

          Reply
  19. Scott1

    An awful lot of people now have computers. It is less expensive to have a beer at home & roam your favorite websites like FB, Instagram, Twitter and Naked Capitalism. The need for some sort of human interaction is faux satisfied. Relationships can be as real as those between Amateur Radio operators who never meet in person. Most Hams talk about their radios. Your license is your avatar and your password.
    The efficiency of computers is revealed in number of users. They have nets.
    Facebook in particular has groups whereas many sites are groups. Facebook has not been around as long as the post office, but feels already to be permanent. More and more of what was free has to be paid for. For instance “Boost this Post” is what you may see when you create something particularly valuable. For instance the cover for my CD and something I may say seeking sales.
    My Page, I need to spend to “Boost it”.
    What is boosted in secret? What is done secretly that is good?
    Daniel Schoor kept some secrets.

    Reply
    1. Michael Fiorillo

      “Secret” might be one thing (arguably); “private” is definitely another. They shouldn’t be conflated.

      Reply
  20. Rosario

    I can’t speak much on authoritarianism since whatever form it takes on today is wildly different from what it was in the past. Unfortunately, it is hard to convince many people living in western societies that they are living in an authoritarian system because their metal images are goose-stepping soldiers and Fraktur print posters.

    I suppose the way I can assure myself that we are living in an authoritarian society is by analyzing the endless propaganda spewed from countless, high-viewership media and entertainment outlets. It is quite simple, if the media and entertainment narratives are within a very narrow intellectual window (with lots of 600 lb. gorillas sitting in corners) than the culture and politics are being defined by powerful people with a narrow range of interests. This is not to say that forming public opinion or preferring particular political views is a new thing in Western media and entertainment, just that its application, IMO, is far more effective and subtle (and becoming more-so by the day) than it ever was in, say, NAZI Germany or the Soviet Union.

    I’d put my money down that most educated Germans during NAZI rule were well aware that propaganda was being utilized to “manufacture consent” but they participated and accepted this despite the content for pragmatic/selfish reasons. Much of the NAZI propaganda played on existing German/European cultural narratives and prejudices. Leaveraging existing ideology allowed the party to necessitate their existence by framing the German as juxtaposed against the impure and unworthy. Again, ideologies that existed independent of the party not within it. Goebbels and company were just good at utilizing the technology of the time to amplify these monstrosities.

    I question that being the case today. It is far more complicated. Technology is again the primary tool for manipulation, but it is possible that current technology is allowing for even greater leaps in reason and analysis. The windows for reflection and critical thought close as soon as they are opened. Seems more like the ideology is manufactured on the fly. For example, the anti-Russia narrative has some resonance with baby boomers, but how the hell is it effective with my generation (millennial) and younger? The offhand references to Putin and Russian operatives from my peers are completely from left field when considering our life experience. People in my age group had little to say about Russia three years ago. It says volumes on the subtle effectiveness of Western media machines if you can re-create the cold war within two years for an entire generation.

    In addition and related to above, the West’s understanding of “Freedom of Speech” is dated by about 100 years. Governments are no longer the sole source of speech suppression (more like filtering and manipulation), and the supremacy of the free-market coupled with the erroneously perceived black-and-white division between public and private have convinced the public (with nearly religious conviction) that gigantic media and entertainment organizations do not have to protect the free speech of citizens because they are not government. Public/Private is now an enormous blob. With overlapping interests mixed in with any antagonisms. It is ultimately dictated by capital and its power within both government and business. Cracking this nut will be a nightmare.

    Yes, this is an authoritarian world, if measured by the distance between the populace and its governing powers, but it is an authoritarianism operating in ways that we have never seen before and using tools that are terribly effective.

    Reply
  21. Synoia

    No discussion in the article about concentration of wealth, and the aristocrats, generally authoritarian, who control the money.

    For a reason to examine increasing authoritarian look no further than the increasing concentration, historically high, of money,

    Fear of loss drives the authoritarians. For an example, please consider the treatment of “Occupy.”

    Reply
    1. Bobby Gladd

      To your point, I recently watched the EPIX “Panama Papers” documentary. Highly recommended.

      And, I just now finished episode 3 of the 4-part Showtime documentary “Enemies: the President, Justice & the FBI.” Also recommended.

      Reply
  22. Nick Stokes

    The internet is “mind control” for the elite. By making basic bias of the individual easy to qualify and nuture, they don’t think. 90% of “conspiracy theories” are driven by the elite. They are meant to control the mind.

    That is why blogs like Naked Capitalism drive me nuts and yet at the same time, so devilish to the modern dialect. Get past the dialectical illusion of the elite and you find that capitalism is like a drug. When the tide goes out and capital retreats, people retreat with it. Brexit cause a capital collapse? People will flee the island. Eventually the former UK’s population will be cut noticeably down, including former citizens. When Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn are mucking it up in Norway while tribal warfare occurs who’s left in the former UK. Tribal warfare is socialism’s true endgame and why “far right anti-immigration” groups are a impossible dialectical paradox of impossibility. The so called populists are neoliberals and you can’t control the system YOU want.

    Reply
  23. precariat

    While the discussion of of the need for new paradigms for regulation and accountability — lest democratic or civil institutions become irrelevant — is very much needed, I am bewildered by the framing of the discussion to only the internet. The internet is just one, interactive and immediately visible use of technology that has the potential to undermine a fair society.

    Some of the most insidious and destructive uses of data technology is not on the internet; it’s tools and processes used by previously trusted corporations, governments, and institutions that is not regulated, not transparent and not accountable. So framing the discussion with the ‘internet’ seems disengenuous.

    Reply
  24. skippy

    I think part of the issue is per se related to events like Reddit removing a few IP’s related to blatant AGW astro turf deniers, once that occurred the volume of decline in the bot comments was profound.

    Reply
  25. precariat

    Humanity and especially Western governments need to to grasp the big picture and quickly: do we subjugate governments/civilians to technology as its integrates into economic, political and social systems — or do we subjugate technology to economic, political and social systems? Neoliberalism — privatization of the commons (and power), little regulation, transnational governance (unaccountable), disdain for the value of citizens — is exacerbating the the authoritarian threat.

    Reply
  26. SteveB

    They see you when your sleeping
    They know when you’re awake
    They know if you’ve been bad or good
    on the internet, that’s my take !!!!

    Just because you’re paranoid
    doesn’t mean they’re not out to get ya……………………….

    Serf accordingly !!!!!!!!

    Reply
  27. bruce wilder

    Reading the OP again, I wonder, who wrote the headline?

    On the Chatham House website, his article had the headline, Is the web neutral? Three views on the structure of the internet and at OpenDemocracy, a subtitle carried that original spirit: Three perspectives on whether the internet is having a damaging impact on democracy.

    The body of Juan Ortiz Freuler’s article only refers to authoritarian states once and discusses in the main, alleged damage done to democracy by the internet, as a mixed case. His main target is the opacity of the internet giants, like Facebook and his main policy recommendation a neoliberal-ish call for transparency.

    His essay really does not rise to the standard of the headline.

    Reply

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