As the technology industry came to grips in the last week with the reality of a presidential election that did not go its way, many in Silicon Valley landed on the idea that widespread misinformation spread online was a primary factor in the race’s outcome.
On Monday, both Google and Facebook altered their advertising policies to explicitly prohibit sites that traffic in fake news from making money off lies. That’s very likely a worthwhile fix, even if it comes too late. The internet has loosened our collective grasp on the truth, and efforts to fight that dismaying trend are obviously worth pursuing.
Yet it would be a mistake to end this investigation at fake news. In fact, the dangers posed by fake news are just a symptom of a deeper truth now dawning on the world: With billions of people glued to Facebook, WhatsApp, WeChat, Instagram, Twitter, Weibo and other popular services, social media has become an increasingly powerful cultural and political force, to the point that its effects are now beginning to alter the course of global events.
The election of Donald J. Trump is perhaps the starkest illustration yet that across the planet, social networks are helping to fundamentally rewire human society. They have subsumed and gutted mainstream media. They have undone traditional political advantages like fund-raising and access to advertising. And they are destabilizing and replacing old-line institutions and established ways of doing things, including political parties, transnational organizations and longstanding, unspoken social prohibitions against blatant expressions of racism and xenophobia.
Most important, because these services allow people to communicate with one another more freely, they are helping to create surprisingly influential social organizations among once-marginalized groups. These ad hoc social movements range widely in form, from “alt-right” white supremacists in the United States to Brexiters in Britain to ISIS in the Middle East to the hacker collectives of Eastern Europe and Russia. But each in its own way is now wielding previously unthinkable power, resulting in unpredictable, sometimes destabilizing geopolitical spasms.
“You now have billions of people on the internet, and most of them are not that happy with the status quo,” said Ian Bremmer, the president of the Eurasia Group, a research firm that forecasts global risks. “They think their local government is authoritarian. They think they’re on the wrong side of the establishment. They’re aggrieved by identity politics and a hollowed-out middle class.”
Many factors accounted for Mr. Trump’s win: middle-class economic anxiety in the industrial Midwest; an inchoate desire for some kind of change in the national direction; and some mix of latent racism, xenophobia and sexism across the electorate. But as even Mr. Trump acknowledged in an interview with “60 Minutes” aired Sunday, social media played a determining role in the race.
In the past, Mr. Bremmer said, the concerns of Mr. Trump’s supporters might have been ignored, and his candidacy would almost certainly have foundered. After all, he was universally written off by just about every mainstream pundit, and he faced disadvantages in money, organization and access to traditional political expertise. Yet by putting out a message that resonated with people online, Mr. Trump hacked through every established political order.
“Through this new technology, people are now empowered to express their grievances and to follow people they see as echoing their grievances,” Mr. Bremmer said. “If it wasn’t for social media, I don’t see Trump winning.”
For people who like an orderly, predictable world, this is the scariest thing about Facebook; not that it may be full of lies (a problem that could potentially be fixed), but that its scope gives it real power to change history in bold, unpredictable ways.
But that’s where we are. It’s time to start recognizing that social networks actually are becoming the world-shattering forces that their boosters long promised they would be — and to be unnerved, rather than exhilarated, by the huge social changes they could uncork.
This should come as no surprise. In a way, we are now living through a kind of bizarro version of the utopia that some in tech once envisioned would be unleashed by social media.
Over much of the last decade, we have seen progressive social movements powered by the web spring up across the world. There was the Green Revolution in Iran and the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa. In the United States, we saw the Occupy Wall Street movement and the #BlackLivesMatter protests.
Social networks also played a role in electoral politics — first in the ultimately unsuccessful candidacy of Howard Dean in 2003, and then in the election of the first African-American president in 2008.
Yet now those movements look like the prelude to a wider, tech-powered crackup in the global order. In Britain this year, organizing on Facebook played a major role in the once-unthinkable push to get the country to leave the European Union. In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, a firebrand mayor who was vastly outspent by opponents, managed to marshal a huge army of online supporters to help him win the presidency.
ISIS has used social networks to recruit jihadists from around the world to fight in Iraq and Syria, as well as to inspire terrorist attacks overseas.
And in the United States, both Bernie Sanders, a socialist who ran for president as a Democrat, and Mr. Trump, who was once reviled by most members of the party he now leads, relied on online movements to shatter the political status quo.
Why is this all happening now? Clay Shirky, a professor at New York University who has studied the effects of social networks, suggested a few reasons.
One is the ubiquity of Facebook, which has reached a truly epic scale. Last month the company reported that about 1.8 billion people now log on to the service every month. Because social networks feed off the various permutations of interactions among people, they become strikingly more powerful as they grow. With about a quarter of the world’s population now on Facebook, the possibilities are staggering.
“When the technology gets boring, that’s when the crazy social effects get interesting,” Mr. Shirky said.
One of those social effects is what Mr. Shirky calls the “shifting of the Overton Window,” a term coined by the researcher Joseph P. Overton to describe the range of subjects that the mainstream media deems publicly acceptable to discuss.
From about the early 1980s until the very recent past, it was usually considered unwise for politicians to court views deemed by most of society to be out of the mainstream, things like overt calls to racial bias (there were exceptions, of course, like the Willie Horton ad). But the internet shifted that window.
“White ethnonationalism was kept at bay because of pluralistic ignorance,” Mr. Shirky said. “Every person who was sitting in their basement yelling at the TV about immigrants or was willing to say white Christians were more American than other kinds of Americans — they didn’t know how many others shared their views.”
Thanks to the internet, now each person with once-maligned views can see that he’s not alone. And when these people find one another, they can do things — create memes, publications and entire online worlds that bolster their worldview, and then break into the mainstream. The groups also become ready targets for political figures like Mr. Trump, who recognize their energy and enthusiasm and tap into it for real-world victories.
Mr. Shirky notes that the Overton Window isn’t just shifting on the right. We see it happening on the left, too. Mr. Sanders campaigned on an anti-Wall Street platform that would have been unthinkable for a Democrat just a decade ago.
Now, after Hillary Clinton’s loss, the way forward for Democrats will very likely be determined as much by collectives on Facebook as by elites in Washington — and, as a result, we’re likely to see more unlikely candidates and policy positions than we would have in the past.
The upshot is further unforeseen events. “We’re absolutely going to get more of these insurgent candidates, and more crazy social effects,” Mr. Shirky said.
Mr. Trump is just the tip of the iceberg. Prepare for interesting times.
The New York Times