Russia explodes our social media myths

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Yahoo News photo Illustration; photos: AP, Getty

I love a lot of things about Silicon Valley, which is probably why I went to work for a tech company after almost 20 years working for print media.

I love the newness and optimism of the place, the sense that the next American century might be rising up all around you, as opposed to the resignation and nostalgia that pervade so much of the country (like the industrial Northeast, where I grew up).

I love the way defiant tech visionaries — Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg — have managed to reshape the culture itself and redefine our sense of community, in a way that few Americans ever will, and well before they hit middle age. I love how they brought back the zip-up cotton hoodie, which once seemed destined for permanent obscurity.

I love all of that, still. But even those of us who’ve long championed the transformative power of digital technology have to step back now and acknowledge the reality that becomes clearer with every new revelation of Russian bots and planted posts — that all of these innovations could also be used to dismantle our democracy, one bogus tweet at a time.

And if you’re one of these tech titans who built a media behemoth like Facebook or Twitter, it’s time now to admit that your social media revolution rests on some dangerous myths.

“Information wants to be free” — that was one of the catchphrases you heard a lot in the early days of the web. It meant not only that you shouldn’t have to pay for content, but that we didn’t need gatekeepers anymore. News was flying through the air in real time now, and you would be able to share or consume whatever you wanted, without anyone having to package or validate it.

Another thing you heard a lot about then was “the wisdom of crowds.” There was accuracy in numbers; consumers would verify the facts and set the record straight. I remember an early evangelist for “citizen news” lecturing me about how much better I’d become as a reporter when readers could provide me with truth, rather than the other way around.

A core tenet of this gospel held that anonymity was indispensable. Why should “MangyDog44” or “YourMomH8ZU” have to share information using his real name, subjecting himself to retribution from the boss who disagreed with him? If people were going to amalgamate their wisdom, then they had to be free to remain safely in the shadows.

The new social media came with no ideology or agenda, other than to serve as instantaneous forums for the human experience. Their inventors saw themselves as democratizers, breaking the syndicate of large media institutions that monopolized information and told you what to believe.

As it turns out, the visionaries of the valley knew everything about technology, but they were painfully naive when it came to history.

You don’t need a PhD to know that every transformative technology for communication ever invented has quickly been exploited by governments for the express purpose of misinforming citizens. The first-ever cave painting of a bear hunt was probably closely followed by a phony account of rival tribes dragging children away in the night.

As late as the 20th century, at the tail end of its dominance as a technology, the printing press was being bent to the will of dictators like Hitler and Mao. Repressive regimes the world over have used radio and television to foster fear and ignorance.

Our own government spent much of the Cold War surreptitiously broadcasting our own version of reality to Communist subjects, all under the guise of truth and liberation.

It was only a matter of time before governments got around to manipulating social media platforms to their own ends, distorting the wisdom of the crowd with the agenda of a cabal. It is what they do and have always done.

Sure, information would love to be free. But its fate is to live in captivity, surrounded by vicious falsehood.

And of course the new digital technology carries an ideology. All technologies do. As the academics Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman pointed out decades ago, every new medium affects not just the way we receive information, but also the information we receive.

As Postman brilliantly argued, the advent of television brought with it a “supra-ideology” of entertainment. No story could be told that didn’t compel the viewer, that didn’t conform to the narrative demands of its audience. As I’ve written, this is how a society gets from John Kennedy to President Trump.

We know enough now, 20-plus years into the digital age, to get a sense of its ideology and where it can lead. It spreads the gospel of mass information while remaining agnostic on the existence of misinformation. In its darker moments, it becomes the instrument of a mob that traffics in rumor.

We have a word for this in politics. It’s called anarchy, and aspiring despots thrive on it.

When I first wrote about Twitter in 2009, I feared that our political discourse might become even more superficial and more disconnected from the larger context. It has, but what we see now is an even graver and eminently foreseeable threat — outside impostors who would use our own media to further divide and inflame us for their own parochial interests.

Maybe the Russians were colluding with someone high up in the Trump campaign, or maybe, as I suspect, they were simply shocked by Trump’s naiveté and eager to see him in charge. But if it hadn’t been the Russians and Trump, it would have been some other power meddling on behalf of some other candidate, and sooner rather than later.

I’m not sure what the answer is here. Facebook, whose founder seems to foster some political ambitions of his own, says it’s already stepping up its internal vetting process, which is a start.

As I’ve said before, I don’t think it’s reasonable or wise to ask tech companies to be the societal arbiters of truth. We all have to take responsibility for discerning between fact and fiction, and that starts — or should, anyway — with teaching our kids how to navigate modern media.

But ultimately, it’s not too much to demand that our most innovative companies slam the back door on governments and political infiltrators who would like nothing more than to destroy our faith in a free society. And if that means abandoning closely held tenets, like the sanctity of anonymity online, or the aversion to gatekeepers who exercise judgment, then so be it.

Because the grand theory of the media revolution has now run up against its reality. And there’s no point in freeing information from the tyranny of media institutions if your plan is to let actual tyrants control it instead.