Oh how the mighty are fallen.
It has been interesting to see how out of favour the once beloved tech giants now are. Just a quick search of “Mark Zuckerberg” in Google News today immediately yields critical headlines in two influential newspapers. A piece in The New York Times says, “Hey, Mark Zuckerberg: My Democracy Isn’t Your Laboratory”, and, in the FT, the columnist Edward Luce writes, “The Zuckerberg Delusion: The co-founder of Facebook might be a digital superstar, but he has poor human skills”.
This isn’t really a partisan thing either. Though liberals have begun to regard Facebook more critically since the election of Donald Trump, conservatives have long been critical of the site, complaining that websites like Breitbart were being deliberately edited out of the “Trending News” results, and alt-righters were furious when Facebook began mass deleting alt-right Facebook pages after the Charlottesville fallout.
And it’s not just Facebook, Google was heavily criticised earlier this year for the controversial firing of software engineer James D’amore after his “Google Memo” blew up in the media.
It’s been forecasted for ages that Google and Facebook were destined to become publishers, but both companies have eschewed that role and seemed to have focused more on being neutral platforms for publishers. Of course, in today’s highly charged and divided political discourse that has proved impossible to achieve, particularly as sites like Facebook and YouTube are increasingly used for political ends.
The enthusiastic techno-utopianism of even as little as seven years ago has quickly turned to fear and loathing.
People have also blamed social media for why we are so divided. Research has shown that social media exacerbates the formation of echo chambers online. It has also created the new phenomenon of digital bully mobs that are able to assemble quickly and anonymously on the Internet. The enthusiastic techno-utopianism of even as little as seven years ago has quickly turned to fear and loathing.
At first, social media was regarded as a progressive and democratising force. Barack Obama pioneered the use of social media in his 2008 Presidential campaign that initially had much less financial and media backing than Hillary Clinton did.
In order to reach younger audiences, a digital media strategy is crucial. In the recent UK general election, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party had a very effective digital campaign aimed at young voters that made use of viral videos, memes and comment threads to get their message out. The Conservatives, who lost their majority, have partly blamed their poor performance amongst the 18-25s on being slow on the digital uptake.
The vulnerability of social media to online disinformation campaigns has also come to the fore, as the Russian government’s role in using Facebook and Twitter to run fake accounts publishing divisive political propaganda has been exposed. This is nothing new. Russia has always used these sorts of tactics in the past, but social media platforms provide a new device for doing so.
Earlier this year, I attended an exhibition at the British Library, which displayed important political literature from the tumultuous years of the Russian revolution (before and after February and October of 1917). It was fascinating to see how little the language of propaganda has changed over the years (in all nations): hyperbole, the demonisation of opponents, peddling of outright falsehoods/conspiracy theories, etc. The mediums have merely changed.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Personally, I still love the innovation and forward thinking of Silicon Valley. But, unfortunately, for all their futuristic talk, the big tech companies cannot transcend good old human nature, which is inherently political.
Featured Image Credit: Icarus by Jacob Peter Gowy (1635-7)