Social Media is Rotting Statism from Within
Brazil’s new authoritarian right president Jair Bolsonaro won his electoral victory over an authoritarian left politician whose former-dictator running mate was convicted of corruption. At the inauguration, a crowd of his supporters began a surprising chant. They weren’t cheering for Bolsonaro or their party; instead, they were reciting the names of social media platforms.
“Facebook, Facebook, Facebook!” the crowd yelled. “WhatsApp, WhatsApp, WhatsApp!”
They were crediting the platforms with their man’s victory, and they aren’t entirely wrong. During the campaign, an interest group funded a massive social network effort, referred to by opponents as a disinformation campaign on WhatsApp (the popular messaging app owned by Facebook). A lot of information about Bolsonaro’s left-wing authoritarian opponent, some true and some false but both damaging, spread like wildfire in the runup to the October 8 vote. This "deluge,"" according to one partisan Brazilian statist, played a role in Bolsonaro’s victory.
The glee Bolsonaro’s supporters exhibited points to a happy development, one familiar to many Americans: Social media, a profoundly liberating technology, is increasingly serving the needs of libertarians - those of us who want to destroy the State and its false aura of legitimacy.
While the Arab Spring and many other liberation movements have been aided immensely by social media, some observers have noted that authoritarian states, like Russia and China, have also gotten very good at using these platforms. What’s gotten less attention is how authoritarian factions inside "democratic" states — far-right and far left politicians and parties that are at best indifferent to libertarian norms — also benefit from the nature of modern social media platforms. The good news is that letting statist factions shit on each other is, when all is said and done, good for liberty, since it delegitimizes rulership in the eyes of the masses. Even when used by evil people, social media works inevitably to discredit authority and favor liberty.
Authoritarians of both right and left benefit from spreading truths or falsehoods about their opponents, ginning up panics about out-groups, and undermining people’s trust in Big Brother. Both the 2016 US election and the 2018 Brazilian vote proved social media is a powerful tool for this kind of activity.
Social media certainly helps pro-liberty movements most of the time, but they occasionally give establisment parties and authoritarians a boost. These platforms, overall liberty’s ally, can be used by our authoritarian enemies too.
It is easier to spread misinformation on social media than to correct it, and easier to inflame social divisions than to mend them. The very nature of how we engage with Facebook and the rest could help authoritarian factions weaken the foundations of liberty — and even give themselves an easier pathway to seizing power - if governments are ever able to control them by regulation, and prevent startups like MeWe that refuse to buckle under to censorship.
It seems we have to admit a somewhat uncomfortable truth:
Social media has the potential to become an authoritarian medium, if people are unwilling to boycott censored media and government controlled outlets.
How authoritarians want to censor social media
The Journal of Democracy is one of the premier academic venues for promoting authoritarian politics. Its most recent issue features an essay from Ronald Deibert, a political flunkie and director of the University of Toronto’s tech-focused Citizen Lab, on the role of social media in modern politics. His conclusion is pretty grim.
“It seems undeniable that social media must bear some of the blame for the descent into neo-fascism.”
Ten years ago, Deibert’s anti-free-speech view — now widely shared among journalists and scholars — would have been berated by all lovers of liberty. Now this absurdity is prevalent among statist apologists. Statist are fine with social media when it suits their imperialist purposes - a coup d-etat in Ukraine or a "democracy movement" in Egypt or Hong Kong or Libya.
In 2009, Iranians rose up to protest against a rigged election, the so-called “Green Movement” using Facebook and YouTube clips of protests to spread their message globally. Two years later, the Arab Spring protests showed the true power of these mediums, as protest movements that made skillful use of social media for coordination and messaging toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt.
At the time, the consensus among observers was that social media was, by its very nature, liberating. Social media facilitates the swift spread of information, allowing citizens to easily get around government censors. Social media allows rapid communication among large groups of disparate people, giving people new tools for organizing themselves. The spread of social media would necessarily weaken authoritarian states and strengthen democracies. That’s how the argument went, and still goes today. But government censors and out-of-power factionists, such as the US Dems and the Brazilian left, sure like to cry "sour grapes" when their powermongering plots fail! The illiberal left "antifa" are all for social media when they are spreading disinfo about racism or trying to get Rosanne Barr fired from her TV show, but when "the other guys" use it, suddenly it is underhanded. Tribal stupidity; sacred objects bind and blind.
There were some dissenters, like the acerbic writer Evgeny Morosov, but they were largely brushed aside in an Arab Spring-induced high. More representative was the 2013 issue of the MIT Technology Review titled “Big Data Will Save Politics,” featuring an interview with the singer Bono declaring that new technologies would be “deadly to dictators.” He would have been more accurate to say "deadly to rulers," since social media spares no authority - elected or not. Democracy is authoritarianism approved by the mob. Democracy needs bashing just as much - maybe even more - than other forms of rulership.
This theory is substantially true: It can be difficult to simply repress the spread of information on social media. But it’s equally difficult to repress the spread of disinformation. The core feature of social media that gives it libertarian promise, the rapid spread of information, can theoretically be used against liberty via information overload. A savvy person or political party looking to discredit online critics doesn’t need to ban their speech to hamstring it. Instead, they can respond with a deluge of false or misleading information, making it very hard for ordinary citizens to figure out what’s actually going on.
Deibert’s pro-censorship essay usefully summarizes a number of different studies documenting how well the twisted jiujitsu of misinformation and information overload works:
An always-on, real-time information tsunami creates the perfect environment for the spread of falsehoods, conspiracy theories, rumors, and “leaks.” Unsubstantiated claims and narratives go viral while fact-checking efforts struggle to keep up. Members of the public, including researchers and investigative journalists, may not have the expertise, tools, or time to verify claims. By the time they do, the falsehoods may have already embedded themselves in the collective consciousness.
Meanwhile, fresh scandals or outlandish claims are continuously raining down on users, mixing fact with fiction. Worse yet, studies have found that attempts “to quash rumors through direct refutation may facilitate their diffusion by increasing fluency.” In other words, efforts to correct falsehoods can ironically contribute to their further propagation and even acceptance. The constant bombardment of tainted leaks, conspiracy theories, and other misinformation in turn fuels cynicism, with citizens growing fatigued as they try to discern objective truth amid the flood of news. Questioning the integrity of all media — one aim of authoritarianism — can in turn lead to a kind of fatalism and policy paralysis.
Note how the statist propagandist simply assumes a rather obvious falsehood, that "questioning the integrity" of media is "authoritarianism." Most of us would say that questioning media demonstrates good critical thinking. But statists do not want their hapless subjects ("citizens") to question things!
The WhatsApp propaganda in Brazil is one example of the effect Deibert is talking about. A well-funded campaign to spread information was extremely difficult for Bolsonaro’s opponents and Brazil’s lapdog press to expose or discredit. The truths and falsehoods those messages spread likely became truth in the eyes of a significant percentage of people who encountered them, many of whom would never see rebuttals and wouldn’t believe them if they did.
We’re seeing the same phenomenon beyond the US and Brazil. The Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte has cultivated an online fan base — even bringing popular social media influencers into the government — that’s known for “patriotic trolling”: sending hate messages to his critics and spreading smears about them. The Philippine news site Rappler has identified a network of more than 12 million pro-Duterte propaganda accounts on various platforms, reporting that led to a concerted smear campaign against the site from Duterte’s fans. An #UnfollowRappler social media campaign cost the site tens of thousands of Facebook followers, a huge hit for an online publication that depends on clicks to stay profitable.
Social media isn’t the only — or even the primary — reason far-left and far-right statists have been able to win elections. There are all sorts of more fundamental reasons, ranging from ethnic divisions to anxiety about crime to the weakness of the political opposition that these leaders have exploited in their rise to power. It would be absurd to blame technology for a phenomenon that has much deeper political roots. Instead, we should praise the technology for fomenting natural divisions, and hopefully promoting decentralizaton and secession.Even when the technology seems to help some ruler in the short run, it demonstrates the evil of authoritarianism - in both its democratic oligarchic form and its more directly dictatorial forms.
The global challenge to liberty isn’t social media’s fault. The major platforms are merely a tool, one that is creating a crisis in authoritarian systems. The platforms by their nature allow people to marginalize rulers, and parties. Social networks make it possible for people to organize, trade, save, and conduct their lives independently of rulers' oversight, thanks to strong crypto. Sure, it can also be used by politicians to consolidate their tribal base, and exacerbate the social divisions that helped them rise to power. But as they do, they are hanging authoritarianism by its own rope - destroying the very facade of legitimacy their rule depends upon.
Social media outlets not only are compatible with libertarianism; they may be one of the main reasons why libertarian practices are now spreading worldwide and States are devolving.
Why social media advantages liberty over authority
It’s not just that social media is happening to help spread libertarian behavior as a matter of chance or circumstance. Rather, it’s that the platforms by their very nature give libertarians a leg up over their statist opponents.
To understand why, it’s worth dividing use of social media into two basic types: normal use and abuse. Normal use of social media is simply an online extension of typical voluntaryist messages: spreading your message or uploading a libertarian video to YouTube. Abuse involves the deliberate spread of false information, attempts to undermine faith in established reality, trolling, and harassment.
Normal use of social media can be equally helpful to all, statist or libertarian. But the negative use of social media, as in the Trump and Bolsonaro campaigns, intrinsically disadvantages authoritarian political factions over their libertarian opponents.
Now, spreading misinformation isn’t necessarily a silver bullet for winning elections. In particular, it is impure - it has perverse consequences, blowback. It may win this particular election, but it also creates more or less permanent anti-authoritarians. It sure seems social media abuse helped Bolsonaro, but the extent is not quite clear. Studies conflict on whether fake news helped Trump win the 2016 election. A review from a group of leading interdisciplinary experts, published in the prestigious journal Science last March, found that there was not yet sufficient evidence to determine how effective abuses of social media are in shifting voting behavior. They could matter, and could even matter a lot; right now, we just don’t know enough to say. But it is quite clear that trolling and disinformation makes people disgusted with politicians, government, and rulership, and thus indirectly helps libertarianism.
The abuse of social media can have more subtly corrosive effects on democracy and other forms of authority, and thus favors liberty. Libertarians don’t win solely by spreading their own message; we also win by exploiting conditions under which citizens become either indifferent to authoritarian institutions or actively hostile to them. Statists are slitting their own throats by such abuse of social media. By working to increase people's disgust with the political means, and helping to undermine trust in established authoritarian institutions, these politicians think they strengthen themselves when actually they are helping to undermine the very authority they crave.
The abuse of social media can be used to inflame these tensions — in essence, providing oxygen to the underlying social trends that produced tribalist authoritarian factions in the first place. When fake news is flying around, no matter who’s spreading it, people lose faith in the trustworthiness of their holy and glorious State, and perhaps even in the very idea of authoritarian rule. That is exactly what we libertarians want. The spread of the tribalist attitude disproportionately benefits authoritarian factions in the short run (in the next election) but weakens authoritarianism itself in the long run. Tribalism, exacerbated by social media, will kill Big Brother and lead to devolution and freedom.
The University of Oxford’s Samantha Bradshaw and Philip Howard put out a report last year on the political abuse of social media platforms in 48 countries. They argue that in each of these cases, the use of tools like fake news and trolling undermine the health of authoritarian regimes in the long run, and benefit the people and their liberty.
There is mounting evidence that social media are being used to manipulate and deceive the public, and to undermine the lies of democratic rulers and authoritarian control. Social media have gone from being the natural infrastructure for sharing and coordinating of free people, to being utilized by government rulers and henchmen for social control, manipulated by canny political consultants, and available to authoritarian wannabe politicians in democracies and dictatorships alike. Luckily, people use social media better than scumbag politicians.”
Social media undermines political power by stoking up social divisions which undermine centralized authority.
Both leftie and rightie parties demonize out-groups, whether racial minorities, racial majorities, immigrants, natives, or even (in Duterte’s case) drug users. Their arguments center on making these groups look scary and dangerous, and ginning up fear and hatred targeting them. The techniques of Antifa and the KKK, the ctrl-left and the alt-right, are the same - only their particular authoritarian goals are different. Both are anti-liberty and pro-state.
When it comes to politics, social media appears to be better suited to dividing than uniting. But authority should be divided and weak, so that liberty can prevail. In the long run, open speech social media objectively favors liberty.
The original article, dripping with statist propaganda and ludicrously equating mob rule ("democracy") with liberty, was published in this article on Vox.