The Good Fight

Enemy of the Status Quo

Social media isn’t bad or good—it favors outsiders, regardless of their aims.

Supporters of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump film him on their phones as he speaks during a rally at the Spire Institute in Geneva, Ohio on October 28, 2016.
Supporters of Donald Trump film him on their phones as he speaks during a rally in Geneva, Ohio, on Oct. 28.

Dustin Franz/Getty Images

As recently as 15 years ago, many rural parts of Africa had few phone lines or major roads. There was no rapid way for residents to communicate with metropolitan centers or to access their many benefits, from education to medical care. So when cellphones started to make their way to large swaths of the continent, they were imbued with big hopes: The greater ease of communication, economists and political scientists predicted, would stimulate growth, improve health outcomes, and reduce ethnic tensions.

The truth, political scientists Jan Pierskalla and Florian Hollenbach recently found, is more complicated. The spread of cellphones did lead to some economic growth. But it also had some striking downsides. In particular, parts of the continent where cellphone coverage improved also experienced higher levels of political strife. “The availability of cell phone coverage,” Pierskalla and Hollenbach conclude, “significantly and substantially increases the probability of violent conflict.”

This cautionary tale about technological progress fits the spirit of our times. It’s difficult to remember now, but a few short years ago, it seemed obvious that social media would make the world a better place. In countries such as Iran or Syria, its evangelists claimed, it was already toppling dictators. Even at home, Facebook and Twitter would empower ordinary citizens and deepen democracy.

Thomas Friedman offered an especially pure distillation of this boosterish view:

As the I.T. revolution and globalization have been democratized and diffused — as we’ve gone from laptops for elites to smartphones for everyone, from networking for the lucky few at Davos to Facebook for all and from only the rich heard in the halls of power to everyone being able to talk back to their leaders on Twitter — a new global political force is aborning … I call them The Square People.

They are mostly young, aspiring to a higher standard of living and more liberty, seeking either reform or revolution (depending on their existing government), connected to one another either by massing in squares or through virtual squares or both, and united less by a common program and more by a shared direction they want their societies to go.

That received wisdom has (to put it mildly) not aged well. The mullahs still rule in Iran, and Syria lies in tatters. Social media may have helped to give rise to movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter that aspire to “more liberty.” But it has also spawned countermovements that seek to disenfranchise minorities—including the one that propelled Donald Trump into the White House. The breathless claims made on the internet’s behalf back in the halcyon days when nobody had heard of Pepe the Frog seem even more facile now than they did then.

Once people grew disenchanted with social media, the prevailing consensus flipped remarkably quickly. Facebook and Twitter are now routinely blamed for everything that is wrong with the world: They supposedly explain the chaos in Syria as well as the influence of Russia, the success of ISIS as well as the spread of homegrown terrorism.

Here at home in the United States, too, the blame game is in full swing: Doesn’t fake news spread via Facebook? And hasn’t the “alt-right” gone mainstream thanks to Twitter? As Farhad Manjoo wrote in the New York Times shortly after the presidential election, “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.”

It’s for the best that we have (mostly) disabused ourselves of seeing digital technology as a panacea. But we are now in danger of simply standing the older consensus on its head: If it’s not our savior, social media must be the devil.

That’s far too simple. Just because social media isn’t as utopian a force as Friedman believed doesn’t mean that it must be a dystopian danger. Nor is social media, as some people like to say, merely a neutral means—one that can be directed, with equal ease, toward any number of ends. Instead, social media has a very specific impact: It weakens the power of insiders and strengthens the power of outsiders. As a result, it favors change over stability—and constitutes a big, new threat to political systems that have long seemed immutable.

To understand why, it’s worth examining just how the rise of cellphones could increase incidents of violence in Africa. In essence, Pierskalla and Hollenbach suggest, the government used to have a monopoly over the technology you need to communicate effectively. This gave it two big advantages over rebel groups.

First, because they had access to military phones, army generals could check whether their soldiers were actually carrying out the dangerous jobs they were assigned. Rebel leaders in rural areas were unable to do the same, giving rise to a collective action problem: Foot soldiers in the rebellion had a strong incentive to avoid actual combat (which might prove deadly) while continuing to draw a salary (because their bosses didn’t know they weren’t putting their lives on the line).

Second, in combat situations, government troops could use their military radios to coordinate. Rebel groups could not communicate on the go, so even when forces were evenly matched, the greater tactical agility of official army units gave them an advantage.

The introduction of cellphones changed all of that. Suddenly, rebel leaders could check on the daily activities of followers in remote villages just as easily as army generals. And when the day of battle came, rebel groups could use those same cellphones in lieu of fancy radio equipment to coordinate attacks. The technological gap between government and rebels had shrunk rapidly. And since the government was no longer able to quash rebellions definitively, conflicts ended up being more deadly and protracted.

The same logic applies to more sophisticated technology. For much the same reasons that old-fashioned flip phones proved an important tool for African rebel leaders, Facebook and Twitter have given radicals in North America and Western Europe an important tool in their fight against the democratic consensus.

It used to be challenging to put together a protest, much less to start a campaign, without access to established political organizations and vast financial resources. Finding like-minded people and coordinating their efforts was simply too complicated. But thanks to the rise of new technologies, it has become much simpler and cheaper to build a base of supporters and to align what they do. The technological gap between establishment parties and fringe movements has rapidly narrowed—so, as a result, has the ability of outsider candidates to win elected office.

The same phenomenon is in the middle of transforming the media landscape. Until a few years ago, a small elite of writers, editors, producers, and news anchors effectively decided what views were mainstream enough to be given a hearing. This may sound sinister, but it served an important purpose. It allowed the journalistic class to contain false claims and to refuse to publish racist articles. It also meant that critics who rejected polite political discourse had trouble breaking in. Building a distribution network was expensive, so they couldn’t do much beyond writing angry letters to the editor (which those newspapers could decline to print).

Today, by contrast, just about any citizen can start tweeting, running a blog, or even building a big website like Breitbart. If he amasses enough of a following, he can quickly turn into a major purveyor of fake news. Little wonder, then, that establishment barriers against blatant lying or racist rhetoric in the press have seemingly fallen by the wayside.

Seen from this angle, there is nothing paradoxical about the fact that Facebook both helped to bring ordinary Egyptians out into the street to oppose Hosni Mubarak, a brutal autocrat, and helped to elect Donald Trump, a leader with an authoritarian aspiration or two. In dictatorships, where political elites have long used their power to punish people agitating for democracy, social media has made it easier to organize pro-democratic protests. Meanwhile, in democracies, where political elites have long used their power to marginalize opponents of democratic norms, social media has made it easier to spread anti-establishment views.

Historians liken the rise of social media to the invention of the printing press. That may sound grandiose, but to my mind, the comparison actually underplays the depth and the rapidity of the transformation. A dozen years after the invention of the printing press, the technology had not yet spread beyond the German city of Mainz, and a negligible fraction of the world population had held a printed book in their hands. A dozen years into the invention of Facebook, the technology is available around the globe, and nearly 2 billion people are actively using it.

So it is all the more important to remember that the printing press spread ethnic conflict as well as erudition, and did as much to deepen the theological division in Europe as it did to breed tolerance among different faiths. Nothing says that we must repeat the same catastrophe. But if we are to respond to the effects of social media on our political system, we must start by understanding its nature: Neither wholly good nor wholly bad, social media favors the outsider over the insider, and the forces of instability over the defenders of the status quo.