There was a time when the internet was an experiment in anarchy, but it is increasingly becoming an experiment in “stateness”, meaning police-order. Social networks are in crisis. Our governments are losing patience with them, grilling geek after geek to demand they be more loyal to the nation-state and take a more active role suppressing apparently foreign points of view.
The unplugging of the entire internet by NATO countries to stop vaguely defined “Russian trolls” – a nationalistic smear for rebellious social media users living not in Russia but our own countries – cannot be ruled out. As laughable as this possibility may seem to internet users, Western leaders are dead serious about the issue. They consider users who mock them online as existential threats. That they may eventually give up and unplug everything will be touched on here, but it also needs more consideration at a later date.
For now, the focus must be on what might happen to the major social networks. If they are profoundly reshaped by geopolitical tension and paranoia, will they be of any continued use for publishing anti-establishment slogans and views? How will the new Cold War affect the freedom of writers and independent creators to express themselves through social networks?
Lawmakers in the US, the UK, the EU, and other NATO-aligned political structures are wrathful towards social networks due to the influence they indiscriminately offer anyone who signs up to them. Since the US election of 2016, we have watched staff from Twitter, Facebook and Google get grilled by screaming American and British lawmakers. The ageing lawmakers, not willing to take any chances in the “neuland” of the internet (so described by Angela Merkel) treat social networks with the utmost disdain and hostility. For them, the internet is a war-fighting domain, a battlefield of states with fixed front lines, a red zone where insurgents snipe at them. For them, the objective must be to silence anyone who disagrees with them and glorify anyone who does agree with them.
According to the traditional paranoid geopolitical mindset, social networks have to even be regarded as unwitting hostile actors. By offering people the chance to choose their own sources of information and even reproduce those sources and share those sources to others, social networks undermine loyalty to the nation-state, making it harder to spread Nineteenth Century ideas of loyalty and incite new petty wars with other nation-states. Our fossilized politicians, longing for the day when every young man had to complete mandatory military service and longed to die for the flag, seek to lobotomize the youth and restore nation-state loyalty to execute warlike aims against geopolitical foes Russia and China.
While hostility of ageing politicians towards social networks may be worrying, their complete intellectual failure and lack of understanding of what they are dealing with is encouraging. Their obsession with the current major social networks – Twitter and Facebook – suggests that they regard social media in the same way that they view news media. In their view, social networks are just some other big companies that need to be reined in. Just one or two big actors need to be forced to conform to the regime’s ideology, like the well-behaved top news journalists broadcasters, and the politicians’ authority will be restored. The “trolls” will be defeated. The youth will start to respect the bleary-eyed generals and politicians who were kept awake at night by them.
Unfortunately for every internet creator, the reactions of Twitter, Facebook and Google have been cowed. All are eager to prove their nationalist loyalty, particularly to the US state, because their websites’ physical infrastructure is based on the territory of the US state. They have the American regime’s gun to their heads, just like the television stations. Google serves the Pentagon loyally, but may be incapable of preventing its platform’s exploitation by the Pentagon’s enemies and critics due to the sheer number of targets flooding their scopes.
It is possible that the frail politicians so concerned about “trolls” will be able to cower in safety very soon behind a wall of new media enforcement, but it will not last forever. If the power of individuals to express themselves freely at major social networks, chiefly Twitter and Facebook, is sabotaged, communities will move gradually to other social networks and continue their activity there. The centre of media attention will shift away from dullness and conformity to somewhere more interesting once again.
A major consideration for alternate media when selecting social networks has likely been the presence of third party applications that can amplify one’s views across social media by providing automated posting services. These upset the traditional dominance of the wealthy and the powerful over the press. Very low overhead is required to establish a publication using various automation and aggregation tools to create feeds that offer a wide different spectrum of news and commentary than the mainstream. Attacks against automation under the guise of fighting “fake news” and “bots” are therefore an excuse to hamper small and independent media projects that lack the staff to manually post every item of content to the social networks. This assumes that the social networks are really going to fight automation. The BBC and its supporters are mindless bots, if we look seriously at Twitter’s rules, and yet the people whose accounts get suppressed by Twitter are not bots but real people targeted by the British regime for holding dissident views.
Perhaps the flight of dissenting users to some future alternative social network should settle the battle between politicians and trolls. But it would probably only anger Western politicians even more, as they regard all alternative media as extremist, so the counterinsurgency would rage on. Not able to pressure the alternate social networks, politicians may resort to the brute force of the law, seeking court orders to block every app or social network being used to hurt political egos or express disloyalty to the state. But websites can be cloned and mirrored, and insurgent networks would be continuously made available again, as is the case with the various “putlockers” endlessly springing up to avoid the court orders that are always too slow and ineffective to counter free streaming.
There is every reason to think that many of the most effective anti-government critics would still be able to thrive even on the mainstream social networks, merely by altering their choice of language and modifying aspects of their behavior to evade the automated tools being used to remove them. Resistance can vary between passive and active forms, and rejection of national loyalty and lack of support for war will always be possible in any forum even if everyone else is a bloodthirsty and rabid nationalist. Advocacy for the removal of censorship and the destruction of the yokes used to enforce conformity and faith on a social network would always be considered a moderate and neutral view, making it possible to support more rebellious creators without joining them.
The inevitable failures of an online counterinsurgency described above could eventually prove too much for some governments to bear, and the result would be the complete destruction of the internet – something states will always be able to do. They might first attempt “balkanization”, forcing users to only register for accounts at social networks if they reside in the country where the social network is based. If that occurs, websites like Twitter and Facebook would fall into the geopolitical space of NATO, and support of NATO war aims and propaganda would become a compulsory requirement of all users, with everyone lobotomized to be docile supporters.
Balkanization would fail to achieve anything. As recent hunts for “trolls” have demonstrated, they are not actually foreign, nor are they automated. The alleged Russian enemies, “trolls” and “bots” are real people. They are not hackers from Russian spy agencies, but independent authors, journalists and creative people – civilians located inside our own countries who hold anti-war and anti-colonial views on foreign policy. Such innocent people look like they will be the new targets in the next “accidental” rampage by our incompetent regimes against perceived anti-state threats.
If they pursue and yet fail to achieve anything against trolls through political pressure, court orders, and geopolitical militarization of the social networks, politicians who view trolls as a true threat to the state will inevitably advocate a total ban on the internet. It is for this final contingency that independent writers and serious activists must prepare themselves.
It is not enough to have a collection of friends and followers on some top social networks, and even a robust email list may not be enough to sustain one’s writing. Real contacts and a real publishing history outside the social networks, even in print, are a requirement to sustain anti-establishment momentum and the propagation of balanced views. Anything less, and the paranoid regime can delete you and all its other critics with the push of a button. The conservation of social media-based activists on lists and their transformation into published authors is one way for them to save themselves from simple bans, at the same time amplifying their voices ever more.
The development of the Mont Order society to connect and preserve dissenting influencers on social networks can only help. It may be that teaming up to use a variety of applications, technologies and email clients based under different geopolitical poles of influence (the US, the EU, Russia and China) may be the only route towards independent political writing and advocacy under the suffocating conditions of the new Cold War. Such a strategy, pursued early on before it is even necessary, would allow dissident gatherings on social networks to survive purges, hostility, court orders, balkanization and even the plug being pulled completely by these paranoid regimes we have tolerated.
Much of what is forecasted here is dark, and perhaps too dark. Perhaps the internet isn’t really doomed to die at the hands of paranoid and vain politicians trying to defoliate it to fight their critics. Perhaps police-order is not achievable across the internet. It could be that many of the stages of counter-insurgency would require so much legal reform and such a high budget that most of the politicians concerned will die of old age and be replaced by a more tech-savvy and relaxed generation before their aims are even close to being achieved. Nevertheless, it is prudent to seek out and imagine counter-strategies to survive even the most heavy-handed actions by politicians against critics.