It is time we faced the music, Internet fans: We broke everything. Social Media was a mistake. None of us are close to understanding how or why, but apparently we have created a monster.
Social media seemed harmless enough when it came along.
Social media was nothing but an extension of the exact same Internet we'd had for decades. Believe it or not, there is very little difference between modern Reddit and Usenet circa 1990. There's also very little difference between modern Twitter and an AOL chat room decades ago. Even before the now long-forgotten shared virtual network Second Life (bet you forgot that one!) wasn't that different from a MUD (multi-user dimension) towards the end of the 20th century, only with better graphics.
So WHY has social media been at the forefront of what we can only assume will be the human race's downfall? What is so dangerous about the idea of letting everyone communicate all over the world instantly? Apparently, social and anthropological science has been blindsided by some horrible, unforeseen wrinkle in human psychology.
Whatever it is, we need to stop. As a technology enthusiast, your humble penguin is heartbroken to call for the regression of technology progress for the first time ever. But if this is the forbidden fruit produced by building the electronic Tower of Babel, then we need to tear it back down and analyze the problems of social media before we rebuild it again.
WHAT social media problems?
- political polarization
- hate speech
- impact on mental health
- fake news
- threat to democracy
- data harvesting
- threats to security
- toxic environment
Governing the Invisible Nation
As I point out in my landmark essay posing the Internet as the Invisible Nation, the Internet at large is, well, too large to govern externally. No nation, nor corporation, nor religion, nor even international tribunal can manage the sheer size and scale of the World Wide Web. To have a governed, civilized web, we would need to establish a self-governing mechanism from the inside with its own Constitution, Bill of Rights, some kind of legislature, and a democratic mechanism. Of course, it wouldn't be perfect, but compared to the anarchy we have now even a flawed government is better than none at all.
In that essay, I cite and comment upon previous online activists, including Lawrence Lessing in his Y2K proposed "Cyberspace Constitution," and the Electronic Frontier Foundation's "Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace" in 1996. We've had our prophets, including yours truly, forecasting that there's trouble ahead if we leave the most important invention in history to rot in anarchy. We're seeing why that's a problem now.
Let me illustrate how the Internet is too big for any nation to govern:
Facebook alone has 2.5 BILLION monthly active users. Just Facebook. Not counting dead and abandoned accounts, bots, or any other line noise. Those are all individual human beings.
The world population is only 7.8 billion people. Are you seeing that number?
That's a third of the world! No corporation in history has ever counted a third of the human race as its customers. That is beyond any utility monopoly we have ever conceived. Only 62% of the world is even on the Internet yet, hard to believe as it is. If 100% of the human race were online, proportionally around 50% would be on Facebook, assuming the present level of saturation.
So Facebook is basically, right now, the world's government.
This is what I mean when I say "we need an Internet government." Because we ALREADY HAVE ONE, and Mark Zuckerberg isn't democratically elected, not officially appointed, not even remotely aware of the impossible power he wields over the course of human destiny. Just look at this guy! Is this who you want running the world? God help us, this man can't drink a glass of water and make it look natural! He never asked to be in this position, all he wanted was to network with his Ivy League fratboy buddies.
And we wonder why everything's going to hell in a hand-basket?
That's just ONE social network. We have many huge platforms. China's population is only 1.4 billion, so YouTube and WhatsApp active monthly users out-populate China. All of us spend the majority of our time here now, so we should understand that the actions of any of our respective governments pale in comparison to the events in our online lives. I'd bet most of you can't name three local representatives nor measures on the municipal ballot, but when YouTube's algorithms kick your video off the site, that actually impacts your day.
Discussion of Internet Governance
When a link to my Invisible Nation essay reached the /r/futurology subreddit, it triggered some constructive discussion. Many people don't like the idea of governing the Internet. Come to that, every thread about this topic leads to discussions pointing out the flaws in any system of governing humans, point blank.
I have long said that if humans were capable of inventing a perfect system of government, we would have no need of governing.
I'll own that. I'll also own that I have been a pompom-waving advocate for the wonders of technology for decades. I thought social media was a great idea, as did many of us at first. I thought that if everybody in the world was in a position to be an equal scholar on a global network, that putting the light of knowledge into the hands of anyone would create a utopia.
So now I own that I was a great big asshole for thinking that. It is still important that we have learned something from this experiment. The monster we have created has ravaged history in ways that historians will be grappling about for decades to come.
Of course, individual governments have stepped up to start trying to chain the monster in their own clumsy ways. We're not ready for America to take the wheel, and we sure as hell don't want China in charge. No matter what physical national government we pick to rule cyberspace, most of us will be unhappy with it.
Currently Twitter and US president Trump are having a head-butting contest. Twitter, a corporation not equipped to govern the Internet, is attempting to "false or misleading information intended to undermine public confidence in an election or other civic process." That's a noble cause, certainly one of the thousands of kinds of regulations we need, but their attempts to enforce a policy have gone against Trump's political agenda.
Stop and appreciate this moment: The leader of what could be argued is the most powerful nation on Earth, certainly previously appointed as "leader of the free world," is now being put on time-out by a social network that isn't even in the top fifteen for the active user base. If the USA isn't powerful enough to bend even a tiny percentage of the Internet to its will, what chance does any nation have to rule the whole Internet?
At the same time, if America did manage to boss Twitter around, can you imagine the howls of outrage? There have been plenty already, even at the attempt. It's a catch-22.
"Free Speech" and the Internet
Of course, we all want as much liberty for the individual as possible on the Internet. Unfortunately, no nation currently has the capacity to either guarantee free speech nor effectively regulate speech on the Internet. China can arrest all the people it wants, but they're not winning the information war either. China wanted us to not know about Tiananmen Square, but whoopsie, it's right there on Wikipedia.
In America, many people have a warped idea of what "free speech" is due to the vague wording of the Constitution. Here is the full text of the US's First Amendment:
> "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
That is "CONGRESS." Corporations (which are effectively the Internet's "government" right now) are bound by no such restriction. So when a social media network takes down your post and you scream about free speech, you're complaining at the wrong counter. The First Amendment controls the government only, it doesn't charge the government with the power to preserve your video on TikTok.
As we see, there are many limits to Free Speech which are enforced in many countries, with or without a First Amendment.
Things you can say which can get you arrested:
- Yelling "fire" in a crowded theater
- Making a bomb threat
- Conspiring with other people to commit acts of terrorism
- Threatening to assassinate a public figure
- Contacting someone who has a restraining order against you
- Falsely claiming to be a police officer
- Lying under oath
- Convincing people to invest in your Ponzi scheme
- Saying "this is a stick-up" in a bank
- Saying "seven dirty words" when you're George Carlin
We could go on all day. Nearly every law we have to enforce civilization contains some elements pertaining to the words that came out of your mouth. Among other things, it's how we establish intent, a crucial element in convicting someone of a crime to begin with. Keep your mouth shut, and you might convince a jury that you didn't intend to strike the pedestrian with your vehicle; announce beforehand "I'm gonna run over that guy" and your crime has now been escalated to attempted murder.
Hence "anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law."
More to the point of social media, you could possibly argue social media as being protected more by "freedom of the press":
Once again, that's a law against government censorship of "the press," but it does not prevent any other entity from doing so. My editors, clients, web hosts, anybody can take down something I said because they didn't like it, and there's nothing I could do about it except maybe have a civil suit over it as a business matter.
However, in the world of social media, what is "the press"? Currently, in the federal government's eyes, social media is viewed in the quaint model of the "digital public square," and the foggy legal precedents we try to apply there are meeting the kinds of roadblocks you would expect when laws are so far behind the technology to which they would apply.
We could dwell on the US Constitution all day, but we're running out of space. It bears mentioning that other nations also have free speech protections, some stronger than others, naturally. You may have noticed that our peers in Australia, Canada, and the UK seem able to banter on the Internet with about the same degree of freedom Americans have. Indeed, as that video points out, a lot of the United States' own ideas about liberty are borrowed from Europe in the first place.
"What we have here is failure to communicate…"
In light of all of the above, may I present the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights," produced by the United Nations General Assembly. Unfortunately, a "declaration" is defined as "distinct from a treaty in that it generally states aspirations or understandings among the parties rather than binding obligations" and therefore "does not of its own force impose obligations as a matter of international law." This basically amounts to a John Lennon protest song.
What a pity. Nevertheless, that's the closest precedent we have to any attempt thus far to create a fair global government. As we all know, nations of the world have inconsistent ideas of their own on the matter.
A monster! We have created a monster. It's counter-intuitive. It seems lie social media should be no different from newspapers and phone party lines and TV and all the other forms of communication we've had in the past. It's just that electronic media with a phone in every pocket speeds things up 1000x. I used to make the argument, for years, debunking social media as not making any new problems that didn't already happen on other media platforms, just slower. But now we're seeing that there is something else fundamentally wrong with it.
We have a global nation now. What happens on the Internet transcends a lot of what happens on the dirty Earth across any international border. It is where we spend our lives, increasingly where we spend our careers and education too.
This issue should be important to all of us
As an exercise for everybody reading this, stop and consider if Facebook (or your favorite social media platforms of choice) is your primary method for communicating with your extended family, friends, coworkers, and anybody else important in your world. Now imagine, overnight, that social media network just booted you off, for no reason.
How devastating would that be? How disruptive would that be to your life? You probably have the phone numbers of the closest people, but how would you even begin to reconnect with them outside of social media?
If we consider national governments to be so important that they need a good shaking-up every few years just to keep them in shape, why aren't we taking online governance as seriously? We see countless people online every day advocating for as much Internet liberty as possible, and at the same time we see - sometimes the same people - wringing their hands about the Internet problems we've outlined above. We can't have it both ways.
Either we need to govern social media like nothing has ever been governed before, or we need to pull the plug. Or it will destroy us, if it has not done so already.