In the 44 years since Richard Nixon resigned the presidency of the United States, political discourse has deteriorated. There are many reasons for the decline in the discourse, but today I want to focus on two forces which have come together in America–one sociological, the other technological–to impose a spontaneous order which greatly reduces the scope for authentic expression, both in public and in private. This new social order is not planned by anyone–it has no author, it requires no institutionalised hard coercion. It arises spontaneously from the interaction of the two forces.
Political campaigns started getting expensive in the 1960s, when television advertising became the next big thing in campaigning. Even before TV, reaching people was hard work. You needed to knock on doors, phone bank, and send out mailings. All of this required a lot of dedicated activists and dedicated dollars. And so politicians depended very heavily on the activists and donors who could provide these things. All of this is in the process of changing. Activists and dollars are becoming less important than they used to be. They still matter, but not as much. And as time goes on, they grow weaker.
My Facebook is flooded with folks talking about Cambridge Analytica, the firm that bought access to Facebook user data and used it to help design political propaganda for organisations seeking to help the Trump campaign. But you know what I find most surprising about this story? The fact that people find it surprising in the first place. This possibility was always implied by Facebook’s business model. It creates a platform that makes communicating with people easier. We don’t have to pay money to use it, but in exchange Facebook takes our data and sells it to whoever wants to buy. Did we really think that political organisations wouldn’t be interesting in buying Facebook data? Did we really think that Facebook wouldn’t sell it to them? This implication has stood in front of our faces for years. It’s clearly implied by Facebook’s very nature–it is literally a firm which induces people to give it private information and then sells that information to the highest bidder. Why can’t the bidders have political motivations? Facebook is a transnational corporation. Why would even expect the bidders to be American?
There’s a story we tell about social media. Once upon a time politics wasn’t so divided and polarized. But then, social media came along–it let people retreat into bubbles, where they only talked to people who thought as they did. This caused them to get all extreme and nasty. And then the alt-right and the Russians figured out that they could inject fake stories into these bubbles and turn social media users into Trump supporters! Our beautiful liberal society was torn apart, and it’s all because people stopped trusting traditional news sources, like the big newspapers and TV networks. Companies like Facebook have a responsibility to do something about this–to call out the fake stories, or stop them from showing up in people’s feeds. Sounds familiar, right? I want to tell a different story about social media.