Too big, too fast, too dangerous
Riding on a wave of newfound desire for individual expression and explosive technology catering to that desire, various social platforms barged into societies, first in the West, and now globally. The advent of the internet in the 90’s opened up instant linkages between people and businesses. It was not long that social media found its opportunity, slowly first through email and websites, then a big bang through social media platforms. Facebook comes to mind, not because it was first, but because it effectively devoured those who preceded it.
To better understand the dynamics of social media today, it has always helped me to go through the history of societies and how people related to one another. After all, in its essence, social media is an expression of human thoughts and sentiments. If people are reserved or inhibited, they will not want to speak out. In that environment, social media will not be a dynamic force. In fact, it may never have been born in the way we know it now.
Recorded human history shows just how submissive and mute suicide have been as far as social communication is concerned. Except, and this is a very big exception, for the rulers of communities and countries. Only they could speak out, and any other speaking out meant insubordination and merited severe punishment. For thousands of years, people were mute. Not only mute but generally ignorant as well. There were no schools then, only wise men who mostly were recruited by the royalty to be their advisers. In other words, knowledge and subsequently open discourse were not for the people, only for their kings.
Imagine then the kind of public silence that had characterized all society. There must have been more wars than public debates for millennia. Existing then were more physical than verbal. The advent of democracy, though, signaled a major shift in human perspective and behavior. Democracy tried and still tries to promote equality among members of society. It is going against what humanity had been used to all its life and it will take more generations for democratic principles to find global application. What will push it, though, is technology and the ordinary human being finding its voice and expressing it.
After what seemed like forever, people all over the world now want to speak out. In varying degrees, with the United States taking a leadership position, societies have taken to the internet and social media to give democratic expression. There was always censorship in all societies but democracy discourages that. Freedom of expression has become a democratic mantra, but those who govern often believe it has gone too far in the other extreme. With the fake news phenomenon, the spirit of censorship finds justification. The Cambridge Analytica scandal shows how people can be manipulated, openly and massively. Propaganda through social media and fake news is finding new strength to tweaking people’s thoughts and sentiments without their consent.
Facebook wanted to take over, and it did. But Facebook only wanted population and participation believing this was the way to profitability. Well, population and participation is at 2 billion level and profits last year at many billions of dollars. Even Facebook, though, did not contend with the cunning of special interests. Worse, it did not consider the level of naivety of the general population and how susceptible people are to believing what they read. Facebook may have population, participation, and profitability but it also has the equivalent of a virtual herd of sheep ready to be used by wolves.
Facebook had been trying to reverse the odds against the exploitation of its population, their actual unwitting participation, without losing its profitability. Actually, it is the one with the greatest capacity to censor because of its massive and specialized database. Unfortunately, censorship is not its mandate and core purpose. Facebook cannot sustain censorship without becoming a different animal altogether. Maybe this is why Apple CEO Tim Cook has come to the conclusion that free market forces and self – restraint cannot work anymore, and that regulation appears to be the inevitable way to will go. Free market forces are not objective. Profit is a prime value, as is power. When greed overtakes the simple economics and when lust for power overtakes governance, the best of theories collapse.
Democracy presupposes a certain level of maturity where the common good is largely understood, where respect is a revered value and civility the norm for social behavior. But the path to democracy is burdened by its dominant past which has yet to be exorcized. If history had shown the dominance of a few over the rest of the people, that same history is dominant in our present social genes whether we like it or not. The same people who want to be free are the first to accept authoritarian governance when fear more than aspiration drives them. Democracy becomes totally inefficient when the climate is fear and violence. There is no time for objective dialog and consensus, only firm or even dictatorial decisions by a central authority or personality.
Those who wish to govern in an authoritarian manner must generate fear among the populace or already inherit an atmosphere of fear. Or, they must stoke prejudice and hate against an enemy, promising to be the great protector and defender of their lives and survival. Otherwise, the people will not give their support. Fear and hate are powerful factors that can make reasonable people become narrow-minded. Thereafter, it is a matter of partisanship going to work, we against them, good against evil. Democracy is the first to be sacrificed, as in war – willingly by most.
That is why we must drive ourselves and our communities to look for and then accept a common vision. Only for something higher will we call on our better selves to transcend the provocation of fear and hate. We must never stop dreaming for our children and a better life for them. That dream will see us through.
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