Should we reboot the internet?

‘Channelling the word of God’: Pope Benedict XVI sends his first tweet (CNS)

Just going back to typewriters isn’t enough, says Matt Thorne

Democracy Hacked
by Martin Moore, Oneworld, 336pp, £16.99

On June 29, 2011, Pope Benedict XVI joined the social media micro-blogging site Twitter. For Martin Moore, author of new book, Democracy Hacked: Political Turmoil and Information Warfare in the Digital Age, this was a significant moment, the point at which social media could claim, in his words, that it was channelling “the word of God”.

In spite of this, however, Moore is not convinced that Twitter is a good thing, believing that it has many negative qualities. The platform, he thinks, appeals to a certain type of person, interested in hard news and politics, and often strongly partisan. Those who want “a less gladiatorial space” gravitate to Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat instead.

Not that these other social media sites are necessarily any better. The main problem with social media, as Martin sees it, is that it has led to massive cuts in newspaper journalism and allowed “hackers” to manipulate democracy and destabilise our trust in objective truth. “Fake news,” Trump shouts from his electronic bully pulpit, and many of his followers believe him.

Interestingly, rather than just hand-wringing about all the journalists now out of work and giving away their skills for free on the internet, Martin analyses how the loss of local newspapers has affected communities, looking at how the citizens of Port Talbot in Wales no longer trust their local council because they are forced to rely on residents’ websites for information rather than a trusted news source.

Moore suggests that the over-40s have a very different attitude to print media than those under 40. The latter struggle to understand the value of a newspaper when they can find updates 24/7 on their phones.

But anyone who has spent any time on Twitter (or other social media site) will soon discover that there are values to micro-blogging, especially during times when the average citizen is likely to be closer to the action than a professional journalist. (Moore mentions the Grenfell Tower fire, the Tottenham riots and the Arab Spring.) Most of the articles of substance that get retweeted come from established news sources such as the Washington Post, the Daily Telegraph and Guardian or, for pop culture, the Hollywood Reporter.

While targeted advertising undoubtedly played an important role in shaping people’s opinions with the Brexit vote and Trump’s election, Moore overstates its impact. Among advertising agencies, social media is often referred to as “hygiene”, in the sense that you have to do it to survive, but it is not necessarily the element in a campaign that will make the biggest impact. And what is often ignored in accounts of how social media campaigns have affected human behaviour, is that these campaigns are usually supported by old media (and are largely useless without it). Anyone who has tried to make something “go viral” usually discovers that it doesn’t properly take off until a journalist writes about it.

Moore describes the origins of the hacker community, drawing attention to the important role played by the band the Grateful Dead in connecting people. Among the “Deadheads” who introduced hacking to the world are John Perry Barlow, who wrote several of the group’s songs but was also an early migrant to cyberspace, along with David Gans, a noted Dead fan who produced radio programmes and books about the band.

For these visionary fellows in the 1970s, cyberspace was, Moore writes, “an unexplored land”. But the utopian vision many had for this new world has, he suggests, disappeared thanks to free speech extremists – highly computer-literate individuals with a robust sense of humour who enjoy targeting people who disagree with their worldview. Message board high jinks have reached the point where, as one wag notes in this book, “a meme has been elected President”. Companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon have grown so powerful that the only laws they want to follow are those of the free market.

If we agree with Moore’s analysis, how can the internet be saved and democracy “evolve” beyond its current corrupted state? One solution he considers is to reject digital innovations entirely and go back to a world of pens, papers and typewriters (most of the time I still live in this world).

But he admits that such an approach is not going to make either the web, tech giants, AI, big data or platform politics go away. Instead, he argues we should follow the example of Taiwan and Estonia,
which have used technology in a more responsible way.

In Taiwan, “netizens” built an online alternative to the government site that eventually had an impact on the political system there. Estonia, Moore argues, has turned itself into the most digitally enabled (and digitally secure) nation in the world.

My feeling is that we do still have some checks and balances in place, and that the true challenge is to think in a long-term way and not getting drawn into believing the world will end tomorrow. If democracy has been hacked, then it is time to reboot the software, introduce new firewalls and start again.