Kyle Taylor is the author of The Little Black Book of Data and Democracy and founder of Fair Vote UK. Fair Vote UK was set up to tackle the issue of data misuse, voter manipulation and lack of transparency in elections head-on. We are committed to ensuring the institutions that protect our democratic processes are fit for purpose in a digital age.
In 1988, Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman published a book called Manufacturing Consent. The basic premise was that the most powerful in society control and skew the news to get the majority to believe whatever serves them best, regardless of who it hurts. The power isn’t in deciding between two options. It’s in deciding what the options are to begin with. In America this is the choice between CNN and Fox News or in Britain between the Guardian and the Telegraph.
Now – 33 years later – monopolistic social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, TikTok and Google have taken it one step further. They’ve created a digital “world” where we’ve been made to feel any of us can have a voice and that our voice matters just as much as anyone else’s.
No more gatekeepers! No more editors! No more experts! We’ve had enough of them. Who needs pilots? Let’s fly the plane ourselves! This was meant to be liberation, a free speech paradise. But without the gatekeepers we have been forced to contend with people spewing often vile and deeply harmful content and ideas into our digital world alongside all the wonderful voices that exist.
Without editors, algorithms are deciding what fills your news feed. Everything is made just for you. No two feeds are the same! It’s made us largely unable – even in the real world – to handle adversity of any type. Our shared reality is imploding.
Without experts, we look at how many followers someone has (or if they have a blue tick) to decide whether we should trust them – about anything! Got a million followers? Sure, spout off about immigration. 20 million? Go on then, tell me all about the microchips in the Covid vaccine. 45 million? Maybe you could move entire crypto markets with a tweet.
Feelings are being conflated with facts. Facts can now be “alternative.” This is where things start to get really really messy. How you feel about something has nothing to do with whether or not something is true. I feel like ice cream should be healthy. It’s not. If I eat too much I’ll probably end up with diabetes. The technology – from the infinite scroll of a news feed to the dopamine blast we get every time someone likes something we’ve posted – is rewiring the way we think, feel and express ourselves.
It’s no longer about making a point. It’s about making a point in just 180 characters in a way that will get people in your network to like, share and comment. Because every like feels so good. Until you set your phone down and realise none of it is real. The more we post, the more attention we get, and the more emotive a post is, the more it is boosted by the algorithm that governs your feed – the most extreme people now have the loudest voices and to anyone reasonable you can feel like you’re caught in the crossfire.
These tech companies are not just manufacturing consent. They’re manufacturing dissent. They’re giving us the feeling that we’ve made our voice heard when in fact, in the real world, nothing has changed. And that’s the point. While we’re busy liking clever retorts, sharing petitions, commenting on memes and getting in arguments with strangers and bots, the government is hurriedly stripping away our actual right to protest.
I’m not saying don’t dissent on social media. I’m saying don’t JUST dissent on social media.
Make no mistake, this government is the first in a generation that is actually anti-democracy. They’re hell-bent on retaining power no matter the cost. And it’s a perfect marriage. The Tories want power and the social media companies want money. It’s that simple. From your right to protest to your right to vote, our democracy is under attack. If we don’t fight back now, tweeting may be all we have left.
By Kyle Taylor, CEO of Fair Vote UK