The New Net Delusion

How 2010’s digital utopians became 2020’s tech prophets of doom
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In June 2009, large protests broke out in Iran in the wake of a disputed election result. The unrest did not differ all that much from comparable episodes that had occurred elsewhere in the world over the preceding decades, but many Western observers became convinced that new digital platforms like Twitter and Facebook were propelling the movement. By the time the Arab Spring kicked off with an anti-government uprising in Tunisia the following year, the belief had become widespread that social media was fomenting insurgencies for liberalization in authoritarian regimes.

The most vigorous dissenter from this cheerful consensus was technology critic Evgeny Morozov, whose 2011 book The Net Delusion inveighed against the “cyber-utopianism” then common among academics, bloggers, journalists, activists, and policymakers. For Morozov, cyber-utopians were captive to a “naïve belief in the emancipatory nature of online communication that rests on a stubborn refusal to acknowledge its downside.”

As Morozov documented, for every story of heroic citizens organizing their dissent on digital platforms, there was another about a repressive government using the same tools to crack down. His book wound up being even more untimely than he could have anticipated: The same year it appeared, the Arab Spring spread across the Middle East, reinforcing the conviction that social media was good for freedom.

This sort of Panglossian enthusiasm seems unimaginably naïve today, when the public has shifted toward a darker perception of the political impacts of social media. A 2019 New York Times column by science writer Annalee Newitz offers about as forthright an expression of the current dystopian consensus as can be found: “Social media … has poisoned the way we communicate with each other and undermined the democratic process.” Newitz does not justify these assertions, and doesn’t need to — they are already widely accepted. Much of the traditional media and political class has attributed the victories of Trump, Brexit, and other campaigns it reviled to Facebook and Twitter, which have also been blamed for resurgent racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and terrorism.

But the reality of this backlash is more complicated than a superficial reading would suggest. Techno-optimism continues to resurface in contradictory, whiplash-inducing ways alongside the prevailing bleak view of the Internet’s prospects. The new dystopian prophecies have rejected the old utopianism only on the surface — while bringing along its core assumptions about how digital platforms can shape politics.

The Old Net Delusion

Evgeny Morozov’s critique of the old cyber-utopian worldview was two-pronged. First, he argued that the “irrational exuberance” of Western observers dramatically exaggerated the role of platforms like Twitter and Facebook in mobilizing protests abroad. For instance, he cited an analysis that concluded that there were as few as sixty active Twitter accounts in Tehran during the 2009 uprising, and that the bulk of pro-protest tweets came from outside of Iran.

Second, he pointed out that those who were convinced of the Internet’s liberating powers “did not predict how useful it would prove for propaganda purposes, how masterfully dictators would learn to use it for surveillance, and how sophisticated modern systems of Internet censorship would become.” In other words, he argued that social media is both a less useful political weapon for dissidents and a more useful one for authoritarian governments than the cyber-utopians claimed.

Morozov wrote that “the West began its quest for Internet freedom based on the mostly untested cyber-utopian assumption that more connections and more networks necessarily lead to more freedom or more democracy.” It was assumed that since repressive regimes establish monopolies on information, platforms that encourage peer-to-peer information-sharing would break these monopolies. With the state’s monopoly compromised, people would be liberated from propaganda and given access to reliable information. As a result of the increased availability of information, the majority would gravitate toward liberal democracy.

This narrative accorded with the smug mantra of the period that “reality has a well-known liberal bias,” with the globalization prophecies of Thomas Friedman, and with the foundational Internet doctrine that “information wants to be free,” an echo of the post–Cold War faith that people want to be free.

But these assumptions shifted drastically a few years ago, when news coverage began to treat the West itself as an equally fraught battlefield for the new digital politics. Abroad, the erosion of centralized information hubs was thought to disempower authoritarian governments, but at home it disempowered traditional gatekeepers like newspapers and TV channels. Previously, much of the Western commentariat believed that democratized information would enable people to counter top-down misinformation. Now, it denounces the information free-for-all for unleashing a flood of “fake news” and conspiracy theories.

“Before It Wrecked American Politics”

It was the events of 2016, it seems, that did the most to shatter the cyber-utopian consensus Morozov attacked. In the wake of the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, much of the same liberal and centrist establishment Morozov had faulted for buying into the net delusion became hyper-aware of the dangers of digital platforms.

The much-discussed role of the shadowy data-mining company Cambridge Analytica, the rise of the extremely online alt-right, and Vladimir Putin’s supposed digital manipulations of U.S. politics: All these factors made Morozov’s earlier warnings about the reactionary and propagandistic uses of the Internet newly relevant in the domestic sphere. Where grassroots social movements had once been seen as the vanguard of digital politics, now Russian trolls and alt-right provocateurs became its avatar.

A recent articulation of the new consensus comes from the technologist, commentator, and political candidate Brianna Wu. Wu was one of the targets of the 2014 “Gamergate” campaign, in which hordes of video game players used social media to attack feminists and social-justice advocates within the industry. Many have cited Gamergate as a watershed for alt-right organizing, and in a widely shared Twitter thread in June, Wu took this view further. She claimed that if online platforms and law enforcement had done more to stop the harassment she and others faced,

We’d have stopped the massive disinformation juggernaut … before it wrecked American politics….

Gamergate was our moment to kill baby Hitler. Only, no one needed to die – you just needed law enforcement, Facebook, Reddit and Youtube to take the harassment of women seriously.

They did not. And now our entire political system is poisoned.

Wu’s thread reads like a point-for-point inversion of the cyber-utopianism critiqued by Morozov back in 2011. In that period, the celebration of Twitter as an instrument of revolution had the predictable consequence of making the platform (along with Facebook and others) the target of crackdowns, censorship, and surveillance by Iran and other regimes. Trying to prevent governments from restricting the Internet skyrocketed to the top of the political agenda. In 2010, then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a speech that made “Internet freedom” a foreign policy priority.

According to the creed of the time, if only governments could be stopped from controlling speech on the Internet, democracy would thrive across the world. Conversely, according to Wu, if only the web had been brought under control in 2014, American democracy would not have been destroyed.

In one case, the unregulated Internet brings democracy; in the other, it destroys democracy. In both cases, technology is seen as a causal agent in a vacuum.

“The Masses Can Now Organize Their Dissent”

Bleak views like those of Wu and Newitz are now commonplace in the op-ed columns and Twitter feeds of the mainstream commentariat. Oddly, though, the dogmas of cyber-utopianism still resurface alongside them. This point has been particularly apparent in the coverage of recent protests. As a June New York Times news article put it:

Leveraging technology that was unavailable to earlier generations, the activists of today have a digital playbook….

At the core is an egalitarian spirit, a belief that everyone has a voice, and that everyone’s voice matters.

These lines could have been written at the height of the Arab Spring.

Another instance of resurgent cyber-utopianism appeared in the critical responses to the Harper’s open letter in July. The letter lamented a stifling of free expression due to social media outrage mobs. CNN columnist Jeff Yang typified the response to the letter when he claimed that “so-called ‘cancel culture’” is really just “high-profile individuals fearing consolidated action of thousands of nobodies. Throughout history, voices without status have, more than not, been ignored. It’s only now in a time of amplification that they can be heard.” Times columnist Charles Blow similarly asserted that “the rich and powerful are just upset that the masses can now organize their dissent.”

Yang and Blow’s implication is that social media is a democratizing force that empowers the majority to take on entrenched power. This, of course, was exactly the view of those who believed Twitter and Facebook were driving global protests ten years ago.

Moreover, while hostility toward older platforms like Facebook has become a default view across the political spectrum, new platforms still sometimes project an aura of utopian possibility. TikTok in particular has received frequent glowing coverage since its 2018 launch in the U.S., and during the recent wave of protests, some outlets have seized on the idea that the platform is incubating a vibrant youth activist culture.

President Trump’s campaign rally in Tulsa in June became a vehicle for this narrative when teen TikTok users said that they had claimed thousands of tickets to the event with no intention to show up, resulting in embarrassingly low attendance. There is no conclusive evidence that the TikTok campaign outweighed other factors in depressing turnout, but anti-Trump politicians and commentators celebrated its supposed role.

Dirty Tricks for Me — But Not for Thee

The enthusiasm about TikTok activism bears an unexpected echo of the peak cyber-utopian moment.

Although the 4chan message board would become broadly reviled when it become associated with the alt-right, earlier it was viewed much more ambiguously — particularly when it was best known for spawning the ludic protest movement Anonymous. Gabriella Coleman, the anthropologist whose writings helped set the tone of the early coverage, described Anonymous in 2012 as “one of the most adroit and effective political operations of recent times.” The same year, a New York Times review of the documentary We Are Legion remarked that “the passion, scale and international span of Anonymous are all special, and their cybersabotage smackdowns can be quite cathartic.”

These instances aside, there was never a full embrace of Anonymous by mainstream politicians and pundits. At the time, they seemingly knew better than to let their praise for street protesters, who just used the Internet to organize, bleed over into praise for more anarchic, fully online actors, who saw the Internet as the primary battlefield for waging unconventional warfare.

But mainstream politicians and pundits now seem to be coming around, selectively praising online mobs when they target the right enemies. As Molly Roberts notes in the Washington Post, the TikTokers hailed by anti-Trump forces were using tactics of the sort those forces abhorred when the sides were flipped:

Think Russia spreading WikiLeaks information under the guise of everyday concerned U.S. citizens. Think right-wing provocateurs masquerading as antifa as protests roared across the country…. Or think of … conspiracy theorists taking advantage of, say, the way Twitter’s trending topics list is set up to push fringe ideas.

According to Roberts, “celebrating some manipulation and condemning others is an unsustainable tack for anyone who wants to untangle our world wide web of lies.”

As Roberts suggests, the subtext of the more recent utopian apologias for digital activism is an acceptance of the dark arts of digital propaganda mastered by the enemies of democracy. Undoubtedly, those who hailed the tactics used against Donald Trump in Tulsa would denounce them as “trolling” if deployed by 4chan users against Joe Biden. Likewise, Jeff Yang and Charles Blow surely know that assembling an online mob against an enemy is not exactly an instance of how “the masses can now organize their dissent”; if it were, they would have to describe quite a few alt-right outrage campaigns in those terms too.

The surviving cyber-utopianism, then, borrows the rhetoric of the more optimistic era, but its guiding premises are more cynical. The aim is to win fights and news cycles by any means necessary, not to promote democratic openness.

The New Net Delusion

The old net delusion was naïve but internally consistent. The new net delusion is fragmented and self-contradictory. It vacillates between radical pessimism about the effects of digital platforms and boosterism when new online happenings seem to revive the old cyber-utopian dreams.

One day, democracy is irreversibly poisoned by social media, which empowers the radical right, authoritarians, and racist, misogynist trolls. The next day, the very same platforms are giving rise to a thrilling resurgence of grassroots activism. The new net delusion more closely resembles a psychotic delusion in the clinical meaning of the word, in which the sufferer often swings between megalomaniacal fantasies of control and panicked sensations of loss of control.

The shift toward a subtle endorsement of manipulation and propaganda — itself an expression of a desire for control — is a result of the fracture of our information ecosystem. The earlier cyber-utopian consensus overrated the value of information in itself and underrated the importance of narratives that bestow meaning on information. The openness of the media system to an endless stream of new users, channels, and data has overwhelmed shared stable narratives, bringing about what L. M. Sacasas calls “narrative collapse.”

But sustaining ideological projects and achieving political ends still requires narratives to extract some meaning from the noise. In the oversaturated attention economy, the most extreme narratives generally stand out. As a result, open networks, which were supposed to counteract propaganda, have instead caused its proliferation — sometimes top-down and state-directed, sometimes crowdsourced, often both.

This helps to explain why the democratization of information channels has been less inimical to authoritarian governments than was anticipated ten years ago. Much like extremists and conspiracy theorists, states with aggressive propaganda arms offer oversimplified messages to keep bewildered online users from having to navigate a swelling tide of data on their own.

Conversely, legacy media, if it remains committed to some degree of neutrality, offers fewer definitive explanatory frameworks, and its messages are accordingly more likely to get lost in the noise. It should not surprise us that news organizations are actually pivoting toward more overt ideological commitments. Adopting forceful narratives, however well they actually make sense of the world, attracts more eyeballs.

Those who celebrated Twitter and Facebook as vehicles of global liberalization and those who now denounce them as gateways into dangerous extremism (often the same people) have erred in seeing the platforms as causally linked to specific politics, rather than to a particular range of styles of politics. Their deeper mistake, however, is to view freedom and control as opposed, rather than as complementary elements of a system. The expansion of freedom through open networks generates informational chaos that, in turn, feeds a demand for reinvigorated control. We can see the demand for control in the new appeal of extreme, even bizarre views that impose an organizing principle on the chaos.

And we can also see the demand for control in the nostalgia for the old gatekeepers, whose demise was once celebrated. Ironically, the only way for these gatekeepers to stay relevant may be to follow the lead of the authoritarians and activists — to abandon any stance of being neutral and above the fray and instead furnish a cohering narrative of their own.

Geoff Shullenberger, “The New Net Delusion,” The New Atlantis, Number 62, Fall 2020, pp. 46-52.
Header image by Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights (details) / Museo del Prado, via Wikimedia
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