Chris Zappone is something called the Digital Foreign Editor for the Sydney Morning Herald. Yesterday, Zappone had an article published in the SMH,
Why haven’t we regulated social media yet?
The article is nuts.
Zappone’s article begins by taking us back to 2016:
Seven years after the Donald Trump campaign exploited social media to upend liberal democracy and unleash a new paradigm of networked populist politics, the technology remains untouched by meaningful regulation.
It’s a hell of an opening sentence and, yes, we may be here a while.
To begin, “exploited”? There was nothing underhanded about Trump’s use of Twitter and the like: he simply used it better. Secondly, “upend liberal democracy”? Why? Because Zappone’s preferred candidate lost? We loathe Trump as much as the next guy, and his win in 2016 was appalling, but that a colossally sociopathic narcissist beat out a garden variety sociopathic narcissist is evidence of nothing other than America’s political system dysfunctioning in an entirely predictable manner. Thirdly, the suggestion that Trump won because of Twitter or whatever is ridiculous: primarily, Trump won because people were pissed, because Trump treated the mainstream Republicans and the mainstream media with the contempt that they so much deserved and had so long avoided, and because the Democrats lemminged themselves into choosing a stupendously bad candidate. Fourthly, Trump’s victory hardly “unleashed” politics via social media, although it encouraged and emboldened it, and the Trump thing is now a dangerous and self-sustaining cult. But, finally, what is Zappone suggesting? Whatever “meaningful regulation” might mean, it cannot address the underlying issue, that millions of people felt and feel, rightly or wrongly, that they are powerless and voiceless. But Zappone somehow thinks the “meaningful regulation” of the association of these people is gonna help? In sum, the sentence is a whiny, censorious, sore loser rant.
On to the second sentence:
Even as China, Russia and Iran use Western platforms to disseminate propaganda, and democracies face waves of domestic misinformation, a strategic approach toward the technology by society and government is absent.
Yeah, of course it’s only the Baddies that manipulate other countries with such propaganda. And of course the “waves of domestic misinformation” that democracies face never actually originate from the governments of these same democracies. And of course it’s not like social media is a safeguard or anything against such government misinformation, or that said governments might perceive social media as a threat out of pure self-interest. Perhaps Zappone could have a chat with Julian Assange if the UK and US governments ever let him leave jail. And, finally, we’ll admit that “strategic approach” fits nicely with “meaningful regulation”, but Zappone might have also noted that the US government’s unstrategic approach has almost certainly violated the First Amendment. Here in Australia there is of course no First Amendment to violate, but any such approach would be a violation nonetheless.
And on it goes. Zappone whines about Zuckerberg not censoring enough racist garbage leading up to the Voice referendum, but he doesn’t bother to note that the RMIT ABC Fact Check unit just shot themselves in the foot by their heavy-handed treatment of a grossly manipulative, but not entirely pointless, Murdoch screed.* Zappone notes that Musk has “relaxed the fight against political misinformation”, without a word on how slippery and dangerous is the notion of “political misinformation”. Zappone also fails to note that already, in a futile attempt to placate whiny governments and censorious assholes, Zuckerberg and co have censored and demonitised and deplatformed many groups and individuals for utterly ridiculous or entirely invisible reasons. Zappone alludes to the Russiagate madness, and seems simply to not understand why Zuckerberg would brush it off for the nonsense it is.
Then, after some “We MUST do something” filler, Zappone takes us way back, to where no one could have guessed:
So it’s instructive to contrast our current brain fog [in “tacking social media”] with the public response to the invention of the A-bomb at the end of World War II, recently depicted in the film Oppenheimer.
Yep, our now figuring out social media is akin to the 1945-ers figuring out what to do with the technology to make nuclear weapons. Zappone hasn’t quite run afoul of Godwin’s Law, but he gave it a hell of a shot.
The rest of Zappone’s article is aimless and pointless, a succession of random facts and platitudes on how the world has changed. Needless to say, Zappone provides not a hint of what form a “strategic approach” or “meaningful regulation” might take. Near the end, Zappone indicates the need to discuss how “to balance free speech on social media”, but nothing indicates that Zappone has made any effort to think about this. Zappone’s penultimate sentence indicates he’s not in a mood to try:
The longer law lacks sufficient authority over social media platforms, the longer the platforms erode a culture of the rule of law, with fallout for our politics, society, health and our democracy itself.
What a sensationalist, authoritarian, down-punching and all-round dickish way to end.
We are no more of a fan of social media than Zappone is, and very probably less. We hate the tribalism that it encourages, and we hate it generally. But there are much greater and more systemic social problems in countries such as the US and the UK and Australia: the feeling of isolation and disenfranchisement, the lack of a proper sense of community and being part of that community. The reasons? It’s a yummy casserole: of neoliberal economics; of the omnipresent distraction of computers and other media; of the poisonousness of mainstream media such as Murdoch, and with once very good papers like the Sydney Morning Herald catching up fast; good old fashioned racism and right wing opportunism; narcissistic identity politics and the Left’s consequent decline into madness; the declining trust in politics, and the belief in it as a solution. Undoubtedly, social media, including its manipulation, greatly exacerbates many of these problems, but it is not remotely the primary cause.
And again, censorious pronouncements for “meaningful regulation” from pompous smugs such as Zappone, and the Australian government’s censoring nitwit, are not going to help. Ever. Ignoring the risks, assuming that all the people these smugs want to “regulate” are only those who should be, it won’t work. It will only make the targets madder and more determined to avoid being under the shoe of self-righteous, self-appointed authorities.
We are losing, rapidly, our sense of society, and the idea that censorship will help solve this is pure madness. But almost no one is listening. Everyone now, Left and Right, loves the censors. Just as long as they’re The Good Censors censoring The Bad People. To steal Mrs Peachum’s perfect line: Idiots, all of ’em.
*) Yeah, yeah, the Statement from the Heart is one page, and Credlin and her fellow wreckers don’t give a damn anyway. The point is, RMIT-ABC chose exactly the wrong way to respond to these assholes.