The Regime You Change May Be Your Own


The Regime You Change May Be Your Own

May 31, 2024

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This piece originally appeared in the American Mind.

National Public Radio’s new CEO, Katherine Maher, has come under scrutiny in recent weeks, and deservedly so. Maher’s appointment can help us understand the shifting elite consensus regarding social media and the internet’s political impact. Maher has the perfect résumé for this diagnostic task, with past gigs in democracy promotion with the National Democratic Institute and the State Department, a woo-woo TED Talk about the ineffable mysteries of our “different truths,” and an insistence on monitoring all wrongthink. This bien-pensant mindset paradoxically combines a rosy vision of technology’s support for democracy abroad with a censorious hysteria about tech-enabled misinformation and radicalization at home.

This cognitive dissonance, so prevalent among the chattering classes, calls for an explanation. In Maher, we get the glimmerings of one, illuminating a major development of the last decade and a half: the transition from being an advocate for access to information and community against the Man to enforcer of ideological conformity and silencer of dissent. The missing link? A simple confusion about which regimes these new technologies would fracture.

To appreciate this character arc, we need to look back to the early 2010s, when social media and the internet were seen as marvelous tools of self-empowerment and democratic engagement. New technologies, it was said, would enable subjects of oppressed countries to educate themselves and mobilize against despots. With faster, harder-to-block communications, anyone could get his ideas out into the public square, bring attention to political abuses, and galvanize reform. What are soldiers and tanks against the mighty tweet?

Ad infinitum, the Arab Spring was pointed to as proving this theory of change: look, social media can topple dictatorships! Maher was—curiously? suspiciously?—right in the thick of things when it occurred, celebrating technology’s role in the uprisings and endorsing the emerging conventional wisdom. She wrote in December 2010—on the very day that the Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire and ignited the Arab Spring—that democracy was a “Googley sort of value,” explaining that “1. Google’s mission statement is to organize the world’s information,” and “2. Democracy thrives when information is available and flows freely.” The conclusion is clear: new information and communications technology could only strengthen the cause of self-government—through open revolt if necessary. The internet can lead to social unrest, and this is a good thing.

But this view always kept the unrest at arm’s length. Somehow, when social media was used at home, its effect would be far tamer, though still salutary. A perfect illustration of this way of thinking was captured only a few months later, at an event where President Obama explained to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, “Part of what makes for a healthy democracy…is when you’ve got citizens who are informed, who are engaged. And what Facebook allows us to do is make sure this isn’t just a one-way conversation, make sure that not only am I speaking to you, but you’re also speaking back, and we’re in a conversation.”

The thinking is simple: they overthrow their rulers; we just engage more easily with our representatives. They have riots; we just have dialogue. They undergo regime change; we just get better-educated voters. In a May 2011 speech on the Arab Spring, President Obama would celebrate how “Cell phones and social networks allow young people to connect and organize like never before.… And their voices tell us that change cannot be denied.” But to borrow from an infamous and now-deleted tweet, what did y’all think change meant? Vibes? Papers? Essays?

The results are in for America and the rest of the world: social media-induced “change” meant accelerating communication into a frenzy, drawing us all into the digital hive mind, driving everyone mad as hell, and precipitating a “revolt of the public” against the institutions and rulers whose malfeasance is now harder to hide. We wanted the proud but reticent citizen from Norman Rockwell’s Freedom of Speech; instead, we got the QAnon Shaman.

What should be remarkable is not how American society has cracked up and gotten ever-crazier, but that more of us didn’t see it coming. After all, it was the same apps and platforms in both cases, with the same rewiring of social relations and universal access to a megaphone, so we should have expected the same consequences in the first world as in the third. Instead, it took Pizzagate, the Covington Catholic affair, the pandemic, and a hundred other spectacles to break down the doublethink of revolution abroad and polite engagement at home. What the Katherine Mahers of the world came to realize is that this neat separation between here and there wouldn’t work, and that technology could destabilize our regime just as much as it could others’, producing the elite flip from techno-optimism to pessimism in recent years. Nowadays, Obama laments the internet’s “demand for crazy.”

If it isn’t differences in the impact of these technologies that explains elites’ celebration there, and horror here, what does explain it? The question answers itself: it’s a matter of who is already in control of that society. In America, unlike in the Middle Eastern countries that the techno-boosters thought they were saving, Maher and her ilk are already in charge, and so the explosion in public discontent, misinformation, and paranoia is directed at them. This was assuredly not part of the plan; the toppling of unaccountable rulers was one of those things that was supposed to happen to other people.

Maher is therefore right when she, like so much of the class she typifies, identifies free speech as one of the main obstacles to her desired censorship regime. Without the people’s ability to spread anti-government messages and rallying cries in the Middle East, the old regime would have had far less to fear. In the same way, in the U.S., social media has enabled the nearly immediate public exposing and debunking of all sorts of lies from the ruling class. (To be sure, social media can also be an awesome tool to spread those very lies—hence why Elon Musk’s takeover and purging of X was so vital.)

Ultimately, new technologies are a package deal. One cannot pick and choose their effects à la carte, selecting the nice-sounding consequences for ourselves and leaving the downsides for far-away peoples to deal with. Maher and the whole class of boosters who recognized the potential for technology-driven regime change were right; they were only wrong in exempting their own country from it.

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