We’re hypnotised by the social media giants. We’ve convinced ourselves they’re impossible to deal with. They’re not.

Picture: visibility by Jae Aquino from the Noun Project

The more frantic we become about the wickedness and power of the platforms, the more we confirm that power. The more action we demand of police and legislators, the more we confirm their exceptional status, their untouchability

(some updates in this text to reflect recent news stories)

The standard position now is that the social media platforms ‘wield too much power’, that they operate vital infrastructure recklessly, endangering democracy, threatening free speech, exposing our kids to harm, silencing the righteous and platforming the wicked.

The premise is that the platforms are so very, very important, that they’ve come to fill a vital, irreplacable public role. That they’re ‘the new public square’—our agora—but also that they’ve evolved into a hideous, out-of-control threat to liberty, happiness and democracy.

As a result, the argument goes, we must act—hold the platforms to account, require them to operate their sprawling businesses differently. It’s urgent. Influential people write leader articles about the platforms’ power and venality, we discuss them in our legislatures, watch their CEOs sweat in committee rooms.

We demand the impossible—and it makes us look stupid

So the heat is on for the platforms. They must delete posts we object to and remove users who upset and bully others (oh, and they must simultaneously protect freedom of expression, leaving up inflammatory posts because of ‘the right to offend’). Everywhere, demands are made and sanctions proposed—vast fines, forced break-ups, exclusion from markets, mandated payments to publishers.

Legislators and columnists require the platforms to perform implausibly complex tasks—reading billions of posts to find content that offends, for instance, or policing membership lists to weed out the hateful or the banned. Some of these measures would be, if enacted, brutally intrusive, requiring a scary level of cross-matching and de-anonymisation, but we overlook the obvious damage our most extreme instincts would produce.

More recently, we make ridiculous demands of a magical AI that doesn’t exist yet. We’ve convinced ourselves that software whose primary function is targeting adverts should also easily be able to preemptively locate child abuse, automatically dob in terrorists and take down offensive videos before they’ve offended anyone.

Of course the grim truth is that all this public bluster about the massive, overbearing power of social media is actually in the interests of the platforms. It suits them that we believe all this nonsense. We must continue to believe that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are both vital and evil.

Our dark fantasies make them stronger

The absurdity of the demands we make is paradoxically necessary to the platforms’ survival. They’ll ritually push back against our naive demands but they know that while influencers and legislators are busy hand-wringing about their untramelled power, their continued economic dominance is assured.

If Nick Clegg were to let on that it’s literally impossible for Facebook to read and filter everything posted—take down offensive or illegal content before it goes live, identify malfeasance as it happens, if Elon Musk could admit to the contradictions in his Quixotic mission at Twitter—the mystique might begin to fade. These enormous web sites may be exploitive ethical voids but they have no magical powers. They’re cleverly-engineered advertising platforms, built for scale, but they are not inevitable, not essential, not even necessary.

We rage that the social media giants are not just ugly, hyper-efficient, profit machines but much worse—they’re futuristic, mind-reading robber barons, destroying our democracies, eviscerating our noble, centuries-old print media, stealing our children’s lives and happiness.

Shoshana Zuboff, in her 2019 hit, goes further, asserting that Dorsey, Zuckerberg et al have invented not only hyper-efficient classified ads but a new kind of capitalism—a virulent and predatory one that’s somehow more expolitive, more alienating than the old one.

Our epic displacement activities

Legislatures everywhere are confused and paralysed by the apparent omnipotence of the platfoms. Their response is not to find practical ways to diminish their influence (and maybe tax their profits) but to panic and invent whole new categories of offense. In Britain an Online Harms Bill is on its way through Parliament. It’s a complex and well-meaning misplacement of energy—a blend of the undeliverable and the undesirable—that makes actually tackling the platforms harder, by further mystifying their operations, by redefining them as slippery, dystopian, essentially impossible to deal with.

But here’s the thing: they’re not untouchable, they’re not essential to our lives and they’re certainly not omnipotent. To say they are is to misrecognise them. Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, YouTube and their satellites are ugly, exploitive, alienating places and they’ve hoovered up an intimidatory share of our attention, our advertising budgets and our waking lives but they’re definitely not important.

(there are places where the platforms are important: where Internet access is provided or subsidised by Facebook, for instance, where Meta has suffocated the net entirely).

And acting like they are important—in some way inevitable—is paralysing us, leaving us stranded on their arid plateux, over-invested and over-committed. We’re so impressed by the scale and inscrutability of these hypermodern systems, their vast, deliberately-obfuscated structures and codebases. We’re so absorbed by the sleight-of-hand that made us all entirely dependent before we noticed they were just bullshitters (pyramid schemes, junk mail shysters) that we’ve become incapable of recognising our own agency, our own perfectly intact ability to dump these nobodies and move on.

They’re not impossible to deal with but they are unreformable. Waiting for the platforms to fall into line and conform to social and commercial norms, agitating for compliance and limits and sanctions just produces the most uncomfortable contortions, but instead of acknowleding this and figuring out how to push them into the sea we twist our legal codes into knots, trying somehow to fit the most exploitive businesses since the East India Company into our economies, our cultures, our polities.

Unwinding our dependence on the platforms will not be easy. Reducing their share of our attention, limiting the corosive, hollowing-out effect they have on our businesses, institutions, democratic systems and public discourse will not be trivial. Their epic access to cash and the institutional cover they’re able to tap into gives them access to essentially unlimited resources.

Giving up the platforms

We’ve convinced ourselves that dealing with the platforms requires an epic, multi-decade war, an existential struggle, fought through every national legislature, every institution, every school and media company. But we’ve got it wrong. We need to rediscover our agency, our confidence in ourselves and the courage to get on with flushing them out of our lives.

There’s an analogy with drug addiction. We know a lot about how to limit the malign effects of drugs on our lives and communities but instead of acting, rationally and humanely, to limit harm, we’ve spent decades fighting a pointless and cruel ‘war on drugs’ that consumes resources and lives to no effect but meets the cynical needs of politicians and elites. Boom.

Likewise, we know perfectly well how to dump the social networks (Jaron Lanier explained all this years ago). We know what they’re doing to us and to our communities and institutions. Quitting will be hard but it is possible and it will produce a kind of self-reinforcing collective joy. Doing so will empower us, free our minds and might make a new generation of real online communities possible.

In his book The Twittering Machine, Richard Seymour develops the drug additiction idea. It’s not a hopeful book but he does believe we can break our social media addictions, that quitting our platform habit is both desirable and feasible— to get there he says we need an ‘escapology’, ‘a theory of how to get out before it’s too late’. And Seymour’s escapology isn’t just for you and me, it’s for our communities, companies, institutions and nations.


How to do it

And what’s clear is that our escapology won’t involve agitating for compliance with social and commercial norms, twisting our legal codes into knots, requiring ever more complex responses from the platforms. It’ll involve giving them up.

For businesses and organisations this means investing in their own platforms—neglected for a decade now—and winding down their sad dependence on social media. For people and communities it’ll involve getting organised and working out how to communicate and collaborate without the platforms. And don’t forget, all the tools for doing this still exist, all are still in use, some are still thriving.

Publishers (the mugs who provide the content that animates these sterile landscapes): write a new strategy that reduces your dependence on social media and moves you back onto a platform you control, over time. In the meantime, retrain your social media teams, tighten up your publishing tools to support the media types that work for you and not the platforms. Invest in community management, moderation and tools for deliberation and debate.

Government departments, NGOs, instititutions: do it now, don’t wait around. You have less of an incentive to stay on the platforms, you’re not so wired into their economics. Close and mothball your accounts, invest in your own web sites (some of which are already excellent). Use all the energy you’ve been pouring into social media to rebuild and spread your web skills, reintegrate your content assets and your social strategy. Trust me, if you’ve been investing in social for years it’ll seem weird to begin with, but once you’re recovered your momentum it’ll feel amazing to be putting all your effort into your own stuff.

Brands: tricky. You’ve moved your entire digital presence onto the platforms, you’ve tied your Facebook strategy into your launch regime and your ad budget, your brandter is fundamental to your identity. And, tbh, if this works out, if the rest of us can slowly reduce our dependence on the platforms and rebuild our autonomous presence on the internet, you might find yourself out there, just you and all the other brands, chatting to each other.

Individuals: okay, I know, there are endless tools and therapies intended to help you give up or dial down your social media—from radical abstention to carefully-measured social media diets (often administered by the tech firms that produced the febrile behaviour in the first place). I could not possibly add anything useful to the list, but please try not to buy into the trauma narrative that says the platforms make us miserable but we have to stick around on the platforms in order to work through our misery. If you do nothing else, find the log-in for your old blog and make a couple of trial posts.

Escaping the platform economy is possible, but to diminish its hold on us we must first recognise that we might actually want to.

Seven things I learnt from the British Library’s Magna Carta show

The British Library has a terrific, totally absorbing show about Magna Carta – which is the cornerstone of world democracy or a sort of baronial shopping list weirdly granted in a field by a King who didn’t mean it – depending on your perspective. It includes two original 1215 manuscripts and dozens of other beautiful documents. It’s not enormous but there is a lot of reading so the audio guide is worth the money. I’m not a historian – or even very bright – so I learnt a lot, like for instance:

1. Magna Carta’s actual connection to the present day is unbelievably tenuous. The whole thing was repealed a couple of months after it was agreed, the Pope (who was technically in charge at the time) rubbished the enterprise completely (which is what reluctant signatory King John wanted him to do all along) and hardly any of the charter’s provisions survive in law. That it has any influence at all should be a surprise. That it’s the central text of representative democracy and the rule of law all over the place is mind-blowing. This is how pieces of paper (parchment) become totems, people.

2. The first one isn’t the important one. Later ‘editions’ of Magna Carta, copied out by monarchs, bishops, lawyers, barons – each introducing their own variations, glosses, limitations, expansions – have been more important in the formation of law and practice. Henry III’s 1225 version is probably the most influential and the nearest to a definitive Magna Carta.

3. Magna Carta didn’t make it into print for nearly 300 years. The first printed edition was published in London in 1508 (Caxton got going in 1473) and the first English translation wasn’t printed until 1534. That’s when its influence exploded. Hardly anyone knew it existed before that – the constitution nerds and rule-of-law geeks of their day. Once it could be passed around, though, in compact printed form, its language began to be used in laws, cited in disputes with overbearing monarchs, quoted in the popular prints. So – you guessed this already – the long-term influence of Magna Carta is actually all about advances in content distribution technology.

Part of the 1689 Bill of Rights
4. The Bill of Rights of 1689 is a much more important document. It’s an actual act of Parliament to begin with, using recognisable legal language, and most of its provisions actually survive in law. It’s the Bill of Rights that we have to thank for the modern idea of ‘civil rights’. Many later documents owe a lot to the 1689 Bill of Rights – not least its American namesake (if you Google ‘Bill of Rights’ the English one doesn’t show up until page two) and the European Convention on Human Rights (PDF). I’m happy to learn that the resonant phrase “certain ancient rights and liberties” is from the Bill of Rights. It’s also, incidentally, unbelievably beautiful. Whoever wrote out the original document had the most exquisite roundhand. It makes Magna Carta look shabby.

5. The Cato Street conspiracy is one intense story. And it’s got the lot: a government spy, a honey trap, a ridiculous, hopelessly bodged plan straight out of a Tarantino movie and a brutal response from the state, including the last judicial beheading to take place in England. The conspirators set out not to assassinate a statesman; they set out to assassinate all of them – the whole cabinet anyway. Their beef was, er, vague, but hinged on the oppression triggered by the wave of European revolutions that preceded it. And Magna Carta was cited in the defence when the case came to trial.

Poster for Chartist meeting, Carlisle, 1839, from the National Archives
6. The Chartists knew how to design a poster. As I said, I’m no historian but the orthodoxy is that the Chartists achieved almost nothing. They were after the vote for working men but it was decades before suffrage was extended meaningfully (and did you know that it was 1918 before all men over 21 could vote?). Fear of dissent and revolution meant the Chartists were harried out of existence before they could produce any change. But, while they were active, they were great communicators and the first movement to make really smart use of mass protest, of what we’d now call ‘the street’. This poster, which is in the National Archives, is absolutely beautiful. A vernacular letterpress masterpiece. We should all aspire to such clarity (there are others, like this one, for a meeting at Merthyr Tydvil in 1848 and this one, for a meeting in Birmingham in the same year. All lovely).

7. 1935 was the 720th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta so, unaccountably, a year before that, a great pageant was held at Runnymede, site of the signing.

Advertised as a celebration of English democracy, the pageant engaged some 5000 actors, 200 horses and 4 elephants, who over eight days performed eight historical scenes, the centrepiece being a recreation of the sealing of Magna Carta. (Apparently the elephants were withdrawn at the last minute.)

The pictures and this Pathé newsreel suggest a very English blend of eccentric and noble, camp and dignified. I’d love to have been there. This BL blog post suggests something rather splendid and rousing: ‘It’s a Knockout’ meets a BBC Four history doc.

edemocracy spiked!

Spiked is run by the survivors of Living Marxism magazine, the high profile and often entertaining voice of the British Revolutionary Communist Party during the nineties. The magazine was finally steam-rollered by a law suit in 2000 but these guys were always more switched on than the rest of the factional hard left so it’s no surprise to see them back with a stylish, readable web site and now a series of debates on the entirely relevant theme of IT after the crash.

Spiked’s mission is the debunking of trendy ideas – in politics, science, business, anywhere really. But this is really just classical entryism – a subtle and accessible way of doing the important work of blowing away our ‘false consciousness’ and reasserting the eternal oppositions of the class struggle – labour vs capital, state vs individual etc. (I can’t find a trace of the political party itself. Was it wound up? Surely it can’t be this lot?).

I guess the logic of the project is that debunking is infectious: for every orthodoxy persuasively overturned there is a potential convert to the larger cause. There really is nothing so satisfying as a cogently argued rubbishing of the status quo – whether it be climate change (it’s not happening), edemocracy (it’s just more state coercion) or testicular cancer (it’s no big deal).

As a strategy it’s obviously working. If tonight’s meeting was anything to go by, they’re frequented by plenty of non RCP people, many of whom may have no idea what Spiked stands for and little or no sympathy with their goals (like me). More subtle still, with no actual political party to push, Spiked can rightly claim to be entirely independent and new recruits are recruits to a way of thinking rather than to a political creed. Very postmodern.

In this debate, Charlie Leadbeater, advisor to number 10 and prominent optimist, argued that informal, self-organising digital networks (like this blogging thing) might present a way of holding governments and trans-national institutions to account. Influential forecaster James Woodhuysen, for Spiked, disagreed – entertaingly, as always. edemocracy is phoney – worse, it’s a barely disguised attempt to reinforce state control, provide new channels for coercion and permit governments to steamroller dissent. All of this communication is just a smokescreen, a clever distraction from the real business (in ‘the real world’) of production – substituting participation for real power. This programmatic emphasis of production over communication (content over form, real over imaginary) is sooo last century and, obviously, neglects the actual, objective reality of networked communications, though. Communication in the 21st Century is production.