This is the edited text of a keynote speech given at the 2nd #ICANN-APAC-TWNIC Engagement Forum, a conference held in Tapei and virtually April 15, 2021. A video of the keynote can be viewed here.
Social media and the internet expand our capacity for communication and social interaction. They allow people to mobilize, express opinions, exchange cultural artifacts and share information at unprecedented scale. They support transactions and payment systems. One of the largest specimens, YouTube, has 2.3 billion users and a presence in over 100 countries. Its video content covers 80 languages. 500 hours of video are uploaded to it every minute. Facebook has 2.80 billion active users and 1.84 billion of them visit the site daily.
Some of the regulatory concerns about social media appear to be matters of economic policy. Network effects, economies of scale, and a business model based on advertising all contribute to the concentration of user populations into large platforms. People love to refer to the platforms as monopolies but, this just isn’t correct. They are big, but they straddle multiple overlapping markets where none of them are anywhere close to being the sole and exclusive supplier. Although there are tremendous advantages to scope and scale in these markets, there is a surprisingly large number of social media platforms. As the rise of Tiktok in the US demonstrates, new ones can come into being and achieve critical mass rapidly. The example of Tiktok also demonstrates the importance of foreign companies, global capital and global market access in fostering competition and innovation.
At the present time there is a powerful backlash against social media. Despite the economic issues mentioned, most of this backlash is driven by issues related to the content on social media. This worries me because I think it is also a backlash against the way information technology and global connectivity have eliminated traditional gatekeepers and controls over communication. In other words, it’s in some ways a backlash against the Internet.
To begin to illustrate this, I will recount two familiar stories.
The Capitol Hill Riots
The first is the story of the Capitol Hill riots in the USA. Our former president refused to accept the fact that he lost the election. This wasn’t just any election. With high stakes and a polarized electorate, it sparked levels of voter turnout not seen for more than 50 years. Biden won with only 51.3% of the popular vote.
When Trump was declared the loser, he told his political supporters that the election had been stolen. Legally, that lie never got anywhere. The courts didn’t buy it. No elections officials supported it or acted on it, even in Republican-run states. But Trump kept saying it nevertheless, building up anger and resentment among his hard-core followers.
Trump’s doomed electoral challenge culminated in the events of January 6th. For the preceding month, Trump backers had been promoting a rally in Washington on that date because that was the day Congress was to certify the election results. When it was clear that attempts to challenge the electoral count in Congress would fail, Trump went before the crowd and encouraged them to fight. Thousands marched to the capitol, and then about 300 of them violently broke into the building, interrupting the certification process.
In the wake of the attack, Trump and his acolytes were discredited. Trump himself was de-platformed. Facebook and Twitter removed thousands of accounts associated with Trump and the right. Yet still, in hearings on social media regulation weeks afterwards, members of the US Congress blamed Facebook, Twitter and Google for the riots. They pointed out repeatedly that the rioters had “used” Facebook pages and other social media to connect with each other. CNN, the NYT and many other progressive media outlets echoed this theme.
In short, Social media was put on trial for the riots, well before the actual rioters were.
Now let me expose you to a different story. On February 23, 2020, Ahmaud Marquez Arbery, a 25-year-old African American was jogging down a street in Brunswick, Georgia. He was unarmed. Brunswick is a small, mostly white town. Two men noticed him, assumed he was a criminal. They grabbed their guns and chased him in their pickup truck. When they caught up they tried to arrest him at gunpoint, and in the ensuing struggle, Arbery was shot three times, and died in the street.
For nearly six weeks, no one was arrested or prosecuted for this killing. Indeed, one of the men who did it used to work for the Brunswick police department and knew the local DA. Law enforcement authorities recused themselves and passed the buck. Nothing happened until May 5. That was when a video of the shooting was given to a local radio station, found its way on to YouTube and Twitter and went viral. Within hours, the case got the attention of the State Attorney General and the Governor. An investigation was started by the Georgia Bureau. The perpetrators were arrested. All three of the white men involved are now on trial for murder. Months later, Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law was changed.
These two stories make for an interesting contrast. Social media was put on trial for the January 6 riots, but its role in the Arbery incident was not called out. There have been no Congressional investigations about how YouTube helped to expose injustice and produce legal reforms. There are no newspaper stories cheering open social media for exposing and helping to rectify a racist incident. No one praised social media for its role in the George Floyd case, either, even though it was Twitter and YouTube images of his final minutes that sparked nationwide BLM protests and the prosecution of the police officers. For that matter, no one made a big deal out of the role of free and open social media in Hong Kong’s democracy movement.
So there’s a discrepancy here. I am calling your attention to it for a reason. It exposes a distortion in the way internet and social media are being portrayed in the current public discourse in the West. Those distortions have important consequences for Internet governance.
The critique of social media
Why the discrepancy? I believe that social media is being attacked precisely because it is structurally the most democratic form of public communication that has ever existed. It made anyone a publisher, it allowed people holding the most diverse viewpoints to find each other and coalesce. it eliminated gatekeepers, it made political borders almost irrelevant, and even starts to overcome linguistic barriers. It made it possible for all kinds of people, good, bad and ugly, to attract a following and attempt to monetize it or leverage it. Building on the internet connectivity that came before, social media applications created more sophisticated forms of interaction, giving birth to a vast virtual society which is not entirely under the control of pre-existing power structures.
This scared a lot of people. We are now in a period of reaction. Since 2016 we have seen a partisan, ideologically biased attack on that new social capability. Surprisingly, people on the left are the ones who seem to be leading it. They believe that social media is responsible for the rightwing populism that Donald Trump exemplified. Although the assertion is uninformed, even ridiculous, they believe that social media “caused” Trump; that it “caused” the election of Bolsonaro in Brazil, that it “caused” white nationalism and the Christchurch killer. That it “caused” genocide in Myanmar. Social media is destroying democracy, we are told. It is flooding the world with disinformation and hate speech and making us helpless pawns of foreign powers interfering with our elections. This is the narrative we are getting from the progressive left.
Don’t write me off as a cyber-utopian. I know that bad things happen in this vast virtual society. It is, after all, a human society. Its inhabitants bring with it all the forms of abuse, crime and conflict that existed before. Sometimes with new tools like ransomware, computational propaganda, identity theft, and disinformation campaigns. These are real problems, but their impact is often exaggerated. We can attack them without destroying the freedom and openness of the internet.
The negative narrative about social media is fueling a worldwide crackdown on the capabilities of internet-enabled communication. Many of these crackdowns are enacted by dictatorships. Countries such as China have always viewed social media as dangerous, something to be carefully controlled. The negative narrative about social media is making China feel vindicated. In Brazil, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Egypt, the alleged pathologies of social media have justified laws that are little more than censorship regimes. Even when state censorship is not involved, the companies that run the great platforms are getting the message, loud and clear: Your job is to actively manage the nation’s political discourse, and you shall do this in a way that actively suppresses any movements or ideas that the ruling party finds threatening.
And this is what convinces me that, whether they know it or not, the real target of the attack on social media is the general capacity to speak, mobilize and organize without traditional forms of hierarchical supervision. The target is freedom of expression and robust democratic competition itself.
Here’s an example. Just last week, YouTube removed a recording of a routine policy discussion about the efficacy of putting masks on children. The video was a panel health experts from Oxford, Stanford and Harvard. Google claimed the panel was misinformation. The company said it removed the video “because it included content that contradicts the consensus of local and global health authorities regarding the efficacy of masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.” Why isn’t it sufficient to let people see and judge for themselves?
Here’s another, even worse example. Tech reporters for the New York Times and the Guardian recently published articles targeting Telegram, WhatsApp and Signal. These are two-way messaging apps with end to end encryption. The reporters were complaining about them not because of the usual song and dance about advertisements or surveillance capitalism. No, the reporters were worried because these apps enabled private conversations to take place and thus could become “the next misinformation hotspots.” People might be expressing thoughts and opinions on these platforms that were socially unacceptable, and no one could stop them. Or they might be plotting insurrections. Indeed, these private conversations could take place not only in pairs, but among hundreds of people. Unsupervised discussions among large groups, with no possibility of content moderation by the corporation or the government. These reporters found that to be a scary thought.
These articles astounded me. Journalists, who used to be on the front lines of defending free expression and privacy, were now leading demands for more regulation of speech and more surveillance. And they seemed oblivious to the implications of this for autonomous civil society and democratic movements.
Theory of democracy
The foundation of democracy is the idea of popular sovereignty, that people can govern themselves. Freedom of expression is one of the pillars of self-governance. FoE is more than just an individual right to entertain your own thoughts and opinions; it is also a practical tool for collective self-governance. It is a means of keeping government accountable, and of keeping the public informed. You cannot properly exercise the right to vote or hold public officials accountable unless you are free to investigate what they do. You cannot discover the right public policy unless you can debate differing opinions about what is right and what the effects of those policies will be.
Separating the press and religion from the state is a logical corollary of liberal democracy. The state is a coercive monopoly, and while you need coercion to execute certain state functions, if the state can coerce thought and public opinion you don’t have a government accountable to the people, you have a people subordinate to the government.
How much of the criticism of human interactions on social media are just critiques of human freedom and democratic governance? In a democracy, some politicians are going to be demagogues. Many will lie. Some will be corrupt. Some members of the population will choose to support bad policies, and even advance destructive or discriminatory ideas. Liberal democrats believe that you can only solve those problems by protecting individual rights, freedom of association and democratic processes. An open and free media will expose corruption and the public will punish bad policies and bad politicians by voting them out of office. Of course sometimes the people are fooled and politicians and businesses get away with things. But if you don’t believe that public awareness of accountability can solve for this, you’re anti-democratic by definition.
Too many people who claim to be democrats are backing into the belief that any ideas they consider untrue or dangerous should be suppressed. But this attitude is inherently inimical to democratic governance, and to human potential. It is especially dangerous in a politically contentious environment. If whoever is in power can suppress any information deemed false or misleading, then competing political parties or movements can use these tools to silence their opponents. They merely need to label them purveyors of disinformation, or extremists, or conspiracy theorists. This is a much greater threat to democracy than disinformation or a few extremists on social media.
Democracy does not mean that every citizen is an angel or that only correct ideas and good social movements will form. It simply means that social conflicts over policy and governance will be resolved through peaceful, democratic means, and that certain fundamental rights will be respected in the process. Freedom of expression is an essential component – indeed, the most important element – of the public’s capacity to peacefully deliberate over what is in the public good, and what is true and what is false.