The Irish Times, October 22, 2022
Elon Musk’s opinions on Ukraine and Taiwan evidence his lack of qualification to regulate Twitter or even understand the consequences of his actions
Recently, Michael Ignatieff, well-known public intellectual and former leader of the Canadian parliamentary opposition, spoke to the Royal Irish Academy about the threat to democracy from the assault on universities by government. As rector of the Central European University (CEU), he witnessed how Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, forced the university to move to Vienna in 2018 by refusing to grant the legal permission to operate in Hungary.
The CEU is funded by George Soros, billionaire philanthropist who spends $500 million a year promoting democracy through his Open Society network. A Hungarian-born Jewish Holocaust survivor, Soros resides in America. For Orban, Soros represents the epitome of the global elite, a sinister euphemism for Jews and the nemesis of Orban’s anti-Semitic, ultra-Christian ethno-nationalism.
Soros is the hate figure of a network of conspiracy theorists from both political extremes. Describing how universities are the debating chambers which bequeath facts to all intellectual disciplines, often established over centuries of rigorous academic investigation, Ignatieff cautioned that we now live in an unprecedented era of contested fact.
Kellyanne Conway, Donald Trump’s former senior counsellor spelt out this novel clash of culture in a now infamous interview where “alternative facts” were offered as the explanation for the administration’s contested assessment of the crowd size at Trump’s inauguration in 2016.
But Ignatieff did not expand on the reasons for the academic world’s new competition in the foundry of fact-making: the seemingly ungovernable institutions of social media. The raging online debate over the Covid-19 vaccine, for example, highlights how expert epidemiologists with decades of painstaking experimental investigation are pitted against politicians more concerned with re-election and a spectrum of unqualified commentators whose “independent research” largely lacks the necessary rigour.
Where independence and self-governance are the basis for universities to successfully self-regulate, the social media giants are only concerned with maximising their profits. The quality of information coursing through networks is of no great concern so long as the number of eyeballs on that content grows.
This suits populist movements perfectly where stirring fear is the principal method for garnering votes and social media the ideal delivery mechanism for disseminating lies that feed that fear. “Alternative facts” represent the war on expertise which saw Michael Gove cynically exclaim “we’ve had enough of experts” during the Brexit campaign. Those exploding the myth of post-Brexit, sunlit uplands were accused of being “anti-democratic”.
While the role of Facebook and Twitter in distorting the democratic process is well-documented, it seems that proper regulation of these enormously influential new technologies is not being seriously undertaken by lawmakers. That Mark Zuckerberg and, soon, Elon Musk are in control of these companies is dangerous and reckless. Networks like Parler, funded by far-right billionaire Rebekah Mercer; Gab, a haven for neo-Nazis; QAnon and Trump’s Truth Social broadcast the most extreme content of the mediascape with little or no censorship.
Democracy has proven to be far too fragile to allow hyperwealthy individuals to hack at its foundations without sanction. TikTok’s links to the Chinese government are hardly a ringing endorsement of its concerns to abide by democratic principles, voluntarily. And Trump and his backers have disregarded the rule of law and any traditions of legal precedent. They literally funded an attempted coup.
The malignant activities of Cambridge Analytica, which illegally harvested data and used it to profile voters, were only exposed through the courage of whistleblowers. The damage had already been done, however. The Brexit referendum, the 2016 US election and elections in Kenya and elsewhere were all weighted in favour of the winners who also happened to be Cambridge Analytica’s clients.
The difference between freedom of speech and freedom of broadcast is obvious. Public media outlets must apply for licences and adhere to strict guidelines. Beyond the straightforward change of status from platform to publisher which could be quickly imposed on the social media companies, all users should be required to apply for a range of licences in relation to their profile.
Does a child of 14 really need 10,000 friends or followers? Is the use of social media by politicians, political parties and lobbyists fair and balanced? Kanye West, the American musician now known as Ye, was recently suspended from Instagram and Twitter, where he has a combined 49 million followers but not before he posted vile anti-Semitic comments on his account.
In 2017, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance identified social media as the number-one conduit for the steep global rise in anti-Semitism. The damage inflicted on liberal democracy and ethnic minorities by an act that takes a few seconds is not sustainable. Kanye West is now buying Parler. Musk’s recent opinions on Ukraine and Taiwan are clear evidence that he lacks the qualifications to regulate Twitter or even to understand the consequences of his actions. Zuckerberg’s past comments on anti-Semitism and free speech demonstrate a total ignorance of the historic realities of both phenomena. Both billionaires have vast interests in countries with no interest in democracy.
This is deeply concerning. Ignatieff correctly identified the crucial relationship between independent universities, academic freedom and the resilience of liberal democracy. Historically, democracies fail when economic and political corruption breaks the judicial institutions designed to protect them. In 2022, democracy is coming under threat in countries with sound economies and long-established democratic constitutions. Social media has cleaved apart the culture of political consensus which has guaranteed the function of the institution of democracy until now.
Jews are sometimes described as the canary in the coal mine; their treatment a bellwether measuring the robustness of the democracy in the countries where they reside. It is a somewhat unfortunate analogy given that death comes without warning by poison gas, but I understand the sentiment. In America alone, the incidents of anti-Semitic attacks have risen by 200 per cent since 2016 according to the Anti-Defamation League.
The Nazis understood that controlling words is central to controlling society. In response to their book-burning campaign in 1933, the poet Heinrich Heine ominously stated that, “where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn people, too”. We must take urgent action to safeguard our liberties.
Oliver Sears is founder of Holocaust Awareness Ireland