(Image: Twitter)

A former team owner in the US National Football League, which splits its massive TV revenues equally between popular and bottom-feeder teams, once described the organisation’s team owners as “32 Republicans who all vote socialist”.

There appears to have been a similar moment occurring among the right regarding corporate control. Pausing deregulation and “cutting green tape” for a moment, they’ve been shocked — shocked! — to find that big tech is a series of interlocking monopolies with an agenda of its own.

Suddenly, with Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google’s limits on Donald Trump, sundry fascist nob heads, and the Twitter-alternative app Parler, the right has discovered its inner Ralph Nader.

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Earlier remarks to the effect that big tech was led by transcendental visionaries drawing out the dynamism of capitalism who couldn’t be restrained by unions, etc, have now been, gasp, cancelled.

It’s the tech giants who are the dead hand now, restricting the free flow of ideas by various mavericks. They need to be, gasp, protected from the, gasp, private sector.

By contrast, and with more than a hint of schadenfreude, a great number of progressives are pointing out precisely the opposite: that Twitter et al are private companies that can select their content in the same manner as a newspaper once limited letters to the editor.

Meanwhile, a smaller section of the left warned against cheering this on, noting that a ban on “extremist” language would not differentiate between calls for a race war and those for resistance and activist struggle.

This has all been put into play by last week’s invasion of the US Capitol building and Trump’s wink and nod encouragement of it, but the confrontation has been coming for some time.

Something will have to be done about the big tech three — Twitter, Facebook and Google — sooner or later, simply because their business is social communication, the fundamental practice of linguistic/symbolic interaction.

Because these businesses involved infinitely interactive, self-aggregating processes — once you get social connection right, and call it Facebook, it spreads autonomously (capital helps, but it didn’t help Myspace much) — they could totalise in a way that high capitalism never could, not even oil or railways.

If you translated tech’s speech control to the physical world, it’s as if someone controlled all roads, we were all chip-tagged, and the right to use the streets could suddenly be withdrawn.

Communicative tech is so imminently, absolutely social that it has only existed for two decades before serious conversations have started about the socialisation of it.

That’s all the more so because it has fairly complex effects that can only be comprehended and discussed at a social and collective level.

The rise and crest of these effects — the sudden prominence of the QAnon conspiracy theory, for example — seem inexplicable if the default understanding of big tech is the liberal, individualist ideal that it itself projects, i.e. that it’s nothing more than a marketplace of ideas, level playing field, etc.

What’s really happening is that the form of big tech is transformative psychologically and socially, in a manner that compensates for the sort of society in which its rise is possible — one so distorting of human needs and human nature that a version of it can be “sold” back to some, on a mass basis, and with a de facto addiction model.

Long story short, the concrete, mythical and paranoic will tend to propagate and crowd out the abstract, rational and reflective faster than it can be contested. That is especially so in a society where knowledge and its technology have become the main line of division, and a principal source of power and dominant class.

So a loose sketch of what’s going on in all this strange repositioning is: traditional authority (i.e. of the cultural right) has become detached from the power of capital, which has reattached itself to the cultural energies of the left, arising from the ’60s; yet private social media has relied on turbocharged right-wing mythologising as a disproportionate driver of volume and revenue.

Simultaneously, the “progressive” or knowledge class, now that capital is on its side, has become detached from what remains of a political left.

The left, as a stopgap, is arguing for a more libertarian model of social media, while progressives are relaxed and comfortable with eliminating tens of thousands of noxious accounts, websites etc — even if a few radical left sources get swept up in the purge.

Thus the sudden “enough is enough” moment for progressives with the Capitol invasion last week.

Twitter’s leadership didn’t unilaterally throw Trump and thousands of others off the platform last week; it was responding to an internal letter from 350 key staff who keep Twitter up and running.

President-elect Joe Biden’s suggestion of a distinct “domestic terror” crime also gained wide support, even though it should be obvious it will eventually be used against groups like Black Lives Matter, which many progressives support.

Hence the unusual spectacle of the left defending private social media against potential state regulation, as the right tries to promote crackpot laws which would remove its capacity to edit noxious and violent content.

But sooner or later, social media is going to have to be socialised in some form — especially if its totalitarian character limits fragmentation, as per the evisceration of Parler.

One doubts this would involve simple nationalisation; nor would that be desirable. More likely it would involve government and other institutions having some material stake in the major platforms, while a number of parallel “civic boards” oversee matters of content regulation, with standardised processes — i.e. if you get thrown off, you get the chance to appeal.

Such a parallel public framework would develop a reflexive process in which an established and arguable set of standards would be established as reference. This might still have a progressive bias — in some ways it might cement it further than the current ad hoc process of squawking angry DMs @jack — and it would make it possible to argue, at length, the difference between “extreme” positions and abhorrent and violent ones.

Above all, one needs a social-reflexive process of steering to match and make visible the unreflexive process which is not merely a forum for events such as last week’s Capitol putsch, but produces them out of the whirl of algorithm, aggregation and myth, the game that grows out of the myth of the level playing field.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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