Information and its circulation are key to understanding, creating and sustaining healthy democracy.
We have always regulated the different systems and channels used to ensure transparency – as much as this has been practicable, anyway. From percentage ownership of media companies to minutes onscreen shared out during election times, we use quantitative methods of attempting to guarantee a little at least how voices are to be each given as equal a soapbox as possible – in order that they might proclaim their relative democratic virtues, if not their demonstrable competences.
But what happens when the tools and channels that most design the direction of our democracies operate – like transnational corporate wealth in tax havens too numerous to mention – outwith all regulation implemented to date? Is it really inappropriate to suggest that social-media networks are far more important these days to the health of our democratic discourse – as well as far more impactful in their promotion of private spaces for public use, where speech will never be regulated by parliaments but, instead, by those who pay their software developers?
For essentially Facebook, Twitter, blogging et al move public and municipal debate into the realms of easily manipulated, hidden, glossed over and privately structured digital.
And this means democracy’s most important processes are now directly – not just via large newspaper conglomerates – under the control of the very most elite. Whilst the Murdochs of the world conducted their dialogue of the unceasing against their readers’ intelligences and in favour of their prejudices, it was – even so – still a dialogue of publisher and reader.
Now, however, Facebook – and everyone who aspires to its throne – looks not only to dialogue society but radically rewrite its constitutions. As publishers and distributors, as data farmers and advertising providers, as businesspeople and legislators all, to their ilk we have given up all intention of defining our own ground rules. What we can do or can’t do – in democratic debate – is no longer determined by elected representatives, but by people we have never seen who use our evermore precise profile datasets to monetise – for their benefit not ours – our likes and dislikes.
Just think that one through.
Our very likes and dislikes belong not to ourselves – not even to our governments – but to private corporations who have created spaces of communication utterly unregulated by public bodies. Which is to say, utterly unregulated by democracy and the citizens whose thoughts are the ones being mined.
Almost as if people were being employed for a pittance – or, indeed, maybe even as slaves – to dig lodes of precious minerals out of deep, dark seams of what we might care to describe as a colonialised wealth.
Certainly not free minds.
And whilst those who own these spaces – and who design their behaviours and permissions – mainly allow us to do what we believe fair, we muddle and fudge – as perhaps, indeed, it is actually right we should. Life is, after all, an inexact science – an inexact science and an even more inexact art.
But imagine, now, that Donald Trump owned the blessed Facebook.
Would you truly be so blasé about the implications then? Would you still not appreciate the importance of separating spaces for public and democratic debate by democratic citizenry, all the democratic year round, from the private software and online constitutions which – right now – we so like to like?