The introduction of new communications technologies have almost always been heralded with almost absurd optimism. When television was introduced, for instance, it was predicted that this new technology would lead to a new golden age of education and information. Instead, audiences almost immediately flocked to light entertainment and, ultimately, Keeping up with the Kardashians.
Similar optimism accompanied the introduction of first the World Wide Web and then social media. Long before the Web became a daily reality for billions, Arthur C. Clarke happily predicted that it would signal the end for dictatorships and turn the world into “one vast, chattering village”. As we now know, dictatorships did not end because of the Web, and “gossiping” might have been a better description of the global social media village – with all its negative connotations.
If anything, social media has enabled new and ever-more powerful dictatorships to emerge. Mao once boasted that power comes from the barrel of a gun. The power of the new dictators comes from the network, the CCTV and algorithm.
Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, not to mention Xi Xinping, wield the kind of all-encompassing power that Mao could only dream of.
Recent developments, technological, political and legal, suggest that social media is about to become an even more dark and dangerous place than ever.
In France, the Macron government has touted the idea of a “hate speech” button for Facebook. Facebook appears happy to comply, and a recent beta-testing slip saw the feature briefly go live in the U.S.
Think that over: a massively unpopular socialist whose tenure has been marked by extraordinary mass protests, acting in cahoots with a robotic plutocrat whose company is notorious for aggressively deplatforming dissenting opinions, while selling users’ private data to political groups. Together, they plan to hand anyone with an axe to grind a handy snitch button that will anything and everything immediately reported to Facebook’s Orwellian “moderators” and, in turn, passed on to government snoops.
If a recent judgment in an Australian court is upheld, an even more sinister regime is about to be cemented in law. A NSW court recently ruled that any social media account with a comments section – a standard feature of the internet since the days of bulletin boards and Usenet groups – is liable for defamatory comments made by third parties, even if they didn’t know the offending comments were there. As prominent lawyer Peter Barnett says, even though they didn’t write it, they didn’t see the post — they can still be sued”.
No-one who is at all familiar with the modus operandi of social media anti-free-speech activists should be in any doubt how these separate developments will be weaponised.
“Sock puppet” accounts are a favourite tactic of online activists, who use them to not only obscure their real identities but to grossly inflate their numbers. Like a scrawny cat puffing itself up, activists like “Sleeping
Bullies Giants” create dozens, if not hundreds, of fake, sock-puppet accounts. They then flood companies with “complaints” designed to bully them into complying with the activists’ demands.
The recent experience of a friend on Twitter illustrates the likely new tactic of activist bullies. This person is the most harmless soul imaginable, who almost never posts anything political. Still, she was targeted. An automatic-reply feature she used was tricked into repeating back a hateful message left by an activist – who duly reported the reply (after deleting their own comment). Without her even realising what had happened, her account was suspended for three days.
Activists using sock-puppet accounts will similarly weaponise the NSW defamation ruling, by leaving defamatory comments on their targets’ social media pages and immediately reporting the comment. If sites use moderator teams to remove offensive content, activists will simply screen-shot it before it disappears, no matter how briefly that might be.
In the end, targeted voices will simply shut up or be pushed out. Social media will become a monoculture of stifling orthodoxy.
The cyber-terrorists will have won.
Or will they? Facebook may seem the unassailable face of social media, but no company is invulnerable. Does anyone today remember Anaconda Copper? Standard Oil? MySpace? It only took one misstep for Tumblr to shed 100 million users in just a few months.
The sheer proliferation of new social media alternatives suggests that users are fed up with Facebook and ready to jump ship. Zuckerberg’s days as all the Great Dictator may hopefully be numbered.