Is Social Media Killing the Truth?

Yes, new technologies have been normalized before, but that is not a case contra regulation but pro.

Steven Johnson is an American author of many books on technology. Some of them are great books, I used to be a big fan of his. Still am to some extent. Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good for You (Riverhead 2005) busted the myth that popular culture makes us dumber, in fact – argued Johnson – it makes us smarter because of its increasing complexity (take video games – look at Pac-Man and Minecraft). I bought boxes of that book and gave to anyone interested, including the Swedish Minister for Culture. I can go on about Johnson’s writing, but you get the idea. Good stuff. However, recently I find myself disagreeing with my former icon more and more. First was the data-over-reality-approach in Johnson’s NY Times piece The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t, where he argued that creators don’t really suffer in the digital era after all. Many people smarter than this writer have countered his argument (here’s Robert Levine’s take), but let me say that it’s wishful thinking dressed up as an economic argument, and given the huge increase in the public appetite for entertainment and creative content, creators should really be seeing a proportionate growth in income (and not just not-too-much-less-than-before-digital).

Last week, Steven Johnson published a new thought-piece which I also can’t agree with, this time on social media. Johnson’s point is that with the democratized digital public sphere, we have to take the bad – ISIS beheading videos, Putin propaganda, rape threat campaigns and, Johnson’s example, the Trump-candidacy – with the good, the latter which Steven Johnson illustrates mainly with President Obama’s successful policy results (health insurance, normalization of US-relations with Iran and Cuba, the Paris climate deal etc). His basic point is that increased connectedness and more information is a priori positive, and he seems to expect benefits to increase over time. This is the classic Silicon Valley-argument: if you just leave the internet alone, everything will be fine. Many objections to this techno-centric view can be made. Social media did not bring the Arab spring, as Netopia-contributor Mariam Kirollos has demonstrated (we did not use to talk about “poster-revolutions” and most people on Tahrir square did not have internet connection in the first place). Oppressive regimes use social media for disinformation and to spy on and hunt down dissidents, often with the support of Western tech companies. Invasion of privacy happens on a massive scale in the surveillance economy – Steven Johnson fails to mention Snowden – but even if we were to trust GAFA with our information, once collected it can and will fall into the hands of others. Filter bubbles – personalized services means my internet is different than yours – play a part in spreading conspiracy theories. And so on.

Do we have social media to thank for Obama’s progressive policies? (Or blame, depending on your own politics) Who can tell? Perhaps they would have happened anyway, perhaps not. But let’s look at Steven Johnson’s history argument:

[…] all the step changes in human connection over the eons — from scrolls to the printing press to the pamphleteers to the newspapers. Yes, each transition had its own particular form of tumult, and each undermined its fair share of existing authorities, but with the hindsight of centuries, they are all now considered to be fundamentally on the side of progress: democratizing the flow of information and decision-making in society, and increasing the quality of those decisions. No one is hankering to rewind the clock to, say, the media of the 16th-century: post-Gutenberg, but pre-pamphleteers.

Yes, there is progress through technology, but Johnson falls into the trap of assuming that society evolved by getting used to the new things, by adjusting and embracing. That is simply not true. Each of these technologies also bred new institutions, law, codes of ethics, certifications and so on. The printing press brought copyright, freedom of expression, press ethics and many other structures. Radio brought public service media, spectrum regulation and broadcast licenses. The combustion engine brought the traffic system: lights, lanes, signs, rules, drivers licenses, smog checks, you name it! The way society makes new technologies useful is not simply by getting used to them, but by introducing regulation systems. Checks and balances, if you will. There is no reason social media should be any different. It’s much too important to be left to a handful of companies to regulate.

The other pitfall is to see technology out of context. The formula “technology happens – impacts society” is fundamentally flawed (and I am in part guilty of that same sin in the previous paragraph). Technology is the result of many factors: inspiration, government action, business interests, vanity, chance, ambition… The space race in the 60’s was a consequence of the Cold War super powers’ battle for prestige, it brought technological progress, not the other way around. The internet started as a military research project in the same era. (Innovation professor Mariana Mazzucato has a great book on this topic: The Entrepreneurial State)

In his ambition to be an optimist, sadly my old idol Steven Johnson turns himself to a parrot for Silicon Valley’s spin to avoid necessary regulation.

The real question is how we best secure that the online space contributes to truth, growth and progress. (Coincidentally, Netopia has a report on that!)