Attempts to censor alleged “fake news” on the Internet will backfire massively. The main stream media and main stream politicians should rather make a better effort to convince people. The internet is open to them too.
One of the promises of the internet has been that it will bring about better democracy (here and here, for example). Even before the web was invented, Vannevar Bush, the creator of the hypertext concept and the Memex machine expected that science and information will lead to a better society (source).
Since 1990s, when those ideas started to materialize, everybody saw that the internet was vastly increasing the access to information and the ease of connecting people.
The conventional wisdom has been that better informed citizens would be making better political decisions and that the more connected people will also be forging a more tightly connected society. This would both lead to e- (for electronic) or i- (for internet) democracy.
The peak of eDemocracy
In retrospect, it would appear that the peak eDemocracy optimism was reached in 2008 with the election of Barack Obama as the president of the United States.
His was one of the first campaigns where the internet played a major – some would say decisive – role. Facebooks’ revolutions, Ukrainan and Arab Springs, reinforced the hope in the positive change that information technology can bring to the world.
Social media like blogs, Facebook and Twitter were the heroes of the day. Revolutions were won on Twitter and dictators toppled on Facebook.
And then Brexit and Trump won. No longer are the social media the heroes of the day. On the contrary. The internet is now blamed for results that were not what the main stream media and the intelligentsia recommended.
There is an old saying that goes, “On the internet no one knows you are a dog”. On Facebook no one knows your news company has a skyscraper on Manhattan or offices on Fleet Street.
You could be a teenager in Macedonia or an independent writing for Breitbart News or an anonymous blogger. The internet would carry your messages in exactly the same way as if you were a “proper” media.
Social Networks would disseminate news based on enthusiasm of readers’ recommendations, not based on pedigree.
Brexit and Trump
For the first time people’s opinions were largely shaped by their peers not by professional opinion makers and thought leaders. We, the people, were the gatekeepers, not the main stream media.
Greener’s Law – don’t argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel – was proven wrong. It is a version of a saying “you don’t argue with children or the journalists”. The first would in the end throw a stone into your window, the journalist would always have the last word.
Trump was able to wage a frontal war with main stream media and was able to win it. On the Internet, the social media has the last word.
Ending up in the losing side, the main stream media invented excuses and concepts such as fake news and post truth. It had the opposite effect.
People were reminded, on the internet, that it was the old media that has been biased and openly colluded with one of the sides in the UK referendum and US elections. News from main stream media was labelled “fake news” too, just as was from the new media.
Internet as a threat
For the main stream media and main stream politics the internet suddenly fell of grace – it is not a tool of human rights and democracy any more. Free and open internet is not seen as an asset of our democracy but a threat.
Politicians, particularly in Europe, are speaking openly about the threat that Facebook and other social media are for democracy. They are calling for the regulation of social networks (Germany, France, EU).
They would like to ban fake news and make sure that only the properly verified content can be spread by the users. It is tragic to see how happy the internet companies are to comply (Facebook), instead of standing firm and not letting any form of censorship interfere with the free exchange of ideas on their networks.
The established politics and media cannot afford that democratic procedures – with the help of social networks – bring about a wrong result again. In 2017 there will be very important elections in France and Germany and the anxiety is understandable.
But calling results of a democratic election or a referendum wrong is the essence of a failed understanding of democracy and of the impacts of internet on democracy. That it causes wrong results. That democracy reaches wrong decisions.
What happened to the maxim that “in a democracy the people are always right”?
Friction free democracy
Bill Gates famously said that the essential contribution of the internet is that it reduces friction in the economy. That it brings buyers and sellers closer together and is providing more information about each other.
The same that was said about the economic market can be said about the political market. There is less friction between the will of the people and politics. There is more information about the people and about politicians.
It would be wrong to re-introduce friction – with measures that are essentially censorship by some kind of an Orwellian ministry of truth. In Germany an organization called Correctiv will be telling what is the Truth and what is not. In France a panel of old media representatives will be doing the same.
I have no doubt in the good intentions of all that. As I have no doubt that the social media companies are playing along not because of good intentions but because of business interests.
I am just afraid that it will backfire. Backfire massively. And the stakes are simply too high. The very existence of the European Union is hanging by the thread of the French elections. And with the existence of the European Union the existence of European Civilization. It can’t be protected by former superpowers individually.
Use the level playing field
Instead of shaping the internet according to their wishes, the main stream media and main stream politicians should make a better effort to convince people. The internet is open to them too.
They will need to do better than calling someone a fascist or a populist. The net should be used to debate issues not exchange labels and hashtags. It should be used to argue. To speak to people’s fears and dreams. This is not populism, this is democracy.
Will we get a wrong result? When asked if the French Revolution was a positive or a negative event in history, chairman Mao answered that it may be too early to tell.
This may be a post truth story but it helps introduced my point. Which is, it may be too early to tell if Brexit was wrong. I think it was a mistake. But I also think blaming the internet for it is a mistake as well. And drawing policy decisions from this wrong diagnosis would lead to even graver mistakes.
The internet is making democracy more challenging and open. Having friends and support in main stream media is not enough anymore.
People, not just journalists, are gatekeepers and they need to be convinced. So let’s stop bashing Facebook, let’s stop blaming Russian hackers, lets scrap the ideas for censorship of social networks. Let’s stand for the freedom of speech with includes freedom to fake news!
The so called populists thrive on “us” vs. “them” narrative. People have sympathy for the underdogs. They elected Trump and chose Brexit against the better advice of the dominant speech in the main stream media.
If that domination spreads to the social media as well, the job of “populists” would only be easier. Whole internet cannot be controlled. Somewhere they will read how unfair the battle of their David against the enemies’ Goliath is.
Fake news neutrality
Out societies need more trust. And that means trusting people that they will be able to distinguish between true and fake themselves. And trust the idea that true can win over fake without tilting the playing field against the fake.
Let’s trust in the power of true and the weakness of fake enough to keep the internet and the social networks “fake news” neutral and open to all.
Picture credit: AlexaGrace8495
The Google probe seems to prove that the EU is way too focused on fighting old wars. However, if it wants to put in place a system where innovation thrives it must care less for the existing IT industry and do more for those that do not exist yet.
Already during the early 1990s – in the Bangemann Report – the information and communication technologies (ICTs) have been politically understood as a strategic development priority of the European Union.
ICTs were high on the agenda of the Lisbon Strategy whose goal was “to make Europe the most competitive and dynamic knowledge based economy in the world”.
In the Europe 2020 Strategy, the Digital Agenda for Europe is one of the seven flagship projects. Its overall aim is “to deliver sustainable economic and social benefits from a digital single market based on fast and ultra fast internet and interoperable applications.”
Schumpeter: Profit is result of innovation
European policies in the field of innovation are based on the Schumpeterian assumption that innovation is the key driver of economic growth and entrepreneurial profit. The latter is a politically wise compromise between the leftist idea that profit is result of worker exploitation and right-wing argument that profit is the result of voluntary and mutually beneficial transactions between two parties.
Joseph Schumpeter believed that investing in knowledge and innovation pays off. Therefore, public policies should create incentives for the enterprises to innovate and more should be invested in knowledge, innovation and any digital-related activity. Such idea in Europe enjoys large support.
The resulting policies include funding or subsidising research and innovation through Framework programs such as Horizon 2020, tax breaks for firms that innovate as well as protecting innovation through copyright protection, patent law etc.
A kind of protection are also the regulatory and competition procedures that the EU has been regularly filing against high-tech companies that seemed too powerful at the time.
Hayek: Open innovation to everyone
Schumpeter was not alone in believing in the power of innovation. Another Austrian economist understood the importance of innovation but identified a complementary issue – that the challenges are numerous, that ideas in a society may be dispersed and that as many as possible should get the opportunity to innovate, not only those that are already doing it.
This idea – that the knowledge is “in the open” – became fashionable with the emergence of the internet, the open systems, the open source software, the open scientific publishing and the open innovation. But it was there since the 1930s under the general label of open society.
Hayek would understand how important it is to build infrastructures that give opportunity to innovate, do not monopolize innovation, do not limit innovation to existing players and allow innovative companies and business models to emerge, grow and succeed.
He would understand that excessive copyright and intellectual property protection harms innovation. While it is to some extent an incentive for innovation, when applied too strongly, these protections make patent portfolios a tool for limiting competition.
Scientific excellence, business impotence
When one compares the high quality of European education systems and excellent science on the one hand and the digital industry’s impotence on the other, the explanation is exactly in the balance between Hayekian and Schumpeterian view on innovation.
The innovation and entrepreneurial system in the US is open to new entrants. Many Europeans are going across the Atlantic with their ideas. The start-up culture is flourishing in the Silicon Valley and is well supported by the legal, business and financial mechanisms.
On the other hand Europe is unable to create a company that could compete with IBM, Microsoft, Apple, Google or Facebook. What the EU seems to be capable of doing is just binging them to court. Whichever company happens to be the biggest has problems with the EU competition officers. In this respect Google is the new Microsoft.
But Microsoft and its media Player, Internet Explorer and Windows operating system were not dethroned because of the regulatory actions of the European politicians who are always eager to justify their existence by doing something “for the people”, “for European industry” and “against multinationals”.
Too slow to innovate, too slow to legislate
It is simply in the competitive nature of the digital economy that the playing field is levelled every few years. And a company can come from anywhere and become a major player.
Microsoft did that to IBM with personal computer operating system and desktop applications that included the infamous Media Player and Internet Explorer. Google changed internet search and advertising. Apple redefined the mobile phone. Facebook invented the social media as we know it.
Unfortunately it is not entirely true that these companies come from anywhere. They do not come from Europe. And no matter how hard the EU makes life harder for them … the next Google will not come from Europe because of that.
Media Player was succeeded by iTunes. Internet Explorer was not succeeded by Opera but by Chrome and Firefox. Actually what the EU tried so hard to regulate is today a commodity nobody cares about.
Browsers and media players are a thing of the past, apps are in fashion today. It is very likely that when the EU is done with picking on Google, we will be finding our stuff on the Internet through recommendations on social networks such as Facebook. And Facebook will be made obsolete by something like Snapchat.
Here’s why the EU seems to be fighting old wars. A lot of civil servants will have something to do and a lot of lawyers will make money in such legal procedures. Eventually the consumer will be better off too. But because there will be other companies innovating, not because of any legal action.
More Hayek, less Schumpeter
Competition in the digital world is fierce. It is made worse by the fact that every few years the whole scene is disrupted by something totally new. The EU should focus on putting in place a system where such innovation would thrive in Europe and will be brought to market and to Wall Street from Europe.
To do so it must care less for the existing IT industry and the existing big science that takes advantage of the EU programmes. It should do more for those that do not exist yet, that do not have lobbyists in Brussels and who are not the usual suspects for getting public research money.
It should unify and relax intellectual property regulation. It should do more for business start-ups and SMEs in science and innovation. Not to mention the common digital market. In short, there should be less Schumpeter and more Hayek in the European innovation and digital policies.
Or, in the words of the Bangemann report:
“Actions must be taken at the European level and by Member States to strike down entrenched positions which put Europe at a competitive disadvantage: it means fostering an entrepreneurial mentality to enable the emergence of new dynamic sectors of the economy; it means developing a common regulatory approach to bring forth a competitive, Europe-wide, market for information services; it does NOT mean more public money, financial assistance, subsidies, dirigisme, or protectionism”.
What is depressing is that this report is more than twenty years old.