"Esc!" It's the key on the top left of the keyboard that you hit frantically when your laptop crashes. Confronted by the ghastly reality that some of their proudest creations – Google, Facebook and Twitter – helped propel Donald Trump into the White House, the tech titans of Silicon Valley are hitting esc like panic-stricken sophomores whose term papers have frozen before they clicked on the "save" icon.
"Content moderators" are being hired by the thousand. Fake accounts are being closed. The News Feed is being "fixed." Esc, esc, esc. But that page is still frozen. And it will take more than esc to fix this. More like ctrl+alt+del.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. For a time, it seemed as if the internet was on democracy's side, helping the crowds in Cairo's Tahrir Square or Kiev's Maidan topple terrible tyrants.
"Current network technology … truly favours the citizens," wrote Google's Jared Cohen and Eric Schmidt in their 2013 book The New Digital Age. "Never before have so many people been connected through an instantly responsive network," with truly "game-changing" implications for politics everywhere.
Mr. Cohen and Mr. Schmidt's 2010 article "The Digital Disruption" presciently argued that authoritarian governments would "be caught off-guard when large numbers of their citizens, armed with virtually nothing but cellphones, take part in mini-rebellions that challenge their authority."
The "real action" in what they called "the interconnected estate" could be found in "cramped offices in Cairo" as well as "on the streets of Tehran. From these locations and others, activists and technology geeks are rallying political 'flash mobs' that shake repressive governments, building new tools to skirt firewalls and censors, reporting and tweeting the new online journalism, and writing a bill of human rights for the internet age."
Even more euphoric was Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder and chief executive of Facebook. In 2015, he called the internet "a force for peace in the world." Connecting people on Facebook was building a "common global community" with a "shared understanding" of the problems confronting humanity.
Oh, happy days. Oh, glad, confident morning. Sadly, over the past two years, it has gradually become apparent that internet may pose a bigger threat to democracies than to dictators.
A Facebook logo looms behind Mark Zuckerberg at the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif.
MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ/ASSOCIATED PRESS
For one thing, the growth of network platforms with unprecedented data-gathering capabilities has created new opportunities for authoritarian regimes, not least in China and Russia, to control their own populations more effectively.
For another, the networks themselves offer ways in which bad actors – and not only the Russian government – can undermine democracy by disseminating fake news and extreme views. "These social platforms are all invented by very liberal people on the west and east coasts," said Brad Parscale, Mr. Trump's digital-media director, in an interview last year. "And we figure out how to use it to push conservative values. I don't think they thought that would ever happen." Too right.
Having initially dismissed as "a pretty crazy idea" the notion that fake news on Facebook had helped Mr. Trump to victory, Mr. Zuckerberg last year came clean: Russians using false identities had paid for 3,000 Facebook advertisements that sent implicitly pro-Trump messages to Americans before and after the election. By some estimates, between 146 and 150 million users – more people than voted – had seen posts from accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency, a pro-Kremlin organization, including around 16 million users of Instagram, which Facebook owns.
One analysis of six Russia-linked Facebook pages found their posts had been shared 340 million times. And those were just six of 470 pages that Facebook had identified as Russian. Trolls with false identities had also used Facebook Events (the company's event-management tool) to promote political protests in the United States, including an Aug. 27, 2016, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rally in a rural Idaho town known to welcome refugees.
In May, 2016, two Russian-linked Facebook groups had organized simultaneous opposing protests in front of the Islamic Da'wah Center of Houston. "Heart of Texas," a bogus group claiming to favour Texas secession, had announced a noon rally on May 21 to "Stop Islamification of Texas." Meanwhile, a separate Russian-sponsored group, "United Muslims of America," had advertised a "Save Islamic Knowledge" rally for exactly the same place and time. This wasn't the kind of global community Mr. Zuckerberg had envisaged.
After the 2016 election, Facebook unearthed examples of a Russian misinformation campaign whose posts were shared millions of times on the social network. Here are two examples presented as evidence to Congress last year.
U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES PERMANENT SELECT COMMITTEE ON INTELLIGENCE
This is not just an American story. To an extent that is not well enough appreciated, it is a global crisis of democracy. Similar efforts were made, albeit on a smaller scale, to influence the outcome of the British referendum on European Union membership – mainly via fake Twitter accounts – as well as last year's elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany. And the fact that the Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election has since become the focal point of multiple inquiries in Washington – which may even pose a threat to the legitimacy and longevity of Mr. Trump's presidency – does not mean that similar things are not going on in other countries even as you read this article. Canadians have good reason to worry about how social media could impact the 2019 federal election. When Facebook and Twitter told MPs last year that they could increase public engagement in the debates between party leaders, some people wondered how much of this would be provided by Russian bots.
Yet the most alarming revelation of the past year is not the importance of Russian fake news, but its unimportance. Former president Barack Obama implicitly acknowledged that in his recent Netflix interview with David Letterman. Having swept into the White House in 2008 as the first candidate of the social media age, Obama acknowledged that he had "missed … the degree to which people who are in power, special interests, foreign governments, et cetera, can in fact manipulate [social media] and propagandize."
However, the former law professor made no attempt to lay all the blame on outside forces. "What the Russians exploited," he said, "was already here … [The fact that] we are operating in completely different information universes. If you watch Fox News, you are living on a different planet than you are if you listen to NPR. That's what's happening with these Facebook pages, where more and more people are getting their news from. At a certain point, you just live in a bubble. And that's part of why our politics is so polarized right now."
What happened in 2016 was much more than just a Kremlin "black op" that exceeded expectations. It was a direct result of the profound change in the public sphere brought about by the advent and spectacular growth of the online network platforms. In many ways, the obsessive focus of the American political class on the Russian sub-plot is a distraction from the alarming reality that – as the European competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager argued earlier this month – the big tech companies, and the way their services are used by ordinary people, pose a much bigger threat to democracy. It is the threat from within we really need to worry about – not the threat from Putin.
We are nearly all addicts. The website eMarketer estimates that adult Facebook users in the United States spent roughly 41 minutes a day on the platform in 2017. And that's just our favourite app. The average smartphone user clicks, taps and swipes that insidious little device an amazing 2,617 times a day.
And we don't just passively read. We engage. We like. We retweet. We reply. We comment. Now, it must be admitted that most of what we write is inane. In Canada, the five most-commonly used words in Facebook status updates are: "day," "hangover," "loud," "ticket" and "word." ("Hangover" is ranked 7th in Britain and 8th in the United States – make of that what you will.)
But a fair amount of what we engage with online is news. Two-thirds of U.S. adults are on Facebook. Nearly half – 45 per cent – get news from Mr. Zuckerberg's platform. More than one in 10 Americans get news from YouTube, while roughly the same proportion (11 per cent) get news from Twitter. In Canada, 51 per cent of people get their news from digital sources first.
As a recent Harvard paper co-authored by Gary King demonstrates, the network platforms essentially amplify news from established news outlets. As they do so, however, a strange thing happens. Whether one looks at blogs or at Twitter, social media tend to promote polarization. Liberal bloggers link to liberal bloggers, rarely to conservative ones. Liberal Twitter users re-tweet one another, seldom their conservative counterparts. And tweets on political topics – gun control, same-sex marriage, climate change – are 20 per cent more likely to be retweeted for every moral or emotional word they employ.
Note also that political Twitter is not for everyone. As Daniel Hopkins, Ye Liu, Daniel Preotiuc-Pietro and Lyle Ungar have shown, by analyzing nearly five million tweets generated by four thousand Twitter accounts in August, 2016, it is "very conservative" and "very liberal" users who are most likely to tweet political words.
We see a similar phenomenon when we analyze the Facebook followers of U.S. legislators. In both the House of Representatives and the Senate, the pattern is clear: The more ideologically out there you are – whether to the left or the right – the more followers you are likely to have.
In this context, it becomes apparent that Russian fake news represented a drop in an ocean of inflammatory political commentary that was overwhelmingly indigenous. Between March, 2015, and November, 2016, 128 million Americans created nearly 10 billion Facebook posts, shares, likes and comments about the election. Remember how many Russian ads there were? That's right: a paltry 3,000.
According to new research by Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College, Andrew Guess of Princeton University and Jason Reifler of the University of Exeter, roughly one in four Americans saw at least one false story in the run-up to the presidential election. But fake stories were just 1 per cent of the news Hillary Clinton supporters read, and 6 per cent of the news Trump supporters read.
Remember, too, that not all the Russian-sourced news was fake. The tens of thousands of e-mails hacked from the accounts of John Podesta and other Democrats were as real as they were confidential. But it wasn't the Russians who were driving the traffic on the Breitbart website to record highs. It wasn't the Russians who explained to the Trump campaign how they could use targeted Facebook advertising to compensate – with precision – for what they lacked in dollars. It was Silicon Valley: its big data, its algorithms, its employees.
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
A matter of priorities
Don't take it from me. Take it from former Facebook staff who have spoken out in the past year. Antonio Garcia Martinez, the former Facebook engineer and author of the book Chaos Monkeys, put it starkly: "I think there's a real question if democracy can survive Facebook and all the other Facebook-like platforms," he said in an interview. "Before platforms like Facebook, the argument used to be that you had a right to your own opinion. Now, it's more like the right to your own reality."
Facebook's propaganda was all about building a global community. But in practice, the company was laser-focused on the bottom line – and highly resistant to outside criticism. Sandy Parakilas, who worked as an operations manager to fix privacy problems on Facebook's developer platform in advance of its 2012 initial public offering, has said that the company "prioritized data collection from its users over protecting them from abuse."
"When I was at Facebook," he said last year, "the typical reaction I recall looked like this: Try to put any negative press coverage to bed as quickly as possible, with no sincere efforts to put safeguards in place or to identify and stop abusive developers." The policy was to "react only when the press or regulators make something an issue, and avoid any changes that would hurt the business of collecting and selling data."
Perhaps the most scathing assessment came from former vice-president for user growth, Chamath Palihapitiya. "I think," he told an audience of students at Stanford's Graduate School of Business in December, "we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works. … The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no co-operation: misinformation, mistrust. And it's not an American problem – this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem."
Chamath Palihapitiya speaks out about social media’s harmful effects on society
Mr. Palihapitiya said he felt "tremendous guilt" about his own part in this because he believed he and his former colleagues "kind of knew something bad would happen." He is not alone in feeling guilty. Facebook's first president, Sean Parker, has talked in similar terms. Another early employee told Vanity Fair, "Most of the early employees I know are totally overwhelmed by what this thing has become. They look at the role Facebook now plays in society … and they have this sort of 'Oh my God, what have I done' moment."
True, in recent months Facebook has scrambled to respond to all this recrimination. On Sept. 21, for example, Mr. Zuckerberg pledged to work "pro-actively to strengthen the democratic process." Facebook would require that all political ads disclose which page paid for them and ensure that each ad is accessible to everyone. Later last year, he announced plans to clamp down on "bad content and bad actors" by doubling the number of employees and contractors who handle safety and security issues to 20,000 by the end of 2018. And just last week, he announced an overhaul of the News Feed to prioritize "meaningful interaction" between users over the kind of media-generated content that advertisers like.
But if you think this kind of self-regulation is going to fix democracy's social-media problem, then I have a bridge to sell you. For one thing, it would take at least an order of magnitude more people to achieve meaningful monitoring of the vast amount of content that Facebook's two billion-plus users produce and share every day. For another, none of this alters the company's fundamental business model, which is to sell advertisers the precision targeting that Facebook's user data allows. Political advertising may henceforth be identified as such, in the way that it is on television. But just how much less effective will that make it?
Google says it will curate its "News" search results more carefully, to rank established newspaper sites above bulletin boards such as 4chan or Reddit, which are favourite channels for alt-right content. Anyone who thinks that will stop people reading fake news hasn't found the "scroll down" button on their keyboard.
The reality is, no matter how Facebook, Google and Twitter tweak their algorithms, a new kind of politics has been born. It can no more be unborn than the new kind of politics born when television revealed how much better-looking John F. Kennedy was than sweaty Richard Nixon, with his five o'clock shadow. Or how easily Lyndon Johnson could make Barry Goldwater seem like a man who wanted to drop atomic bombs on little children.
There are now two kinds of politicians in this world: the kind that know how to use social media as a campaign tool and the ones who lose elections. All over the world, the distinction is clear. The populists of the right and of the left understand the power of social media. The moderates who occupy the centre ground, with few exceptions – Justin "Selfie" Trudeau is one of them – are still playing by 1990s rules.
Among the few indicators that Mr. Trump had a good chance of beating Ms. Clinton were his enormous leads on Facebook and Twitter throughout the 2016 campaign. Applying similar metrics around the world yields startling results. Take Britain, for example. The Leave campaign's victory in the 2016 referendum on Britain's membership in the European Union owed a great deal to its pioneering use of Facebook advertising. Yet the principal political beneficiary of Brexit – the woman who became prime minister shortly after the referendum, Theresa May – is a social-media loser, with little more than half a million Facebook followers and even less on Twitter. By comparison, the Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn – a grizzled populist of the left in the style of Bernie Sanders – has 1.3 million followers on Facebook followers and 1.7 million on Twitter (numbers as of Jan. 18). No other British politician comes close. Boris Johnson is often mentioned in the same breath as Mr. Trump, but all the two men really have in common is big hair. Mr. Corbyn has four times more Twitter followers than "BoJo."
Britain has no election scheduled for 2018 – although it is possible Ms. May's woefully weak government could fall as the economic costs of Brexit make themselves felt and the harsh realities of the EU's divorce terms become apparent. Elsewhere, however, electorates are preparing to vote in general elections, notably in Brazil, Colombia, Italy and Mexico. These contests will give us a chance to see how far the new politics has spread.
Start with Brazil, a country whose political elite has been battered by corruption scandals that led to the impeachment of the Workers' Party President Dilma Rouseff and probably disqualify her predecessor, Luiz Lula da Silva, from running this year. But who cares? Lula has three million Facebook followers and just 189,000 Twitter followers. Far ahead of him on social media is Luciano Huck, the entrepreneur and television star, host of the hugely popular Saturday night TV show Caldeirao do Huck. With 17 million Facebook followers and nearly 13 million on Twitter, Mr. Huck is in a league of his own in Brazilian politics.
A Huck candidacy would be the Brazilian equivalent of Oprah Winfrey (FB 11.6m, TW 41.4m) running for president in 2020. He is not a populist; he's just popular. In second place, however, comes Jair Bolsonaro (FB 5m, TW 0.8m), the former army parachutist whose political positions make Mr. Trump seem like a lily-livered liberal. Mr. Bolsonaro is an unabashed defender of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil between 1964 and 1985. Name any politically incorrect position; Mr. Bolsonaro has taken it. "I would never rape you," he once told a female politician, "because you do not deserve it."
Italian politics was in many ways the experimental laboratory for the kind of candidate who combines wealth and celebrity with political incorrectness. Silvio Berlusconi has claimed, not without justification, to have been the prototype Trump. Despite a criminal conviction, Mr. Berlusconi is still a political player, though more of a kingmaker than a candidate these days. Yet he is behind the times (FB 1m, TW 19,300). The King of Twitter in Italy is former prime minister Matteo Renzi (FB 1.1m, TW 3.34m), although on Facebook he trails the populists: the two Five Star Movement leaders, Beppe Grillo (FB 1.9m, TW 2.5m) and Luigi di Maio (FB 1.1m, TW 0.3m), as well as the Northern League leader Matteo Salvini (FB 1.9m, TW 0.6m).
In Mexico, the best-known populist – Andrés Manuel López Obrador, universally known by his initials as "AMLO" – is a man of the left. On social media (FB 2.3m, TW 3.5m), AMLO is far ahead of the likely PRI nominee José Antonio Meade (FB 0.3m, TW 1m) and his PAN (National Action Party) counterpart Ricardo Anaya Cortes (FB 0.9m, TW 0.4m). True, AMLO is not the most followed Mexican politician: Rafael Moreno Valle, the former governor of Puebla, is now neck-and-neck with him on Facebook. Only just behind AMLO on Twitter is the mayor of Mexico City, Miguel Angel Mancera. But neither Moreno Valle nor Mancera is going to be a presidential candidate.
Politics on Colombian social media also leans left. There, the leading figure is Gustavo Petro (FB 0.9m, TW 2.8m), the former mayor of Bogotá, who as a young man belonged to the guerrilla group the 19th of April Movement and who made his political reputation as an opponent of the conservative presidency of Álvaro Uribe.
It used to be that all politics was local. Today, perhaps, all politics is becoming social, in that social media have emerged as the crucial battleground of modern elections. Just a few years ago, that would have seemed like a good idea. What could be more democratic, after all, than enabling politicians to communicate their messages directly to individual voters, and to hear back from them in real time? The only thing to worry about was whether or not online speech was truly free – the core preoccupation of Freedom House's annual "Freedom on the Net" survey.
But what if the biggest threat to democracy is not online censorship or surveillance, but the near-total absence of regulation of politics on social media? The public is beginning to sense this. A new Gallup-Knight survey, published last week, revealed that 57 per cent of Americans think that the way sites choose which stories to show to users presents "a major problem" for democracy. Just less than half of those interviewed favoured regulation of how the network platforms provide news.
The difficulty is knowing what form regulation should take. As Sam Lessin – another former Facebooker – has argued, the real transformation of the public sphere is that a candidate "can for the first time effectively talk to each individual voter privately in their own home and tell them exactly what they want to hear … in a way that can't be tracked or audited."
Forget fake news, Mr. Lessin argues. Forget the "feed bubbles" and "echo chambers" that have dominated the discussion in the United States. The real challenge is not that the public sphere has grown polarized. The challenge is that it has been so fragmented by misnamed social media that it is no longer a single public sphere.
"It has been a foregone conclusion for a long time," Mr. Lessin concludes, doubtless remembering the inspirational Zuckerberg speeches of the pre-2016 era, "that the internet has been a vehicle for moving us toward speaking one common language and being able to work together to solve the great problems of our era. … The sad reality is that the most exciting attempt to bring our world together is putting us at risk of not being able to trust what we see or hear" – but (and this is the point he missed) voting for the most engaging candidate anyway.
Hit "esc" all you like. This is the real – and inescapable – threat facing every democracy today.
We now know what it must have felt like to be a Regency dandy who lived long enough to experience Victorian prudery. For we are living through a revolution in manners not unlike the one that occurred in the second and third quarters of the 19th century. In the space of a generation, libertines became pariahs.
It is a feature of such revolutions that no one can say exactly when they begin. Historians of Victorian values seek their origins in the upsurge of evangelical religious feeling on both sides of the Atlantic often called “the Great Awakening”. In the same way, there is clearly some connection between the feminist movement and the spasm of revulsion against sexual harassment in the workplace that is currently — and belatedly — sweeping the English-speaking world.
And yet it was not a professional feminist who exposed the allegations of rape and sexual assault against the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, but the male broadcaster Ronan Farrow. And he cannot have foreseen, when he published his devastating j’accuse in The New Yorker last month, that it would unleash a cascade of accusations fatal to the reputations of such erstwhile darlings of New Yorker readers as the comedian-turned-senator Al Franken, the actor Kevin Spacey, the comedian Louis CK, the political journalist Mark Halperin and the interviewer Charlie Rose.
The New York Times — which along with The Washington Post has been working the phones to keep the cascade going — is keeping score. To date, it reckons, 34 “high-profile men have resigned, been fired or experienced other fallout after accusations that have ranged from inappropriate text messages to rape”. Embarrassingly, it emerged last week that one of them was that newspaper’s very own Glenn Thrush.
It would be interesting to know what proportion of these people waxed indignant last year about Donald Trump’s confession — in a conversation recorded on a “hot mic” during an Access Hollywood appearance in 2005 — to being a serial sexual harasser. Rather a high one, I would guess. Here was Mark Halperin’s response on Twitter: “When people say some new Trump tape could have material that is WORSE than the @accesshollywood video, what exactly could be WORSE?!?”
Al Franken also commented. “I’ve been in a lot of locker rooms,” he said in an interview on NBC. “I belong to a health club in Minneapolis . . . Our locker-room banter is stuff like, ‘Is Trump crazy?’”
Louis CK preferred to equate Trump with Hitler, the least of whose crimes was inappropriate behaviour towards women. On Stephen Colbert’s show in April, CK called Trump a “gross, crook, dirty, rotten, lying sack of shit”. Well, who’s gross now?
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Sexual harassment was supposed to be the kind of thing only Republicans did — inveterate sexists such as Trump or alleged molesters of underage schoolgirls such as Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama. How very awkward that the majority of names in the New York Times list of top harassers are men of the left, not the right.
Awkward, but not surprising. For the Weinstein case has proved to be a moment of truth for a liberal elite that for decades has been guilty of the most egregious hypocrisy. The same Weinstein who stands accused of rape today went on the Women’s March in January. For years, he and his ilk have been signalling their feminist virtue by day and practising the degradation of women by night. Sadly, they have too often been enabled in their two-faced conduct by feminists who could not quite resist the allure of their power.
“Even if the allegations [made by Kathleen Willey and Paula Jones] are true,” wrote Gloria Steinem in The New York Times in March 1998, “the president [Bill Clinton] is not guilty of sexual harassment.” No, Clinton had just made “dumb passes” at those women. As for Monica Lewinsky, her “will” had not been “violated” — “quite the contrary”.
Worse, Steinem & co have spent their lives deriding the values of men such as Vice-President Mike Pence, who in 2002 told an interviewer “that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side, either”. “Is that sexist?” asked a female columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Absolutely, according to a lecturer on gender and psychology at University of California, Los Angeles, though she preferred to call it “gender discrimination”.
We find ourselves in a bewildering dual world. The world of education is patrolled by the gender-studies thought police — witness the departmental interrogation of a teaching assistant at Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University, Lindsay Shepherd, who had the temerity to show students a TV clip featuring the Toronto University psychology professor Jordan Peterson. This, she was told, was a violation of WLU’s “gendered and sexual violence policy” because Peterson is known for “critiquing feminism, critiquing trans rights”. In this world, a mere accusation of sexism can end a career.
Meanwhile, in the entertainment world, Hollywood continues to churn out movies in which alpha-male heroes enjoy casual sexual encounters with pouting, scantily clad twentysomethings. Or are we to believe that in the new James Bond film, Bond 25, a transgender 007 will issue a heartfelt apology for her character’s 64-year career of sexism and sexual harassment? The fact that Bond films are still being made illustrates the extent of the cognitive dissonance at the heart of western civilisation today.
In many ways, Bond came to personify the sexual revolution of the 1960s. At least some of the acts of which eminent men today stand accused read like crude imitations of his seduction techniques. In that sense, the sexual revolution is finally devouring its own children, who made the mistake of believing that Pussy Galore was forever.
I’m against sexual harassment. I condemn anyone who abuses their power in the workplace for gratification. So I am on the side of this revolution in manners. My concern is only that such revolutions have a tendency to overshoot. I wonder: do we risk sliding into a kind of secular sharia, in which all men are presumed to be sexual predators and only severe punishments can prevent routine rape? Will one-to-one work meetings between a male and a female co-worker soon be a thing of the past? What next? A more general segregation of the sexes? How the Islamists must be enjoying all this.
If the feminist revolution in manners has a sacred text, it is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, with its dystopian vision of an America in which women have no rights, but only reproductive obligations. Few fans of the book appear aware that this vision is much dearer to the hearts of Islamists than to those of evangelical Christians. As a corrective, I recommend Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, in which the liberal elite of France embraces sharia in — yes, that’s right — a spasm of revulsion at its own decadence.
Niall Ferguson’s new book is The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power (Allen Lane)
To US eyes, putting up with low cancer survival rates is the real madness
We live in a small world. There are two degrees of separation between you and someone who attended the concert in Las Vegas last Sunday at which Stephen Paddock killed 58 people. That is because you are reading my column and my son’s nanny was there with a group of her friends. (Luckily, she left before the shooting began, and none of her friends was hit. Spattered with the blood of others, but physically unscathed.)
One of many pathologies of a small world is groupthink. I arrived in London shortly after the Las Vegas massacre. I encountered unanimity, right across the political spectrum. Americans are crazy, I was repeatedly told. How can you live in a country where such things are possible?
Now it is true that Americans have a gun problem, but it is not quite the problem most Britons imagine. As The Times pointed out last week, more Americans have died from guns in their own country since 1968 than have perished in combat in all the nation’s wars (including the Civil War). On average between 2011 and 2014, guns were linked to 34,000 deaths a year in the United States.
But such figures are deceptive. More than half those 34,000 deaths were the results of suicide, not homicide. All last week the media published exaggerated statistics on mass shootings (“477 days. 521 mass shootings”— The New York Times). Defining a mass shooting as a single attack in a public place in which four or more victims were indiscriminately killed, I count 91 mass shootings across the country since 1982, in which 760 people have died.
That is still an unacceptable death toll, to be sure. Also troubling is the trend in the direction of more frequent massacres and larger death tolls. Yet we need to be clear about the nature of the problem. It is not, as many Britons seem to imagine, that America is full of gun-toting trigger-happy maniacs.
The country is No 1 in the world for firearms per capita, with 88.8 guns per 100 people. But three-quarters of Americans don’t own a gun. Just 3% own half the guns. Paddock possessed 42 firearms, 23 of which he took to Las Vegas. He was one of a very small proportion of the American population that takes advantage of flaws in US law to amass large numbers of guns.
This state of affairs is not what the authors of the second amendment had in mind when it was adopted in 1791. Read it for yourself: “A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.” In United States v Miller (1939), the Supreme Court ruled that the second amendment did not protect weapons that did not have a “reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia”. That is plainly the correct reading of the text.
Yet in District of Columbia v Heller (2008) the Supreme Court held that the amendment protects an individual right to possess and carry firearms. This was surely wrong. The second amendment was intended only to ensure an adequately armed citizen militia for reasons of national defence. It was not designed so that an individual citizen could accumulate a vast private arsenal. No doubt most of the people who accumulate assault rifles are like stamp collectors: they just like to look at them. But if just one gun collector a year goes on a killing spree, the law is an ass.
The practical case for tighter gun controls is also clear. First, there is a precedent for a federal ban on assault weapons: the 1994 law that was allowed to expire in 2004 and could have been revived in 2012 after the Sandy Hook primary school massacre. In many states there are no mandatory background checks for gun sales because of a loophole that exempts sales at gun fairs. Another indefensible loophole is that machineguns — automatic weapons — made before 1986 can legally be owned. Close to 200,000 of those are believed to be in circulation.
Will anything change in the wake of the Vegas massacre? At most, bump stocks, which effectively convert semi-automatic weapons into automatic ones, will be banned. Otherwise I expect little to change. Gun control has for years been a partisan issue, favoured by Democrats, opposed by Republicans. Not only do the latter control the White House and Congress, they also hold 34 governorships. The Democrats have undivided control of only six states, all of which already have restrictive gun laws.
Does this mean Americans are nuts? Let’s keep this in perspective. Of the 2,596,993 total deaths in the US in 2013, 1.3% were related to firearms. For some reason the people who say, “You are more likely to be killed in a road accident than by a terrorist,” never say: “You are more likely to be killed in a road accident than by a firearm.” In the US both statements are true.
Yes, we in Britain are far less likely to die from gunshot wounds than our American cousins. Generally speaking, according to World Health Organisation statistics for 2015, the American rate of mortality from interpersonal violence is four times higher than the British. Americans are also between two and three times more likely to die from drug abuse, poisoning or intentional injury. The American way of death is violent. This is another way of saying that the US is more like Latin America than western Europe. But you knew that from the movies, didn’t you?
In any case, we Britons have our own idiosyncrasies when it comes to death. In 2015 we were five times more likely than Americans to die of the lung cancer mesothelioma, nearly three times as likely to die of oesophageal cancer, twice as likely to die of stomach cancer and nearly twice as likely to die of prostate and bladder cancer.
These figures are in line with a variety of studies showing Britain is not the best place in the developed world to be diagnosed with cancer. Between 2000 and 2007, for example, the adult five-year survival rates for patients diagnosed with nine types of cancer were lower in the UK than the European average. Meanwhile, according to a 2012 study, cancer patients in the US “lived longer than in the EU, and these survival gains were not due to more aggressive screening of US patients”, but to the higher expenditure that characterises the American system. Yet the NHS is an institution so beloved by British voters that woe betide the politician who does not pledge to preserve it.
True, a growing number of Americans are persuaded by “single-payer” enthusiasts such as the Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders. In the late 1990s only 40% of Americans favoured a single-payer, government-run system like the NHS; today the figure has risen to 53%. But most Republican voters don’t want to know.
Maybe, as Hillary Clinton said, Republicans really are just a basket of deplorables who are nuts to prefer the National Rifle Association to the National Health Service. However, when I tell conservative Americans how British friends have been treated after a cancer diagnosis — one who had a breast tumour was told to take her usual summer holiday as there was a queue for treatment — here’s what they say: Brits are crazy. How can you live in a country where such things are possible?
We do indeed live in a small world. And yet we all — Americans and Britons alike — still struggle to see ourselves as others see us.
Niall Ferguson’s The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power is published by Allen Lane
Russians assumed to be acting for Vladimir Putin used Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook to influence the US election AP
The hyperconnected world was not supposed to be like this. In May, Evan Williams, one of the founders of Twitter, told The New York Times: “I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place. I was wrong about that.”
In September Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, acknowledged that the company’s online tools had allowed advertisers to target self- described “Jew haters”. “We never intended or anticipated this functionality being used this way,” she admitted, “and that is on us.”
Surprise! The men and women who built the internet-based social networks that have so transformed our lives thought everything would be awesome if only we could all be connected. Speaking at Harvard’s degree ceremony in May, Facebook’s co-founder and chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, looked back on his undergraduate ambition to “connect the whole world”. “This idea was so clear to us,” he recalled, “that all people want to connect . . . My hope was never to build a company, but to make an impact.”
Facebook certainly made an impact last year, but not quite the impact the young Zuckerberg had in mind in his Harvard dorm. A committed believer in globalisation who tends to wear his liberal politics on his T-shirt sleeve, Zuckerberg is reeling. Not only did the masterminds behind the Brexit and Trump campaigns successfully use Facebook advertising to hone and target their ultimately victorious campaign messages; worse, the Russian government appears to have used Facebook in the same way, seeking to depress voter support for Hillary Clinton. Worse still, neo-Nazis seem to have been using the social network to spread their own distinctive brand of hate.
Yet the architects of the biggest social networks to have existed should not have been surprised. If he had studied history at Harvard rather than psychology and computer science, Zuckerberg might have foreseen the ways in which Facebook and its ilk would be used and abused.
Five hundred years ago this year, Martin Luther sent his critique of corrupt church practices as a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz. It is not wholly clear if Luther also nailed a copy to the door of All Saints’ Church, Wittenberg, but it scarcely matters. Thanks to the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg, that mode of publishing had been superseded.
Before 1517 was out, versions of Luther’s original Latin text had been printed in Basel, Leipzig and Nuremberg. By the time Luther was officially condemned as a heretic by the Edict of Worms in 1521, his writings were all over German-speaking Europe. In the course of the 16th century, German printers produced almost 5,000 editions of Luther’s works.
Luther’s vision was utopian. Just as Zuckerberg today dreams of creating a single “global community”, so Luther believed that his Reformation would produce a “priesthood of all believers”, all reading the Bible, all in a direct relationship to the one, true God.
It didn’t turn out that way. The Reformation unleashed a wave of religious revolt against the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. As it spread from reform-minded clergymen and scholars to urban elites to illiterate peasants, it threw first Germany and then all of northwestern Europe into turmoil.
In 1524 a full-blown peasants’ revolt broke out. By 1531 there were enough Protestant princes to form an alliance (the Schmalkaldic League) against the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Although defeated, the Protestants were powerful enough to preserve the Reformation in a patchwork of territories.
Religious conflict erupted again in the Thirty Years’ War, a conflict that turned central Europe into a charnel house. Especially in northwestern Europe — in England, Scotland and the Dutch Republic — it proved impossible to re-establish Roman Catholicism, even when Rome turned the technologies and networking strategy of the Reformation against it, in addition to the more traditional array of cruel tortures and punishments that had long been the church’s forte.
The global impact of the internet has few analogues in history better than the impact of printing on 16th-century Europe. The personal computer and smartphone have empowered networks as much as the pamphlet and the book did in Luther’s time.
Indeed, the trajectories for the production and price of PCs in America between 1977 and 2004 are remarkably similar to the trajectories for the production and price of printed books in England from 1490 to 1630.
In the era of the Reformation and thereafter, connectivity was enhanced exponentially by rising literacy, so that a growing share of the population was able to access printed literature of all kinds, rather than having to rely on orators and preachers to convey new ideas to them.
There are three major differences between our networked age and the era that followed the advent of European printing. First, and most obviously, our networking revolution is much faster and more geographically extensive than the wave of revolutions unleashed by the German printing press.
In a far shorter space of time than it took for 84% of the world’s adults to become literate, a remarkably large proportion of humanity has gained access to the internet. As recently as 1998 only about 2% of the world’s population were online. Today the proportion is two in five. The pace of change is roughly an order of magnitude faster than in the post-Gutenberg period: what took centuries after 1490 took just decades after 1990.
Google started life in a garage in Menlo Park, California, in 1998. Today it has the capacity to process more than 4.2bn search requests every day. In 2005 YouTube was a start-up in a room above a pizzeria in San Mateo. Today it allows people to watch 8.8bn videos a day. Facebook was dreamt up at Harvard just over a decade ago. Today it has more than 2bn users who log on at least once a month.
The scale of Facebook’s success is especially staggering. Two-thirds of American adults are Facebook users. Just under half get their news from Facebook.
It used to be said that there were six degrees of separation between any two individuals on the planet — say, between yourself and Monica Lewinsky. On Facebook there are just 3.57 degrees of separation, meaning that any two of the 2bn Facebook users can get in touch by taking fewer than four steps through the network. The world is indeed connected as never before. We are all friends of friends of friends of friends.
Second, the distributional consequences of our revolution are quite different from those of the early-modern revolution. Early modern Europe was not an ideal place to enforce intellectual property rights, which in those days existed only when technologies could be secretively monopolised by a guild. The printing press created no billionaires.
Johannes Gutenberg was not Bill Gates (indeed, by 1456 he was effectively bankrupt). Moreover, only a subset of the media made possible by the printing press — the newspapers and magazines invented in the 18th century — sought to make money from advertising, whereas all the most important ones made possible by the internet do. Few people foresaw that these giant networks would be so profoundly inegalitarian.
To be sure, innovation has driven down the costs of information technology. Globally, the costs of computing and digital storage fell at annual rates of, respectively, 33% and 38% between 1992 and 2012. Everyone has benefited from that. However, oligopolies have developed in the realms of both hardware and software, as well as service provision and wireless networks.
The ownership of the world’s electronic network is extraordinarily concentrated. Google (or rather the renamed parent company, Alphabet Inc) is worth $669bn by market capitalisation. About 16% of its shares, worth around $106bn, are owned by its founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. The market capitalisation of Facebook is approaching $500bn; 475 million of the shares, worth about $81bn, are owned by its T-shirt-loving founder.
Unlike in the past, there are now two kinds of people in the world: those who own and run the networks, and those who merely use them.
Third, the printing press had the effect of disrupting religious life in western Christendom before it disrupted anything else. By contrast, the internet began by disrupting commerce; only very recently did it begin to disrupt politics, and it has really disrupted only one religion, namely Islam.
The political disruption reached a climax last year, when social networks helped to topple David Cameron in the Brexit referendum and to defeat Hillary Clinton in the US presidential election.
In the American case, a number of networks were operating. There was the grassroots network of support that the Trump campaign built — and that built itself — on the platforms of Facebook and Twitter. These were the “forgotten” men and women who turned out on November 8 to defeat the “failed and corrupt political establishment” that Trump’s opponent was said to personify.
A role was also played by the jihadist network, as the Isis-affiliated terror attacks during the election year lent credibility to Trump’s pledges to “strip out the support networks for radical Islam” and to ban Muslim immigration.
Yet in two respects there is a clear similarity between our time and the revolutionary period that followed the advent of printing. Like the printing press, modern information technology is transforming not only the market — most recently, by facilitating the sharing of cars and homes — but also the public sphere. Never before have so many people been connected in an instantly responsive network through which “memes” can spread even more rapidly than natural viruses.
But the notion that taking the whole world online would create a utopia of netizens, all equal in cyber-space, was always a fantasy — as much a delusion as Luther’s vision of a “priesthood of all believers”. The reality is that the global network has become a transmission mechanism for all kinds of manias and panics, just as the combination of printing and literacy for a time increased the prevalence of millenarian sects and witch crazes. The cruelties of Isis seem less idiosyncratic when compared with those of some governments and sects in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Second, our time is seeing an erosion of territorial sovereignty. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Europe was plunged into a series of religious wars. Spain and France tried by fair means and foul to bring England back to the Roman Catholic fold. As late as 1745, a French-backed army of Scottish Highlanders invaded England with a view to restoring the old faith in the British Isles.
In the 21st century, we see a similar phenomenon of escalating intervention in the domestic affairs of sovereign states. There was, after all, a further network involved in the US election of 2016, and that was Russia’s intelligence network.
It is clear that the Russian government did its utmost to maximise the damage to Clinton’s reputation stemming from her and her campaign’s sloppy email security, using WikiLeaks as the conduit through which stolen documents were passed to the western media. Russian hackers and trolls last year posed a threat to American democracy similar to the one that Jesuit priests posed to the English Reformation: a threat from within sponsored from without.
Leave aside the question of whether or not the Russian interference decided the election in favour of Trump; suffice to say it helped him, though both fake and real news damaging to Clinton was also disseminated without Russia’s involvement. Leave aside, too, the as yet unresolved questions of how many members of the Trump campaign were complicit in the Russian operation, and how much they knew.
The critical point is Facebook itself may have decided the outcome of an election that would have gone the other way if about 40,000 voters in just three states had chosen Clinton over Trump.
No, it wasn’t meant to be this way. This was not what Silicon Valley envisaged when it set out to build “a planet where everything is connected” — the motto of Eric Schmidt’s foundation.
But then Luther didn’t set out to cause 130 years of bloody religious warfare either.
© Niall Ferguson 2017
Extracted from The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power by Niall Ferguson, to be published on Thursday by Allen Lane at £25