Malcolm Gladwell’s supposed takedown of social networks — they aren’t really revolutionary, he argues — continues to be paired up with ‘The Social Network’ as a one-two punch smack in the kisser of the web. Buried in the newest of these, an Op-Ed by Frank Rich, is a painful truth: for all the talk of transparency, openness, and change on the web, these tools haven’t slowed ‘big lies and big money’ in the American political circus:
Frank Rich, Facebook Politicians Are Not Your Friends
Just as “The Social Network” hit the multiplexes, Malcolm Gladwell took to The New Yorker with a stinging takedown of social networks as vehicles for meaningful political and social action. He calculated that the nearly 1.3 million members of the Facebook page for the Save Darfur Coalition have donated an average of 9 cents each to their cause. He mocked American journalists’ glorification of Twitter’s supposedly pivotal role during last year’s short-lived uprising in Iran, suggesting that the rebels’ celebrated Twitter feeds — written in English, not Farsi — did more to titillate blogging technophiles in the West than to aid Iranians in their struggle against totalitarian rulers.
“With Facebook and Twitter and the like,” Gladwell wrote, “the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will” was supposed to be upended, so it would be “easier for the powerless to collaborate, coordinate, and give voice to their concerns.” Instead, he concluded, we ended up with the reverse: social media increase the efficiency of the existing order rather than empowering dissidents. In his view, social networking is far less likely to recreate the civil rights movement of the 1960s than to track down missing cellphones for Wall Streeters.
Gladwell’s provocative Internet critique is complemented by a much-buzzed-about independent movie — in this case, an actual documentary — that was released shortly before “The Social Network.” No one will confuse this ham-fisted film, titled “Catfish,” with a Fincher-Sorkin production, but it’s highly unsettling nonetheless. It tells of a 25-year-old Manhattan photographer who strikes up a devoted Facebook friendship with a small-town Michigan family whose 8-year-old daughter is a painting prodigy. When the photographer seeks out his virtual friends in the real Michigan, it’s inevitable that he and the audience will learn the hard way, as the Times film critic A.O. Scott put it, that cyberspace is a “wild social ether where nobody knows who anybody is.”
Even if Gladwell and “Catfish” are overstating the case, they certainly have one if you look at the political environment in our election year of 2010. The Internet in general and social networking in particular have done little, if anything, to hobble those pursuing power with such traditional means as big lies and big money. Perhaps what’s most remarkable this year is the number of candidates who have tried to create fictitious avatars like the Facebook impostors in “Catfish.” These candidates and others often fashion their campaigns to avoid real reporters (and sometimes real voters). Some benefit from YouTube commercials paid for by impossible-to-trace anonymous donors. In this wild political ether where nobody knows who anybody is, the Internet provides cover, not transparency.
Go online, and you’ll discover that many of those now notorious false fronts for oil billionaires and other corporate political contributors have Facebook pages. We don’t know who has written checks to Crossroads GPS, the more shadowy wing of American Crossroads, the operation concocted in part by Karl Rove to raise $50 million to attack Democrats. (There’s already $32 million in the bank, $10 million more than was spent by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004.) But the American Crossroads page on Facebook sure looks like a bottom-up populist movement, festooned with photos of thousands of ordinary folk voting their “like” of the site. The Save Darfur Coalition page may have infinitely more friends, but it’s American Crossroads that has real clout in the real world even if nobody knows who is behind the screen.
The web is powerful, but can be used to herd opinion based on faulty reasoning just as well as it can open people’s eyes to new perspectives.
Honestly, the web is dangerous. I don’t mean in the way most people worry about it — bullying teenagers into suicide, or deranged stalkers or burglars taking advantage of Foursquare check-ins — but on the contrary, to use the cracks in out cognitive wiring to control our behavior.
Fear mongering, xenophobia, and ignorance are all at work in the efforts of politicians to herd people off a cliff at the next election, using the body count as a way to get into office.
So, if the web isn’t a benign force ushering in the age of Aquarius maybe it is bad, the commentators are saying. But this is just holding up a mirror: we created the web to happen to ourselves, and what comes of it is up to us.
Our prejudices, cognitive limitations, and ignorance aren’t magically fixed by networking us together. There is mounting evidence that the social web is an amplifier, but the behavior you put in to be amplified can be from any slice in the human condition.
As my friend Jamais Cascio once remarked, there will someday be a hashtag used during atrocities in a genocide somewhere. But we won’t blame the hashtag, or hashtags in general.
The web isn’t just patty cake and beanbag, and it’s no longer some sidebar to human events: it is deeply enmeshed in everything, like nervous tissue is spread throughout all our bodies.
But we don’t wonder about the inherent downside of gray matter just because it is implicated in depression, hate, murder and deception.
So let’s turn our focus back on the actual groups and individuals who benefit from concealing their identities and true purposes — like Crossroads GPS — and stop scapegoating the web and social network applications. You might as well blame ink and paper for the printing of hate literature, or the imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo.
At the same time, I would like to see more slimy doings exposed, and nefarious actors pulled out from under the rocks. Hey, Frank: you work for the New York Times! Should the Times be doing more, using the web as a tool of investigation, and rallying people to counter the herding going on by Fox News and the Koch brothers?
Louis Brandeis said ‘Sunshine is the best disinfectant,’ and our activities online can cast a shining light: but the brightest lights cast the darkest shadows.
In the shadows of the web we will continue to find big lies and big money, trying to control us, and herd us. To them, the web is just more wool to pull over our eyes.