The writer is founder of Sifted, an FT-backed media company covering European start-ups
It seems almost quaint today but back in 1985 the American cultural critic Neil Postman wrote a book warning that we were all Amusing Ourselves to Death. “Talking hair-dos” had turned TV news into showbiz entertainment, cheapening public discourse. Television, he wrote, had created a new “species” of information more properly described as disinformation — “misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information” that detracted from knowledge. Form now excluded meaningful content.
One trembles to think what Postman, who passed away in 2003, would have made of social media, which contains infinitely more creative forms to amuse ourselves. The emergence of the internet may have opened up extraordinary possibilities to deepen public discourse. But the spirit of our times was perhaps best captured by a tweet from Elon Musk at the weekend: “The most entertaining outcome is the most likely.”
The new owner of Twitter certainly practises what he tweets: Musk’s 119mn followers are riveted by his timeline. Interspersing SpaceX rocket launches, Twitter service updates, off-colour jokes and sly personal commentary, Musk is the master of the medium he now controls. Daily active users have hit record highs, he claims, in spite of his mass sacking of Twitter staff. Content moderation now reflects his personal whims or has been turned into immersive theatre — the decision about whether to restore former US president Donald Trump’s account became an online poll (52 per cent of 15mn voting users — or bots — were in favour).
The instinctive response to Musk’s digital antics may be: so what? After his $44bn acquisition, Twitter is now a private company. If Musk wants to pull the wheels off his digital train set to amuse the crowd, then who cares? If users and advertisers are offended, they are free to quit and seek enlightenment elsewhere.
But the reason why the rules and practices of social media platforms matter is chillingly spelt out in a new book by Maria Ressa, the Filipina journalist and joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021. In How To Stand Up To A Dictator, Ressa argues that the US platforms excessively focus on users in rich western democracies and mostly ignore those in the rest of the world.
Surveys repeatedly show that Filipinos spend more time online than any other nation, yet their services are minimally moderated. “The Philippines is ground zero for the terrible effects that social media can have on a nation’s institutions, its culture and the mind of its populace,” Ressa writes. Social media has been accused of inflaming communal violence in several countries, including India, Myanmar and Ethiopia.
A veteran CNN journalist, Ressa was initially among the “truest of true believers” in social media as a means of enriching the public debate. But she saw first hand how former president Rodrigo Duterte weaponised the technology in the Philippines through the abuse of co-ordinated disinformation campaigns, bot farms and malign social influencers. Opposition politicians became the victims of vicious online hate campaigns and fake sex tapes.
The independent Rappler media site that Ressa co-founded was also targeted by Duterte’s digital mob. At one point, Ressa was receiving 90 hate messages an hour on her Facebook page. Although she documented this online harassment, her complaints fell on deaf ears because anger had become the “contagious currency of Facebook’s profit machine”, as she puts it. “Violence has made Facebook rich.”
At least Facebook, since renamed Meta, now recognises the problems its platforms can cause, even if critics, like Ressa, say it still falls short of effective solutions. Meta’s latest Widely Viewed Content Report shows that its most popular posts are trashy, rather than toxic, which may count as some kind of progress. The company has also established an Oversight Board of outside experts to scrutinise its content practices.
Trust in social media companies had received “an absolute rollicking” in recent years, Dex Hunter-Torricke, head of communications at Meta’s Oversight Board, acknowledged at the Sky News Big Ideas festival on Saturday. It would not be helpful in restoring trust if users wondered whether Musk was making decisions based on personal preferences rather than content moderation policies, he said.
Musk’s stated ambition in buying Twitter is to create a “common digital town square”. But town squares also contain thugs, criminals and propagandists who threaten the public good. Maximal free speech is not always compatible with minimal democracy.