Traditionally, there are 3 recognized powers in a modern state: legislative, executive and judiciary. Or, in other words, government, which implements the laws created by the parliament (elected by popular vote), under the scrutiny of justice, which makes sure there are no slippages. These 3 powers are usually separated by what we call “checks and balances”. Well, at least that’s the theory. There are many variations of that power split, depending on the country you’re looking at, but, broadly, that’s how a modern state is defined.
We live in a time where this model is getting obsoleted right in front of our eyes. There is a new power in town, and that’s social media. Or, to be precise, the companies that are providing that service to other people. You know, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Amazon (obviously, we’re not talking only about the companies that are providing the service directly, like Facebook or Twitter, but also tech companies adjacent to the process, like app stores or internet infrastructure companies).
The recent ban of an American president from all these services raises a few interesting problems, and let us see how a new type of power – independent, profit oriented, and, most importantly, very loosely tied to any checks and balances we may have – is now acting in the fabric of our modern state.
First of all, there’s nothing illegal in this ban. There is no freedom of speech hindered, because freedom of speech – as it is defined now – is a right that protects you from government actions. If you are a private company, you can set up your own rules, and the same justice that protects your freedom of speech from government, will protect your private rules as well. So Facebook and Twitter didn’t do anything illegal. They did something called “censorship”, though, which is different (but not illegal, because, again, they are private companies and they have the right to do whatever they want with their data – and you are free to use them or not).
Second, the sheer size of these companies makes this ban very relevant. Because the said president chose those mediums as his main communication channels (by personal preference, in his case), now the communication between a traditional power actor and those who elected him is impaired. It’s a hindrance. The state is not functioning in a balanced way.
How Is This Happening?
What we witnessed in the last 20 years is unprecedented in human history. The way people interact and communicate evolved faster than any other area of our life. The quality and speed with which we propagate information cannot be compared with any other advancement in the same time window. Not with transportation, food, medicine or any other area – although these areas advanced too. Its’ like communication was the “black swan” of these last two decades.
And, as with any other “black swan” events, history was taken by surprise. The fabric of society that used to be described accurately by those 3 powers was tore apart and now there’s this new kid in town, which is acting outside the normal checks and balances.
I understand that this claim may seem a bit exaggerated, in the absence some clear examples. So let’s take a closer look at how power is exerted through this new medium. These are at least 3 areas in which social media corporations are creating friction in the way society is managed.
Social media companies are sitting on top of unprecedentedly big quantities of personal data. Way more than any other traditional power. There is no government in the world that has direct access to that amount of data. It’s true that a government can proxy access to that (read: enforce) in specific cases, but, generally speaking, they don’t have access to the entire sphere, just to some quadrants.
That gives social media companies a huge advantage, in the sense that they can understand faster the trends and make accurate predictions. We’ve seen this already in social-wide events, like elections or riots.
Social media is accountable for a lot of attention. No government, parliament or judiciary system can harness that amount of attention, on a regular basis. There are spikes, like when we have elections or specific events like governments implementation of controversial laws, or popular trials, but, in general, social media gets significantly more attention than those institutions.
That makes them probably the biggest influencing factor in our society. Social media can subtly tilt the balance towards certain topics, thus forming the agenda on top of which institutions like parliament then work and try to create laws. So, parliament / government are now working with second hand data, they’re not dealing with the forefront of whatever happens, because attention has been hijacked.
Because they can control the flow of information, social media companies can impose censorship, cutting out important actors from their audience. It’s exactly what happened with the recent ban of that American president. Censorship directly influences the flow of communication between the powers in force and society. This censorship is independent, but not dissociated from any political agenda, and it’s driven only by the company goal, which is, usually, profit.
That means censorship is not necessary ideological, as the one imposed top to bottom by governments. It also means censorship is very fluid, limiting or allowing certain information based on the current context. If the current power agenda is aligned with the company interests, then there will be no censorship, but if things change, the company will take different sides. And that brings us to the very interesting situation in which companies are manipulating political forces, and not the other way around (as it used to be until now).
We Need New Checks For A New Balance
Whether we like it or not, we need to accept this power and understand what types of checks and balances can be created so this power vector is also accounted for.
The 3 powers model is obsolete and it’s clearly not working anymore. A short term future in which we will be under a corporate dictatorship is very likely, unless society creates and implements, in due time, those balancing measures that will keep everything, you know, balanced.