I’m afraid I disagree with you that social media is a new kind of politics. It’s a powerful new tool for helping to organise people—that is true. But what it really doesn’t offer is a new kind of political way of changing the world. And, in fact, the belief that it does, and the failure of that, can lead to the most conservative situation.
Let’s analyse what happened to the Arab Spring. Because that is often held up by the tech-utopians as the evidence for social media’s revolutionary potential. In the Arab Spring all the liberal middle classes in places like Egypt came out to protest, summoned by social media. But then, once the revolution—or revolts—happened they had absolutely no idea of what to do. In the face of forces like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, who had a powerful idea, the Twitter and Facebook networks were completely incapable of coming up with something new and powerful that could challenge the Brotherhood or the Salafists.
All they did was keep tweeting each other about how they all agreed that what was happening was terrible. And, in the process, they became trapped in an echo chamber that completely stopped them looking at the world from other people’s points of view, and thus finding ways to effectively challenge the opposing point of view imaginatively. They got trapped in a system of feedback reinforcement.
Then the generals had a coup and all those liberals sighed a big sigh of relief and they tweeted each other that this was really a good thing.
You tell me anywhere in the Arab Spring where the ideas of those who used social media have risen up to become dominant. From Tunisia to Egypt and Yemen to Bahrain, those very groups who based their faith in social media have completely failed to have any substantial influence on power. Those doing well are ironically the traditionalists who have a powerful cultural conservative vision. Except, of course, Syria, where, as you know, the liberal middle classes are doing really well.
But I do really agree with you about Twitter domestically. Twitter—and other social media—passes lots of information around. But it tends to be the kind of information that people know that others in that particular network will like and approve of. So what you get is a kind of mutual grooming. One person sends on information that they know others will respond to in accepted ways. And then, in return, those others will like the person who gave them that piece of information.
So information becomes a currency through which you buy friends and become accepted into the system. That makes it very difficult for bits of information that challenge the accepted views to get into the system. They tend to get squeezed out.
I think the thing that proves my point dramatically are the waves of shaming that wash through social media—the thing you have spotted and describe so well in your book. It’s what happens when someone says something, or does something, that disturbs the agreed protocols of the system. The other parts react furiously and try to eject that destabilising fragment and regain stability.
I don’t think these waves are “political” in the liberal way the shamers proudly think. They are political in a completely different way, because they work to create a static, conservative world where nothing really changes.
—Adam Curtis, in conversation with Jon Ronson