In theory, social media networks provide every human being with an equal opportunity to share thoughts and images with everyone else. In practice, they reflect the many fragmentations of politics and society and, in doing so, grant ever greater power to those who have power, through their office, their wealth or their celebrity. The most fundamental questions regarding social media are the same as those which apply to “traditional” news media: Who owns them? And why? After this, we need to ask how society – through governments and international agreements – regulates the media, to prevent them causing harm. This leads to questions about criteria and mechanisms for curbs on freedom of expression. When one person makes a bid to become sole owner of an established global forum, these questions need to be answered.
Let’s indulge in a thought experiment. What would have happened if Twitter and Facebook had been around when Hitler was on the rise, if, instead of writing his “Struggle” between 1924 and 1926, he had vomited his anti-Semitic hatred and grandiose schemes into Twitter “threads” or Facebook posts? Would this have got him banned from the platforms (if their owners did not support unregulated “free speech”)? Would it have brought him an even greater following? Would it have alarmed his enemies to the point that they would unite against him? Would the many German political parties of the time, all busy fighting each other, recognize the threat and unite to deal with it? Reading history, judging from politicians’ behavior today, we can assume they would not. Proud of their own following on social media, they would have been content to keep squabbling, leaving the Nazis to pursue power in the real world of fists, steel and blood. As they did.
Donald Trump’s tweets dominated everyday news for a while, but Rupert Murdoch’s mainstream media did more to shape his presidency. Vladimir Putin’s worldview and actions, like those of other autocrats, are not determined by social media. Both “mainstream” and new media can promote fanaticism and fragmentation, causing endless diversions from real issues, easing the path for autocrats. For democratic societies, the challenge is not the ownership of a medium, but how rules are established so that the freedom of all does not lead inevitably to domination by a few.